Erdoğan, Journalism & the Elections in Turkey with Nevsin Mengu

Turkish journalist dropped from CNN Türk after she criticized President Erdoğan, Nevşin Mengü  interviewed by journalist and former CNN producer Melissa Mahtani at the 15th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy – see below for the interview.

Interview: 

Melissa Mahtani 

We have heard some incredibly powerful testimony from our last guests, Marie Claire, Anastasia. So, we are going to change things up and Nevşin and I are just going to have a conversation. So Nevşin, were sitting here just a couple of days after Turkey’s election on Sunday. And this was very much seen as being the consequential election. You know, the opposition seemed to be leading in the polls, it seemed like they could finally eke out Erdoğan from about 20 years in power. We now have the results, and we know it’s going to a run off. But it seems like Erdoğan did very well. You know, he got 49.5% of the vote, and the opposition got just under 45%. So, what happened? Were the polls wrong?

Nevsin Mengu

Well, yeah, that’s a good question. I think there’s a pattern we see, like all the authoritarian – what they call these “competitive authoritarian regimes.” It’s very similar. It’s easy to poll in the bigger cities, metropolitan areas, but I think it’s harder for the pollsters to go to the smallest villages, deep inside in the heartland of Anatolia. You know, we see similar patterns in Eastern European countries, even in the United States to some extent. So usually, like in the other examples, where we see competitive authoritarian regimes, actually Erdoğan has been losing in the bigger cities, metropolitan areas, urban youth. Erdoğan is losing support there. And actually, in 51 cities, he lost votes. In nine cities, he raised his vote, in more rural areas.

So, this shows us something. So, polls were partially more hopeful than they should have been, I think. And also, as people, urban people living in the metropolitan cities, I think we undermine the power of the rural in some sense. But although I mean, let me underline actually, it’s not a bad result. Let’s remember, this is now a presidential system and Erdoğan was not able to get more than 50% in the first round. And it shows us there is more than, slightly more than, 50%, of opposition, who believe in democracy, who believe that there has to be a change in Turkey.

Melissa Mahtani 

So you know, there’s been criticism because Twitter was, you know, had blocked certain content that was critical of the government. Obviously, Erdoğan you know, there’s a lot of state channels. He censors a lot of channels, as you yourself know, and we’ll get into that in a moment. How much of a factor do you think that was?

Nevsin Mengu

It is a huge factor, of course. Turkish elections are fair. Actually, OSCE just released a report about the Turkish elections they were overseeing. So according to their report, yes, Turkey had free elections, but it’s partially fair. So, Turkey switched to this Turkish style presidential system in 2018, which means there is almost no checks and balances. So, it’s Mr. Erdoğan. He’s controlling everything and he’s controlling the media. The state media, TRT, is under the heavy influence of the government. He’s in cahoots with some business people in Turkey. They feed each other. And you know, he gives some state bids to some business people, and in return, ask them to buy some media to support him, basically. So, he has a really strong media.

But on the other hand, we have a staunch opposition media also, much smaller, but like they’re talking for the opposition. So basically, it’s a very, very polarized society, and very polarized media. But you know what, if you’re like a simple person in the heartland of Anatolia – I mean, me, I’m a journalist, that’s my job. Most of you guys, you’re activists, you’re like on Twitter all the time. I think you’re checking news all the time. Simple persons in Anatolia, they don’t do that. Like, they don’t have to do that. They go to work, you know, they work, they come home, they see the news for a bit, and then they spend time with their family They want a simple life. That’s what you want as a human being, right? You cannot deal with problems all the time. So that’s what they get from the state TV. They don’t even get to hear what the opposition says. They only see Erdoğan and how he accuses the opposition. So that’s how they’re fed. So, as Turkey I always say, we had, we’re having, we’re going through like a political science 101 class, which is like why cannot you have a healthy democracy without free media, basically.

Melissa Mahtani 

So at the moment, the runoff is set for May 28. And it seems that the ultra-nationalist candidates, so Sinan Oğan, he got about 5% of the vote. And so now, both Erdoğan and Kilicdaroglu, the main opposition, they’re both vying for this 5%. And he could endorse either candidate. So he’s playing this kind of kingmaker. What do you think is gonna happen?

