WDoro International election observers released their first findings following Turkey’s May 14 election, concluding that while the contest was “competitive and largely free,” the contest was played on a level playing field between the incumbents and the ruling party. Biased media coverage and restrictions on the rights to freedom of expression and assembly had “undue advantage”. The election gave President Recep Tayyip Erdogan 49.51% of the vote – just shy of the 50% needed to avoid a runoff on May 28 – to opposition leader Mal Kilisadaroglu’s 44.88%.
For Nevin Mengu, one of Turkey’s most prominent journalists, the verdict came as little surprise. Mengu has witnessed the Erdogan government’s hold on the country’s media landscape. Her critical reporting on the Turkish presidency eventually cost her her job at CNN Turkey in 2017; After her well-reported meeting with then US President Donald Trump. (She previously ran afoul of Erdogan over his comments about the role of women in Turkish society.) Mengu has since hosted her own hit show on YouTube.
Erdogan’s control over Turkey’s media landscape was particularly visible before the first round of elections. In April, Erdogan reportedly enjoyed 32 hours of airtime on state television.
Read more: Why Erdogan is now the clear favorite in Turkish elections
TIME caught up with Mengu on the sidelines of the Geneva Conference on Human Rights and Democracy earlier this month, where she talked about the state of media freedom in Turkey and what to expect from the May 28 presidential election.
Time: Before leaving the network in 2017, you were anchoring the evening news at CNN Türk. Can you talk about the motivation for the decision?
Nevisin Mengu: I’ve been following the 6 o’clock news for a while. How it works in Turkey now… there are pro-government trolls. They attack people. They are people who point fingers. The same thing was happening to me. The pro-government trolls hated me, they were always pointing fingers at me and I had to go to court twice to testify for that, because of really stupid accusations.
It was a meeting between Trump and Erdogan. [in May 2017]The first meeting since Trump was elected. I was talking about that because it was on live TV, and basically the meeting only lasted 23 minutes. This is also angry [off] Mr Erdogan wanted to present the meeting as best friends and it was a long meeting. He got angry and contacted my boss through people and said they don’t want me anymore. My boss negotiated… and then I left.
Compared to other people, it’s not such a sad story. I just got fired. That’s fine, it happens.
It is true that many journalists face the worst conditions in Turkey, which has one of the worst prisons for journalists in the world. But whether a journalist is arrested or fired, the result is more or less the same, isn’t it? You were prevented from doing your job.
In fact, we are lucky compared to previous generations of journalists because now there is digital media and you can do your work anywhere. I know in America, for example, podcasts are big. You can do podcasts, get sponsors, whatever. YouTube is huge in Turkey. So because of all this, now, the mainstream media is very divided. A big chunk is the pro-government, pro-Erdogan media. They have the money and the ability. Then there is the small pro-opposition media. There is nothing in between.
People, especially young people, are increasingly turning to digital media. People either follow on Twitter, they turn to YouTube. Thank God I have viewers on YouTube who donate too. So now I have a small group. This has been a learning experience for me. I became a journalist as an entrepreneur. It’s like a small business, but we’re trying to do what we can conceptually. We are making videos, monitoring the elections. When the war in Ukraine started, I went there to cover the war. Of course I can’t be like CNN. But at least I can report for free and people value it in Turkey now.
You covered the first round of the Turkish election. What’s the result? Is there a sense of falsehood among the opposition?
I feel sorry for the opposition voters because they long for some hope, something, someone to take responsibility. The opposition is now shocked. Because the thing is, they believed they would make it in the first round. I really mean it. [the result] It wasn’t that bad – Erdogan lost in the first round. It does not have a simple majority. That’s a very important thing. Look at many countries, Zeikones, look at Erdoğan. But now the opposition seems to have panicked. That’s the sad part.
Many observers seem to share the opposition’s view that victory is possible – perhaps possible. Were you surprised when you saw the final result?
The thing is, for the last 20 years, we always hoped that the opposition could win. This is the first time This Close to winning.
Voting for polling companies is very difficult. Erdogan is losing in metropolitan cities. He keeps losing. In fact, he lost votes in 51 cities. In the big cities, basically, they don’t want Erdogan. It has strong support in small towns and rural areas. But it is the same pattern everywhere. I think it is difficult to go to small villages when sampling for voters. They are usually in big cities. Of course, they also go to small towns, but maybe not villages. I think that’s why.
The presidential election is fast approaching. Do you think the opposition has the ability to come back from this?
They need to motivate voters. One thing we have seen in this election is the rise of nationalism, especially among young voters. I think what the opposition is trying to do now is to try and stick to this more nationalist narrative. I think that’s a big gamble because if you stick to a more nationalistic narrative then you’re going to lose. [the ethnic minority] Kurdish voice.
Can the opposition compete with Erdogan on nationalism?
In Turkey we now have two fronts, Erdogan and the opposition. Both are combinations. In Erdogan’s coalition, there are Kurds, there are Islamists, and there are pro-Erdogan nationalists. On the other hand, you have the Kurds, you have the nationalists, but they are against Erdogan.
Erdogan is a cult of personality. Today it may be nationalist, tomorrow it may be Islamist. He could be a communist in three days, let me tell you. This is what they are trying to fight. I think that’s why it’s hard.
Can opposition leader Kilicadaroglu compete with Erdogan’s cult of personality?
That’s what some people criticize. We have the mayor of Istanbul, [Ekrem Imamoğlu]. He is a famous person, he is young, very active, energetic. Some people are saying that he should run for president instead of Kilisadaroglu. But others say Kilicadaroglu is a balanced, calm person. So now some people say if so The mayor of Istanbul ran, there were many chances to win.
I think that might be the case because if I were the opposition, I could use the narrative that if the mayor of Istanbul ran, Mr. Erdogan was fine, he built bridges, roads, whatever. But now he is older. Let’s go for a young alternative, a fresh start. why not? They could have used that. But Kilicadaroglu is equal to Erdogan.
In its first findings following the first round of elections, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) said that although the election was largely free and free of media flaws, an uneven playing field had fallen to the level of Erdogan and his allies. “Undue Advantage.”
of course. They use all the state [resources]. What Erdoğan did is he started giving money because he could raise the salaries of bureaucrats, give more pensions. This always works.
If Erdogan wins, where do you think the Turkish opposition will go from here?
One of Turkey’s advantages is that it has a very organized opposition. Turkey’s oldest party, CHP [Republican People’s Party]It is the founding and main opposition party of Turkey. It is organized. So they are going to renew themselves. Maybe the leadership is about to change. This will of course have political consequences for the losers. But they renew themselves and continue. It happened. Such is democracy. It’s not like a three day thing. It’s a long-term thing.
And if Erdogan loses, will he bow out in grace?
Well, he should. What is he going to do? It should do. But of course the mission of the opposition will be very difficult because the economy has collapsed and then they basically have to deal with that. Even if you start today, nothing will happen for the next two years. That’s what analysts project. It will be very difficult to rebuild the institutions, because, as you know, institutions have been severely damaged in all autocratic countries. It will not be an easy task for the opposition.
Has this election changed the Turkish people’s attitude towards their democracy?
Young people don’t vote for Erdogan. That change is evident. Turkey is rapidly urbanizing, so young people want more democracy, basically they want something else. So there is that change. It’s about to come.
But let’s see. Maybe with this economy, if [Erdoğan] It won’t change its course, I don’t know how else it will last. I think the economic policy should be changed. We have local elections in nine months.
This interview has been edited and expanded for clarity.
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