By Alain Gabon
In his Spring 2016 article for Insight Turkey, “Gezi Park Protests as a Litmus Test for Mainstream Western Media,” Erzincan University Professor Oğuzhan Yanarışık argues:
[T]he Gezi Park protests became a negative turning point in the already worsening quality of foreign media coverage of Turkey and AK Party...The basic codes of media ethics have been frequently violated, while Erdoğan-phobia became an almost unquestionable rule for the mainstream western media in the post-Gezi era.
The coverage of the June 24, 2018 presidential and legislative elections by mainstream Western media in general, and France in particular, offered another litmus test. Unfortunately, the results of this litmus test fully corroborated Yanarışık’s account and even justify the characterization of the French mediascape as virulently and at times heinously “Erdoğanophobic.”
Anti-Erdoğan Polemics Presented as News and Analysis
Since June, a new qualitative semantic threshold has been crossed, by which the now predictable and well established depiction of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as a power-hungry “autocrat,” hell-bent on implementing a one-man rule, has escalated in negativity. In this case, the two dominant motifs dominating the news were that Erdoğan was a “dictator” and a “despot” but also, more alarmingly, a “dangerous threat” for Western nations. An existential threat, actually.
For a good two years now, France’s tone and trend setters (print or online newspapers and magazines, high-profile television and radio shows, social networks, etc.) have multiplied hit pieces, anti-Erdoğan documentaries, sensationalist headlines, and magazine covers. In quasi perfect groupthink, four reasons are cited why “we” (Western nations, the civilized democratic world as it is assumed) should be scared of Erdoğan: 1) he is cynically using the refugee crisis in order to obtain money from the E.U., threatening to open the floodgates of the Turkish refugee camps and let refugees enter Europe, 2) he has been helping jihadists and sending them weapons (an old canard that President Macron himself—who can hardly be accused of being “soft on terror”—resolutely debunked during his joint press conference with the Turkish President) after liberating many of those combatants, 3) his “limitless” thirst for power and geopolitical ambitions, presented as nefarious for the Middle East and the world (a complete geopolitical falsehood, given that Turkey under Erdoğan has been one of the main stabilizing forces in the region), and 4) “Islamism,” the catch-all scare term systematically attached to any Muslim leader unwilling to obey and serve Western powers.
The French coverage on Erdoğan has lately become so extreme it even recently created a mini-diplomatic crisis between Erdoğan and French President Emmanuel Macron. After noticing yet another magazine issue on “Erdoğan The Dictator” (with the subtitle: “How Far Will He Go?” and a mention of “his crimes” on the cover), a handful of Erdoğan supporters pressured the owner of a small newsstand to remove the poster of the magazine cover on display. This, of course, allowed the French media to scream in unison that Erdoğan and his army of “zealots” were attacking freedom of speech, that the French Turkish diaspora in its entirety was “ruled and subjugated by the dictator Erdoğan” and that as such it, too, constituted a domestic threat. In perfect guilt-by-association method, all pro-AK Party Turks in France were designated as a menace to the nation, despite the fact that the Franco-Turkish diaspora has always been, by all accounts, a model of law-abiding integration, eliciting the admiration of other minorities for its strong work ethic and sense of organization, entrepreneurial spirit, and success. But as the sorry reporting on this minor incident proved once again, in France and elsewhere, when it comes to Muslims, the crimes (or here, an incivility or disregard for freedom of the press) of a mere few are always presented as the crimes of all Muslims (in this case Erdoğan included, who hardly had anything to do with this), and of Islam itself.
In the editorial that opened this issue of the French newsmag Le Point, famed journalist Franz-Olivier Giesbert even asked the rhetorical question “Is Erdoğan a New Hitler?” then basically answered in the affirmative, listing several “similarities” between Turkey’s President and the Führer. Other allegations include the claim that Erdoğan is walking in Hitler’s footsteps, references to his “genocidal ideology” being akin to Hitler’s own, and claims that he is implementing “ethnic cleansing” against the Kurds, in addition to denying the Armenian genocide.
This time, Turkish officials felt compelled to react and criticize the magazine, which in turn forced French President Macron, himself often blamed for his “weakness” towards Erdoğan, to respond back in defense of press freedom. That episode became a national affair for a good two weeks, and, predictably, was further instrumentalized by the usual figures of the news media to hype what was at worst a minor isolated local incident. Nonetheless, this was presented as “symbolic” and deliberately blown out of proportion, to the point of turning it into a matter of national security and an existential threat, and making it look like the French Republic was under attack by Erdoğan’s out-of-control hordes.
