Claiming to be victimised and non-apologetic, the editor of Haberturk admits intense government pressure on media

The editor-in-chief of a Turkish daily who has been accused of manipulated the findings of a 2013 election poll after speaking with a pro-government official at the same daily defended himself in a televised interview aired on CNN Türk on Monday and said there is tremendous government pressure on the Turkish media, which he views as a threatening pattern that is firmly taking hold in Turkey at the expense of freedom of the press and democracy.
A conversation between the editor-in-chief and the top manager of Habertürk which was shared on social media has revealed that the daily had manipulated the findings of a 2013 opinion poll.

The leaked conversation was posted on Twitter on Thursday evening by an unidentified user, Haramzadeler. In the conversation, a voice allegedly belonging to Habertürk Editor-in-Chief Fatih Altaylı is heard telling Fatih Saraç, deputy chairman of the Ciner Media Group, which owns Habertürk, that he will manipulate the results of a poll conducted by the Konsensus Research and Consultancy Company in favor of the governing Justice and Development Party (AK Party) and the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP). “I will take some points from the Nationalist Movement Party [MHP] and undecided voters. I will manipulate [the poll],” the voice says.

The opinion poll, which made its way to the Turkish media in mid-March of 2013, was conducted with the intention of determining whether peace talks initiated by the government with the terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) to resolve a longstanding Kurdish problem had made any impact on the popularity of parties in Parliament.

The voice recording sent shockwaves throughout the political landscape and society, triggering debates over the scale and scope of government intrusion in the media. In an attempt to placate critics and defend himself, Altaylı joined a heated debate on CNN Türk along with his fellow journalist Cüneyt Özdemir, saying that the incident is not isolated but rather reflects a wider pattern shaping the nature of the relationship between media outlets and the government.

He said government pressure is nothing new, but that the ruling AK Party’s limitless meddling has taken it to an unprecedented level and on an almost daily basis.

According to the poll that was mentioned in the voice recording, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s AK Party maintained a 36.8 percent approval rating without the splitting of undecided votes. The Republican People’s Party (CHP) received 17.5 percent while the MHP received 11.1 percent and the BDP, 3.6 percent. According to the poll, 12.3 percent of respondents said they were undecided.

Haramzadeler, meaning “sons of thieves” in Turkish, has been uploading voice recordings and documents over the last few weeks, including serious assertions about the alleged involvement of members of the government in embezzlement and corruption.

According to records of another leaked phone conversation, Saraç had called Erdoğan’s son Bilal after his conversation with Altaylı and discussed the findings of the Konsensus poll with him. According to the records, Saraç told Bilal Erdoğan that the approval ratings for the AK Party, the MHP and the BDP in the poll would be manipulated.

The claims over manipulation of the opinion poll follow a heated debate over Prime Minister Erdoğan’s alleged interference in Habertürk TV channel’s reporting by instructing Saraç to immediately remove a news ticker. In a voice recording posted on YouTube earlier last week, Erdoğan gave instructions to Saraç to stop a news ticker in which MHP leader Devlet Bahçeli called on President Abdullah Gül to intervene and reduce the tension during the Gezi Park protests, which rocked the country at the beginning of last summer.

On Friday, Altaylı denied claims of manipulation. He said the findings of the Konsensus survey were published by his daily with no interference or manipulation. In his column, which he titled “Do no pay heed to montage or recordings; the survey was published as it was,” the editor-in-chief said the recording featuring his voice was altered.

“The truth is: I conveyed a concern that a reduction in the number of votes for the BDP as suggested in the opinion poll may sabotage the peace process [between the government and the PKK]. I said I would discuss the issue with the manager of the polling company and ask him to review the findings. I also said it would not be possible for us to manipulate the findings of the poll. I discussed the issue with Konsensus manager Murat Sarı and he said he trusts the findings and we [Habertürk] published the poll as it was,” Altaylı wrote.

Altaylı said during the interview with Özdemir, which was aired live on CNN Türk, that journalism had entered a new period and uncharted territory during the AK Party era. According to him, he is not the only editor-in-chief who has faced direct government instructions that have shaped editorial decisions and the content of news reports.

“Almost every editor-in-chief faces the same situation and difficulty. I’m still trying to fight on behalf of my employees and colleagues to at least defend some sort of freedom in publishing this newspaper,” said Altaylı in response to repeated questions from Özdemir, who asked why Altaylı remains in his position after all these revelations.

“Why are you there? Why don’t you quit?” Altaylı said in response to Özdemir. Özdemir said he is trying to practice journalisM as much as he can under hard conditions.

With the confession, Altaylı confirmed authenticity of the voice recordings. His case is a gripping example of the deteriorating situation in the Turkish media and reveals troublesome relations with the government which cements its control over the mainstraim media outlets through exploitation of patronage links with media bosses who afraid of losing lucrative business deals and try to avoid an outright showdown with the ruling party.