Nevsin Mengu

That’s a good question. Sinan Oğan is, you know, he’s a surprise. He’s coming from a very, very nationalist, even rather racist background, actually. So, he gets now 5%. Most of the people who vote for him are young people. Actually, that’s another pattern that we see all around the world. He looks like this anti-system, you know, system fighter person. So, he gets the reactionary vote from the young people. He used this anti-refugee rhetoric, that’s the biggest, that’s going to be the biggest issue in Turkey. Because after the civil war in Syria, and also Afghanistan, more than, nearly 10 million people fled to Turkey and Turkey has, you know, this agreement with the EU. So, the EU pays Turkey to keep refugees in Turkey.

So, you know, Turkey gets money for the refugees. But like 10 million people in a few years, that really affected Turkish people sociologically, basically. So, there is that entire refugee dynamic and Sinan Oğan used that narrative also. So, I think that’s the new pattern that we’re going to see in the next decade in Turkish elections, a more nationalist, and anti-refugee tone, unfortunately,

Melissa Mahtani 

Which is worrying. Erdoğan has been in power for 20 years. He came to power as Prime Minister first in 2003. He was seen as a liberal reformist. You know, he was pro West. He was trying to join the EU. And then things started to shift, and especially after the 2016 coup. For you – I mean we read this as people who are living, you know, outside of Turkey and analyzing it from that lens. But as somebody from Turkey, who is living in Turkey, when did you personally first begin to notice a shift?

Nevsin Mengu

Me personally, I noticed in 2011. Because in 2009, I moved to Iran. I worked in Iran for like a year. And then I came back and the elections happened. And I don’t forget. At two o’clock in the morning, I was on live, and Erdoğan gave a speech. And in his speech, I was like – I listened to that speech. And I’m like, “Oh, my God!” Because in 2011, after he won the victory, he started a speech like talking to the world, talking to Bosnia, Africa, Middle East, all the Muslim nations of the world.

So, I realized he’s started thinking that he’s the caliphate of the Islamic nations himself. So, I started sensing that he’s seeing himself bigger than he is. Like in the undertone, you could see the ambition in his tone. So, I think actually, it was then. So, the AK Party, you said in the beginning, they were reformists. In the beginning, AK Party was a coalition actually. They had social democrats with them. They had some reformist Islamist, moderate Islamists with them. But in time, Erdoğan ousted all the other big guns in the party, and remained as the sole strong man. And then it’s same everywhere.

Melissa Mahtani 

And for people just who aren’t familiar with Turkey, the AK Party that you just referred to is Erdoğan’s party?  So, you’re a journalist. And you know, you were a CNN Türk journalist. As the banner said, you got taken off air because in 2016, you were taken off air, and then you were forced to resign. And this was shortly after a meeting between Trump and Erdoğan. You said on air that Erdoğan was in the White House for 23 minutes. And that was factual but it was seen as a slight against Erdoğan. And then you made some comments about not wanting to be a mother, which was again seen as a slight against Erdoğan, and then you were forced to resign. So, tell me about that. What happened?

Nevsin Mengu

Yes. Yeah, so my Russian colleagues and friends will understand, it’s very similar. We have like Russian trolls, Turkish trolls, pro-government trolls, they are really effective on social media. They start tweeting, they change the social narrative, they change the social basically discussion, they affect that. And these pro-government trolls have been attacking me for like a good chunk of time. And actually, they spread some disinformation about me, some people basically complained to the court, I had to testify several times and this and that. So, it was a pattern. It did not happen in one day. And as you said, I was reporting on the Trump-Erdoğan meeting and I said it only lasted 23 minutes, which was factual. But then Erdoğan got really offended because he wanted to present that meeting like it was really long, Trump loved him, and you know, he’s best buddies with Trump, they’re both strong leaders, whatnot. So, he wanted to present as such. And since I said it was a short meeting, he was furious.

 

And then he, you know, through people contacted my boss and my boss called me and he said you cannot work with me anymore. That day we had a deal, I had to leave. That’s it. But you know what, it’s better than being jailed. Being fired is okay. I managed to find another way. Now I have my own YouTube and digital media is bigger in Turkey. See, that’s what happens when we’re talking about this media freedom. Now, since the conventional media is really polarized and you cannot really hear what’s happening, whichever media you turn into, you just hear one party’s point of view. So, more and more people turn to digital media. Like YouTube is big in Turkey. Most people turn to YouTube to watch the news to get some information. Also, Twitter, especially metropolitan, urban, young people. So, I am doing on my own YouTube trying to you know, survive, basically. So that’s what happened. But I was lucky, actually, to be honest, because I had colleagues who were jailed. They had to spend some years in jail. That really devastates a person and their families. So, to be honest, I was one of the lucky ones.