Lack of Diversity of Viewpoints and Perspectives
In France, Erdoğan-bashing has become a veritable national sport that spans the whole political spectrum from the far-left to the far-right (roughly, from the Communist daily L’Humanité to the conservative Figaro and the racist and islamophobic right-wing Catholic weekly Valeurs Actuelles).
One could argue that those media are honest in their detestation of Erdoğan, that they genuinely, sincerely care about human rights abuses, the purges, and other matters. But this argument does not resist scrutiny since the same media also regularly praise the absolute monarch from Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (a real despot), as an “enlightened prince” and “liberal reformer” (which he is not), while remaining essentially silent on the atrocious human rights situation in Sisi’s Egypt—another French ally, whose own 40,000 political prisoners and the often horrific conditions to which they are being subjected (torture and rape included) are nowhere to be found in the French news, in contrast to the ubiquitous 120 journalists jailed in Turkey and the 100,000 who lost their jobs after the July 16th military coup. These glaring double standards invalidate the claims and suggestions that if those news media resent Erdoğan, it is because they care about human rights abuse. An examination of the journalistic record shows that at the very least, their concerns are highly selective, focused, and variable.
The actual articles and shows are no better than the covers and headlines. Thus, the June 21, 2018 issue of L’Obs’ on “The Erdoğan Menace,” which can be taken as an ideal-typical example and perfect prototype, describes the Turkish leader as “a dangerous nationalist,” an “authoritarian Islamist,” a brutal anti-Kurd tyrant, and a religious fanatic whose paranoia is only matched by his bottomless greed for power. Every single ill that plagues or threatens Turkey is squarely and solely his fault, be it the “polarization” of the electorate, the “rise of Islamism,” or the “declining” economy (despite Turkey’s continuing and robust growth rate of 7.5% last year, the highest of the G20 countries, to be compared with France’s much smaller growth rate: 1.9%, a six-year high.)
Partisanship and Ideological Biases Masquerading as Commentary and Analysis
Everywhere, whatever the media, such anti-Erdoğan partisanship and intellectual dishonesty are blatant. Worse, the print and audiovisual news media also abound in unsubstantiated accusations and outright falsehoods: for example, the 150 Turkish imams operating in France as part of a bilateral agreement are accused, without ever a shred of evidence offered and on the sole basis they are paid by the Diyanet, of being AK Party undercover agents and “de facto propagandists for Erdoğan.” Or the Turkish President is blamed for the deadlock in the E.U. membership talks, while in reality it was European leaders especially French President Nicolas Sarkozy who blocked and sabotaged them in 2007, making it blatantly clear that no matter what, Turkey will never be admitted—a position he again conveyed more recently in even more forceful and quasi insulting terms, when he declared, “It’s time to tell Turkey ‘Your place is in Asia,’” that “Turkey has no place in Europe” and that anyone in favor of Turkish membership “wants the death of the E.U..” Meanwhile Angela Merkel herself is asking for the “scrapping” of accession talks.
Erdoğan is also held responsible for the breakdown of the Peace Process with the PKK, while the reality is a lot more complicated than that. At a minimum the responsibilities are widely shared, and many analysts would actually concur it was the PKK itself, not Erdoğan (he himself initiated the peace process in 2013), who deliberately caused its collapse when it refused to disarm as they were supposed to, and instead called for urban insurrection and launched a series of attacks inside Turkey, including repeated killings of soldiers and police officers.
But no matter what really happened, it’s all Erdoğan’s fault.
Meanwhile, his supporters in France, who in reality are peaceful, quiet, and model citizens, are increasingly portrayed as radicalized and heinous “zealots”—a dangerous “fifth column” operating in shadowy but highly organized groups that actively seek to “infiltrate France,” control the net, influence the government, and end “our” freedom of speech while diligently “hunting” Erdoğan’s opponents.
The reporting is almost always heavily misleading, manipulative, and deceitful. The examples above, which could easily be multiplied, show that the dominant French news media have crossed the crucial ethical and professional threshold of outright disinformation. As for the imbalance in representation between the pro- and anti-Erdoğan commentators, it is massive and systematic to the point that Erdoğan’s supporters and AK Party voters are hardly ever invited, featured, interviewed, seen, or heard, though they represent the Turkish majority (as this latest election proved once again) and most Turks in France systematically vote Erdoğan in even much greater proportion (65% on June 24th) than in Turkey itself (53%)! But here too, the most basic and fundamental journalistic principles such as fairness, perspective, and impartiality have been thrown out of the window.
