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Erdoğan aide accuses Reuters of publishing fake news about gov’t-media relations

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Turkey’s presidential communications director, Fahrettin Altun, has accused Reuters news agency of publishing misleading and fake news in a special report the agency published on Wednesday revealing the extent of government scrutiny over the Turkish media.

The special report from Reuters examined how President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his government control the Turkish media with a range of tools that include the use of regulatory institutions, advertising bans, the takeover of opposition media and the blatant threat of imprisonment for those who do not toe the official line.

In a series of tweets on Thursday, Altun denied the claims in the Reuters report, saying that the directorate being targeted by Reuters is a sign that “we are on the right track and a badge of honor.”

“This is not the first time that Reuters, an apparatus of perception operations and systematic manipulation targeting Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Türkiye, publishes misleading and fake news,” Altun tweeted in English.

The Communications Directorate controls the newsrooms, according to more than a dozen industry insiders who spoke to Reuters. Former professor Altun heads the 1,500-strong directorate set up by Erdoğan in a high-rise in Ankara. Altun, 45, who had previously worked at a pro-government think tank, was little known in the news industry when Erdoğan appointed him chairman of his newly created Communications Directorate in 2018.

The directorate, which has an annual budget of $38 million, coordinates government communications. Its responsibilities include combating “systemic disinformation attacks” against Turkey.

When there is important news that could harm Erdoğan or his government, Altun contacts editors and top correspondents to prepare coverage, Reuters quoted an insider as saying.

Altun also accused Reuters of earlier publishing manipulative news reports about Turkey on a wide range of issues such as its fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Syria, distorting the statements of Erdoğan and being part of “economic and financial operations targeting Türkiye.”

The communications director said the agency’s manipulative reporting may have to do with an economic crisis hitting Europe.

“It is our understanding that the economic crisis in Europe hurts your organization together with the UK. It seems that you opt to report from behind your desks because it is cheaper and easier,” Altun said, urging the agency to report the facts alone.

Despite Altun’s denial of interference in the media, Reuters said it saw screenshots showing Altun’s directorate sending WhatsApp messages to mainstream media editors to highlight or avoid certain comments by cabinet or party members. Justice and Development Party (AKP) lawmakers call editorial offices to request that certain speeches be reported or presented differently, reporters say. One editor explained that editors are often told that the Communications Directorate reviews and changes article headlines and editorials.

The Turkish government is accused of taking the Turkish media under almost its absolute control following a failed military coup in 2016. The government closed down hundreds of media outlets and jailed dozens of critical journalists in a post-coup crackdown on the pretext of an anti-coup fight.

Journalists face the risk of losing their jobs, being subjected to judicial harassment and getting jailed even for slightest criticism of the government.

Turkey was ranked 149th among 180 countries in the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) 2022 World Press Freedom Index, with the prominent press organization warning about rising authoritarianism in the country and declining media pluralism.

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