CNN has been dragged into a political row over its Turkish sister channel ahead of the rerun of a contested Istanbul mayoral election.
The US media giant has been forced to confront accusations of bias at CNN Turk after the channel was bought by a conglomerate with close ties to president Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Opposition supporters say that the outlet has become increasingly supportive of the government line since last year’s acquisition.
CNN Turk used to be seen as “a centrist media outlet and a channel that behaved equally towards everyone,” said Ekrem Imamoglu, the opposition candidate who emerged as the surprise winner of a recent contest to elect a new mayor of Istanbul but was later stripped of his victory.
But the station has provided less coverage of his campaign than his ruling party rivals, he told the Financial Times in an interview. “In our minds, CNN Turk is no longer a centrist outlet,” he said. This week the channel was accused of cutting him short during an interview — a claim it has denied — angering some viewers.
The opposition challenger has now called on the Atlanta-based CNN, which licenses its brand to the Turkish channel, to review its standards. “They need to follow how a company that carries their name is acting in Turkey, how it is reporting,” he said.
The Turkish criticism is awkward for CNN, which has cast itself as a campaigner for press freedom in the US in the face of heavy pressure from Donald Trump who has frequently lashed out at the channel as a purveyor of “fake news”.
The broadcaster last year sued the White House for retracting the press credentials of its correspondent, Jim Accosta, after a combative exchange with the US president during a news conference. The White House later backed down and reinstated Mr Accosta’s access. In an unlikely reversal of the media terrain in the US, where Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News is seen as an ardent supporter of the Trump administration, one of the few TV stations in Turkey that is harshly critical of Mr Erdogan and his government is Fox’s Turkish sister channel.
CNN Turk was established in 1999 in a partnership between Turner Broadcasting System International and Dogan Media Group, a company owned by a Turkish business tycoon who built up a powerful stable of media outlets and had an antagonistic relationship with Mr Erdogan.
Last year, the group was sold to Demiroren Holding — a company with close links to the Turkish president and his ruling party — in a deal that was seen as a seismic shift for Turkey’s media landscape. The sale left almost all of Turkey’s major newspapers and TV channels in the hands of companies with close links to the government. The few remaining opposition media complain of heavy political pressure, and dozens of journalists are behind bars.
Although CNN Turk has long steered a careful course, including under its previous owner, critics allege that it has become increasingly pliant since its takeover.
In their report on last year’s presidential and parliament elections, international observers from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe said that CNN Turk was one of several channels that “favoured” the president and his party through the tone of the coverage and the amount of airtime given.
A series of high-profile editorial staff claim they were forced out after last year’s change of ownership. Accusations of bias crescendoed during the campaign for local elections that took place across Turkey on March 31. Fresh anger erupted after this week’s interview with Mr Imamoglu, who is preparing to fight a rerun of the Istanbul contest next month.
The presenter, Ahmet Hakan, was accused of adopting a more hostile tone than he has used with ruling party figures. The channel cut to adverts after Mr Imamoglu began to talk about evidence of wasteful spending at Istanbul municipality that he claims to have uncovered during his brief and aborted stint as mayor.
Mr Imamoglu told the FT that journalists should be allowed to ask any questions they liked, however they liked, but he added: “I wish there had been an opportunity to talk about how Istanbul . . . has been run.”
CNN Turk denied that it had treated Mr Imamoglu unfairly, using a statement on Twitter to point out that a recent interview with his ruling party rival, Binali Yildirim, was seven minutes shorter than the opposition candidate’s 1 hour, 19 minute appearance.
In response to questions from the FT, the channel insisted that its coverage was fair. “Unfortunately . . . parties or political figures try to use mainstream media as scapegoats to get more votes, to consolidate their supporters,” it said. “Colleagues who criticise us lost their objectivity and [are] doing activism not journalism. We deny these allegations and try to keep our unbiased and balanced position. We are fair and impartial.”
The US-based CNN said that, while the Turkish station was an independent channel, its licensing of the CNN brand came with a requirement to adhere to its standards. “CNN Turk has provided assurances and evidence that they are making every effort to provide balanced coverage of the Turkish elections,” said a spokesman. “We are in regular contact with CNN Turk regarding output and editorial practices.”