Thus, in the 13 pages dedicated to Erdoğan by the June 21 L’Obs’, a lavish paragraph and a half is dedicated to the AK Party voters and the reasons why they vote for him. A full two pages, though, is composed of an interview of the jailed Turkish writer Ahmed Altan, who predicts the apocalypse if Erdoğan is reelected. The rest of the 13 pages is negative criticism and attack pieces presented as analysis.
Crude yet Effective and Systematic Methods of Disinformation
With extremely rare exceptions, that proportion remains the same whatever format (print or audiovisual) or media (left, right or center; private or public) one examines. In television “debates,” the main method used to tilt the presentation of the situation against Erdoğan consists in putting together a panel of debaters, most or all of whom are known opponents. Even in the rare cases where an AK Party voter or sympathizer gets miraculously invited, he or she will be surrounded by three or four anti-Erdoğanists, as in this post-election France 24 debate, where the only Erdoğan supporter is granted three minutes at the beginning of the 40-minute show, never to be seen again after that. Then the rest of the “debate” takes place between guests who are all against Erdoğan, including writer Bedri Baykam, a member of the CHP opposition party, who himself is granted eight minutes to bash the Turkish president.
Other crude yet effective methods of disinformation consist in privileging, sometimes exclusively, members of the Turkish opposition press (Zaman France, Cumhuriyet, etc.) as informers, and even more dishonestly, presenting anti-Erdoğanists as objective “experts,” using their academic or journalistic titles to better present as objective, reliable and expert analysis what is actually a purely partisan political discourse (see here the case of Nora Seni, introduced as a “Professor at the French Geopolitical Institute” but who is clearly there to vent her own political grievances against Erdoğan). Similarly, during the pre-election period, the known Turkish opponent Ahmet Insel became the main and most sought after “expert on Turkey.” For months, Insel was featured in a slew of high-profile television shows and other public appearances, where he was systematically presented as a “professor,” an “academic,” an “economist,” a “political scientist” (which he actually is not), “one of the best specialists and great intellectual figures on Turkey,” and so on. Never was he presented as the AK Party opponent he is though the discourse he was developing was first of all and very clearly a partisan political one, not an academic one. Even in the rare cases when it was also mentioned he was a columnist for the Turkish newspapers Cumhuriyet or Radikal, the information that those are leftist opposition publications was conveniently omitted.
For the most part, the “information,” “explanations,” and commentaries on those elections were provided by clearly identified and declared anti-Erdoğan opponents. Undeclared anti-Erdoğan opponents were not identified as such but instead presented as “experts on Turkey.” This confirmed what Oğuzhan Yanarışık wrote in his own, eye-opening study of the Western coverage of the Gezi Park protest: “A decisive majority of foreign media coverage included only views from the protestors and academics/journalists/analyst that are famous for their anti-Erdoğan attitude. Their comments were provided as ‘specialist opinion’ without mentioning their ideological preferences.”
The lack of transnational comparative perspective was also striking in most of the negative comments and diatribes against Erdoğan, for example, those regarding the lack of media access and equal time offered by the “Erdoğan-controlled” Turkish media to his opponents. That imbalance was indeed unquestionable and highly problematic, yet we could find no case, not even one, in which the commentator, “expert,” or more clearly identified opponents established a comparison with other democracies such as the United States, where the entire political and media systems are thoroughly monopolized by the two main parties, and other Presidential candidates are literally nowhere to be found on any mainstream news media. And they certainly never get the chance to debate a Clinton, Obama, Bush or Trump live on CNN, CBS or NBC. Their exclusion from the media is actually so thorough that even in the United States themselves at the height of the Presidential campaign, you would not have been able to find one person out of one thousand who could even tell you who Jill Stein, Evan McMullin, Darrell Castle, Gary Johnson, Mimi Soltysik or Gloria La Riva were (answer: the 2016 Presidential candidates for the Green Party, the Independents, the Constitution party, the Socialists and others). Compared to the sorry fate of political opponents and “smaller” candidates in what is supposed to be the “biggest democracy on earth,” Meral Akşener, Muharrem Ince or Selahattin Demirtas were lucky. At least, unlike their American counterparts, they could make themselves known, heard, and convey their message to the Turkish population. The playing field was certainly unfair to the extreme, yet no one in the French media ever comment on how the playing field of countries like the U.S. is actually a lot worse and thoroughly rigged in such a way that the main two parties preserve their exclusive monopoly on American politics and government, to the point that even in their own country, precious few Americans even know of the mere existence of the Presidential candidates listed above and others. The first and only time when they discover their existence is when they see their names on the ballots, without a clue of who those people are and what they stand for.