Melissa Mahtani 

But you know, it’s really interesting to me, because you’re an example of why people think Erdoğan is an autocrat. Because you were taken off air. It’s an example of censorship, there is no media freedom. But then you have a YouTube channel, which is very critical of Erdoğan. You have over half a million followers. And Erdoğan and supporters say, “See, she’s an example of why we’re a free democratic society because she’s allowed to exist and be on air.”  How do you respond to that?

Nevsin Mengu

Yes, that’s Erdoğan’s model, actually. So, what he cares about is basically holding his own base, which is close to like, 50%. He knows he can never talk to other people. He knows he will never be able to get votes from the other side. That’s kind of impossible. So, he understands that and this polarization works for him. And he realizes me and people like me, we just talk to the opposition. Only people from the opposition, they watch us. Opposition watcher-base watch us. His people do not like us, they don’t care about us. They don’t care what we say. So, we’re just harmless for him, in a sense. But this is for today of course. In Turkey, things change really rapidly so I don’t know what happens like in a couple of months. But for now, that is – that’s what’s happening. That’s why I’m still outside, not in jail, and doing my work.

Melissa Mahtani

Well, I mean, also just to point out that Turkey is the fourth most prolific jailer of journalists globally, behind Iran, China and Myanmar. And that’s according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. So, look, we haven’t got enough time to go into all of the issues at play, because there’s so many. But, you know, within Turkey, there’s the economy. So, inflation is sky high. And a few days before the election, Erdoğan announced a pay rise of 45% for public workers. This, critics have said, is akin to a bribe. Okay, that’s one issue. Then there was the earthquake that happened in February that people thought would really hurt Erdoğan, because of all the corruption involved and that people are suffering.

 

Then obviously, there’s security in Europe and the Middle East, especially with the war in Ukraine as Putin’s kind of, you know, pro Russia. And he’s also pro – you know, he has a relationship with the West. So, it’s an interesting position let’s say. And then women. So Erdoğan withdrew from the Istanbul Convention in 2021. And this was a convention ratified in Istanbul to protect women against domestic abuse. So, with all of these things, they’re all big things affecting society. How is it that, you know, he’s ahead in the vote? But also, this was a parliamentary election, as well as presidential, and his party has secured the most support?

Nevsin Mengu

Yes. I have followed as a journalist, both opposition and AK Party, Erdoğan rallies, and I’ve spoken to Erdogan voters. What I saw, they realize economy is in a very, very bad shape, people barely survive. They understand Turkish foreign policy is in a very bad situation. But what I realized is that they do not trust the opposition. They understand it’s really bad, but they think the person who’s going to fix it is again, Mr. Erdoğan. So, I started thinking, and I was listening to this panel a couple of weeks ago, where this former Defense Minister of the United States, Mr. McFaul was talking. He was talking about Ukraine, but he said, you know, in political science, we we’re looking at democracies, you will look at empirical data, you will look at numbers. What we cannot see in the numbers is the factor of a leader. A leader can either carry a country towards democracy or not. So, coming back to Turkish opposition, why people – you know, although there was this earthquake, although inflation is skyrocketing – why don’t people change their choice? I think it ends up in the factor of a leader. I think this is what Turkish opposition is kind of yearning for. Someone which people can trust. Someone who can get their message easily to both the opposition voters and Erdoğan voters. Someone who is more real and reliable. I think that’s that’s an important factor.

Melissa Mahtani 

So, you’re saying that maybe Kılıçdaroğlu, who is the person who was representing the opposition’s six parties, maybe this is more that they didn’t trust him? A lot of people have said – and obviously hindsight is a beautiful thing who knows what would have happened – that things would have been different if the Mayor of Istanbul had been face of the opposition. Do you agree with that? So, we’re two women on stage. So, I have to ask about women in Turkey. You know, Erdoğan did withdraw from the Istanbul Convention. There are huge amounts of domestic violence within Turkey. What do you think this vote, this election, if Erdoğan is back in power, what does that mean for women in Turkey?

Nevsin Mengu

I’m not a politician, of course, I’m a journalist. But from a journalistic point of view, at least they could have used the narrative that since Mr. Erdoğan is really, really old right now. He looks old and beat. So, if there was a like, younger candidate, more energetic candidate, at least they could have said, “You know what Mr. Erdoğan has done all these things for Turkey, he built bridges, roads, whatnot. But now it’s time for him to retire. Let’s try this new younger guy.” Maybe this could have been the case. But what happened, happened. And we should never forget. We should not forget. In Turkey, we have at least a 50% of a very resilient opposition, with the NGOs, with the civil society, with the journalists. So, it’s not like we’re not in a bad position, we should always remember that. And also, the international community, you should guys always remember that, too. There’s that staunch 50% in Turkey. So Erdoğan is not the ultimate winner in every case. He barely wins. And he knows that himself.