Finally, during this election period, one could also observe severe and systematic semantic manipulations on the part of French commentators, such as claiming that Turkish “civil society” was against Erdoğan, “resisting” him, and uniting in its opposition to his “autocratic rule.” Echoing once again Turkish or foreign opponents for whom “civil society” has become a code word for “those who do not vote for Erdoğan,” in the French media, Turkey’s “civil society” somehow does not include the majority of Turkish voters!
A Downward, Ever-Worsening Trend in the Coverage of Turkey
Aggravating their already awful post-Gezi Park reporting, the French media are now engaging in outright vilification and demonization through, for example, the new motif of “Islamist infiltration”—the claim that Erdoğan is now seeking to subvert “our nations” and states from within by using his large “networks of zealots” (his supporters) in the Turkish diasporas as a “fifth column” in order to advance his “Islamist” agenda and propagate his “hatred of the Western world.” Launched on an already deeply Islamophobic neo-colonial cultural terrain where the distrust of Muslims and hatred of Islam, the fear of “islamization,” and “population replacement” fantasies are widespread, historical, deeply entrenched, and largely shared by other European populations, such coverage strikes a sensitive chord in a receptive majority population that has developed a clinical and delusional obsession with and fixation on Islam.
This new Erdoğanophobia is thus better understood as a subset of a much larger and deeper French (and to a lesser extent European) Islamophobia with very deep colonial roots. In essence but also in methods and themes, this “reporting” is no different from the vilification campaigns against other prominent Muslim figures such as, most notably in the French context, Tariq Ramadan, the young pro-Palestinian singer Mennel, and the rapper Médine. Coverage of these figures frequently features accusations that they use “double language,” and portrays them as the dangerous-and-cunning-Muslim-who-practices-taqiyya, or the radical-Islamist-who-tests-our-resolve-and-plans-to-islamize-us.
Essentially, the main goal of those repetitive and never-ending hate-and-scare campaigns is to discredit, delegitimize and ultimately eliminate any “organic” and proudly Islamic leader who is too independent to be intimidated, controlled or instrumentalized by Western states or other Powers That Be. That is the one and only common feature and criteria shared by all those disparate figures (political, intellectual, or artistic), who in France are bound to be targeted by such campaigns sooner or later.
It is no exaggeration to say that in today’s French mainstream mediascape, Erdoğan is increasingly replacing former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or even Saddam Hussein as “Foreign Islamist Public Enemy Number One.” He has become a dangerous scare-and-hate figure, l’homme à abattre as the French expression goes (“the man to shoot down”), or at best “The Scary Muslim We Love to Hate.” In other words, he is indeed the geopolitical equivalent of a Tariq Ramadan, and one observes that his fate and treatment in French media is more or less the same.
The combination of the methods briefly and partially outlined above (e.g. presenting political opponents as “academic experts,” censoring or marginalizing the majority AK Party voices, demonizing Erdoğan’s supporters as a bunch of dangerous thugs) as well as their own anti-Islam(ist) prejudices and other professional limitations (lack of professional integrity, not knowing Turkish and being forced to rely on English or French-speaking informers, etc.) has led the French media to cross the threshold of disinformation and misinformation, but also to severely misread and misunderstand the dynamics at work in Turkey. Their almost exclusive reliance on raging anti-Erdoğan opponents and the opposition press, and the trust they once again invested in secular, Westernized, French or English-speaking urban cosmopolitan “elites” such as Ahmet Insel or this or that “Turkish writer” (a grosse ficelle, a favorite ploy that always fares well in France, a “literary democracy”) also led them to confuse wishful thinking for reporting and self-delusion for analysis. In the process, they shamelessly manipulated and gravely misled their own publics, for example by hammering how “close” and “risky” the election was for Erdoğan and that this time, “his end was near.” But unlike such pseudo-experts, anyone with an even minimal familiarity with Turkey’s pulse knew perfectly well that Erdoğan would win fair and square at the first round. Yet the blindness of the French and other Western media never ceased to perpetuate the myth of a “close race” of a “second round” or even of a defeat. At the end of the day, Erdoğan won with twenty two points ahead of the leader of the unified opposition! That is how “close and risky” that race was.
One last example: immune to ridicule, on the eve of the election on France 24 Marc Semo—“diplomatic correspondent” of France’s top daily Le Monde—argued with a straight face that “without a doubt Erdoğan cannot obtain more than 47%” after explaining why he will lose and that it was “a “done deal” because he was “now perceived as a factor of instability.” Namely, on all counts including the election result itself, this was the exact opposite of the truth, since Erdoğan won precisely because, among other reasons, he is a reassuring factor of stability for most Turks, especially in the current dangerous and volatile environment.
And yet, this painful demonstration of how little the “international diplomatic correspondent” of France’s top daily actually knows and understands about Turkey did not prevent France 24 from reinviting him right after the elections, in a panel once again exclusively composed of anti-Erdoğanists, for a “debate” that can only be described as a shameless, non-stop festival of half-truths, misrepresentations (at best), outright falsehoods, and slanderous, baseless accusations. Among other pieces of fictitious, malicious defamation from fake “specialists,” the “expert guests” claimed that Erdoğan was “the boss of the Jihadists and Salafists,” and that he “helped the Islamic State and is now helping Al Qaida.” This took place on a major, highly-respected state public network.
Still, at the end of the day, as he has done in the past fifteen years, Erdoğan won with a comfortable margin of 53% that would make all French presidential candidates jealous, despite all the media manipulation, dishonesty, bad faith, professional incompetence, and hypocrisy documented above. These June 24th elections will thus have inflicted on the French media another severe lesson on how to make oneself irrelevant, unreliable and untrustworthy as a source of information and understanding. Let us hope they now learn from this lesson. In the meantime, when it comes to Turkey, the French media have thoroughly discredited themselves.
Alain Gabon is a French citizen and Associate Professor of French Studies based in the United States. He is the head of the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures at Virginia Wesleyan University and has written numerous papers and articles on contemporary France and Islam in Europe for academic journals and think tanks, including Britain's Cordoba Foundation and mainstream media outlets, such as Saphirnews and Les cahiers de l'Islam.
To name just a few from the most popular media: “Erdoğan: The Turkish Danger,” “Turkey: The Country That Scares The West,” “Erdoğan Threatens Europe” (now a classic), “The New Sultan” (most of this coverage plays on old colonial Orientalist fears and stereotypes including the figure of the “Arab despot”), “The Erdoğan Menace,” “Turkey’s Scary Erdoğan,” and so on and so forth, duly assorted with visual codes designed to make Erdoğan look sinister. (Thus, the June 21, 2018 magazine cover of the leading weekly L’Obs’ “The Erdoğan Menace” featured a black-and-white close-up of his ominous face emerging from darkness, with the word “menace” covering his right eye—a clear evocation of Big Brother, the whole cover design in black and blood red.)
 It is hardly ever mentioned that at a staggering three and a half million refugees on its soil, Turkey alone has welcomed more refugees than the twenty-seven countries of the E.U. and North America combined. It has done so at great political and social risks.
 This claim is made without a shred of evidence; it is a mere repeat of the accusations of Erdoğan’s own opponents.
 See the excellent Slate article documenting and explaining the growing admiration for and identification with Erdoğan of many disenfranchised young French-Arabs, a phenomena that is bound to make France’s elites nervous as those populations are already considered a potential threat and vulnerable to Jihadist recruiting. The clout and influence of Tariq Ramadan among those same ghettoized and marginalized minority youths is most likely one of the real reasons why he is now in jail. One observes a similar fear currently crystallizing on Erdoğan, which may explain further why the same French “mediacrats” who organized the persecution of Ramadan are now targeting Erdoğan.
 See in particular the many works on this of historians Pascal Blanchard, Nicolas Bancel, Dominic Thomas, Françoise Vergès or Esther Bensassa, among others.
 Be it the state of Israel and its Prime Minister, Angela Merkel, French journalists during press conferences, or more generally, the largely bigoted or more deliberately malicious characters who control our media and Islamophobia Industries and who for decades have used them to create and consolidate these anti-Islam mediascapes in news or entertainment.