Melissa Mahtani 

So, we’re two women on stage. So, I have to ask about women in Turkey. You know, Erdoğan did withdraw from the Istanbul Convention. There are huge amounts of domestic violence within Turkey. What do you think this vote, this election, if Erdoğan is back in power, what does that mean for women in Turkey?

Nevsin Mengu

When I was talking to AK Party voter women, they were saying – I was asking them about this Istanbul Convention thing, and this and that, what do you think? Well, they believe in Erdoğan so much, they say as women, you know what Mr. Erdoğan would never let us suffer anyways, he’s going to be our protector. So, it’s a personality cult. It’s really hard to break that. You know, you could understand that. While on the other hand, for women, a very questionable period might be starting because of this presidential system, both sides, they’re sort of a coalition. So Erdoğan is in a coalition with a Turkish Hezbollah, you know, Huda Par, which is a very, very Islamist party. And also, this new Felicity Party, very Islamist. The leader of the new Felicity Party believes in conspiracy theories, like if you get a COVID vaccine, you’ll grow a tail and stuff. So, these people are in the Turkish Parliament right now. So, it’s gonna be a colorful period.

Melissa Mahtani

Well, you know, you made a very good point that Erdoğan is just winning 50%. Even though that is more than the opposition, it’s still half of society. So, society is very polarized. Whoever wins is going to have their work cut out for them to bring society together. Do you think that’s possible?

Nevsin Mengu

It’s really hard like that. I mean, as long as Erdoğan is in power, I think this polarization is going to continue. But you know what, societies change, conditions change. And also, some political scientists say, if a country is a democracy for more than 50 years, you never go back. I mean, the level of your democracy can change. You know, it might get hurt, but it’ll still be a democracy. So, we have to remember how much – how ever much beat it is, Turkey is still a democracy with somewhat surviving institutions. So, I’m also still hopeful. 

Melissa Mahtani 

So, you know, we’re in this room, and there’s a lot of people from the UN here and from other institutions, What do you think they misunderstand most about the reality on the ground in Turkey?

Nevsin Mengu

I think it’s hard to understand from an outsider, how much of a big personality cult Mr. Erdoğan is. People are not voting for him because they’re stupid, or because they’re really ignorant. No, they understand the problems, but they choose to trust in Erdogan, because he has that why. And second of all, the international community, they always tend to undermine the opposition, and the anti-Erdoğan society in Turkey. That’s also I think, being undermined.

Melissa Mahtani 

So, if Erdoğan wins, do you think it’s going to be five more years of the same? Do you think there will be elections in five years where he could potentially be out?

Nevsin Mengu

Well, the thing is our Turkish economy is in decline because Mr. Erdoğan believes he’s an economist and he has a theory. And his theory goes like, if he decreases the interest rates, the inflation is going to go down, which is scientifically wrong. But he keeps insisting, keeps insisting on that policy, and we’re living in his little experiment, basically, as a society. Listen, as long as he does not change his economic policy fundamentally, Turkey will go bankrupt in a couple of years. Basically, you know, we’ll be literally eating each other on the streets. It looks like that. But he’s a pragmatic leader. I think he’s going to change his economic policy, and then we’ll see if he will be able to survive. But I will not be surprised if, in two or three years time, we will need to have like an early election, I will not be surprised.

Melissa Mahtani 

So, to close us out, tell me what scares you most about Turkey in the future and then what gives you the most hope.

Nevsin Mengu

Well, what’s scares me – like actually, as I said, I’m hopeful. I’m hopeful that Mr. Erdoğan was not able to win in the first round. It showed me, especially with the young people, Metropolitan people, urban people, they are yearning for democracy. That’s hopeful. But of course, you know, I’m afraid as a woman journalist. You know in a sense for my personal future. And I’m afraid for the women of Turkey. Well, we’ll wait and see. But what I’m really afraid of is that these fringe groups within the society, these radical fringe groups, are now moved to mainstream because of this system, and they’re gonna be more loud. I’m really scared of that.

Melissa Mahtani 

That’s definitely something to keep an eye on. Well, we will all be watching on May the 28th to see what happens. And we hope you’ll keep up your great reporting.

Nevsin Mengu

Thank you. Thank you all for listening.

Speakers and Participants

Nevşin Mengü

Turkish journalist dropped from CNN Türk after she criticized President Erdogăn

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