The Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK) is an administratively and financially autonomous and impartial public legal entity whose duties and powers are determined by the Law No. 6112 on the Establishment of Radio and Television Enterprises. While Article 1 stipulates that one purpose of this law is to ensure freedom of expression and information, according to Article 34, “RTÜK independently fulfills and exercises its duties and powers under its own responsibility given by the legislation.” Do these principles, determined by law, remain valid?
RTÜK President Ebubekir Şahin’s recent statements, as well as the penalties imposed on critical broadcasters, have been casting a shadow over RTÜK’s impartial, autonomous, and politically independent structure.
The scope of RTÜK's supervision
RTÜK was founded on 20 April 1994 under the Law No. 3984 on the Establishment of Radio and Television Enterprises and their Broadcasts. Private television channels were subjected to RTÜK’s supervision four years after they started broadcasting. In 2011, following the Constitutional Court’s decision annulling some provisions, and within the framework of harmonization with European Union, new regulations were made based on the EU's Audiovisual Media Services Directive (AVMSD). The Law No. 6112 on the Establishment of Radio and Television Enterprises was subsequently entered into force on 3 March 2011. RTÜK was entitled to supervise online media service providers by the Directive on Radio, TV, and On-Demand Broadcasts Shared on the Internet, which took effect on 1 August 2019. Accordingly, online radio and television broadcasts, including web-based on-demand platforms, such as Netflix, BluTV, and PuhuTV, were put under RTÜK's supervision.
Specific measures have been taken since the foundation of RTÜK to prevent any influence from politics. RTÜK members cannot be appointed by political parties. Members are elected by the General Assembly of the Turkish Parliament (TBMM) on the basis of the number of seats each political party has in the Parliament. For the election, nominees twice as many as the number of members are determined in proportion to the number of members of political party groups. MPs from all parties can vote for candidates nominated by other parties. RTÜK members are elected for six years, which is longer than the four-year term of MPs. RTÜK members elected from a party quota are thus prevented from carrying out political activities to ensure continued membership.
Although the council’s operating system seems democratic, the principles of autonomy, impartiality and independence seem to have remained on paper lately since the majority of RTÜK members are elected from the quotas of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its ally Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), who have been acting together in every decision-making process.
The council is composed of nine members. Currently, there are four members elected from the AKP quota, two from CHP and two from MHP quotas, and one from the HDP. In political matters, AKP and MHP members act in a similar manner with the parliament. These six members act in unison in decision-making processes.
On 31 October 2019, RTÜK revoked the membership of Faruk Bildirici, who had been elected from the CHP quota, by six to two votes of the rest of the council’s members after he asked the RTÜK president to resign on the grounds of Şahin’s board membership in two public institutions in addition to RTÜK. The council claimed that Bildirici had lost his political neutrality and his impartiality towards media service providers which RTÜK is required to monitor. The council also claimed that Bildirici had violated the confidentiality of RTÜK meetings, opposed judicial decisions, and targeted RTÜK, its members and personnel. About the termination of his membership, Bildirici said: “This marks a first in RTÜK’s 25-year history. A dangerous path was opened in terms of democracy.”
During the period between 31 October 2019 and 11 March 2020, there was only one RTÜK member elected from the CHP quota. On 11 March, Okan Konuralp, the press consultant of CHP Chairman Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, was elected to the post vacated by the termination of Bildirici’s membership.
Are resolutions taken by instruction?
While the termination of Bildirici’s RTÜK membership is seen as an interference with freedom of expression and the press, RTÜK President Ebubekir Şahin’s statements in defense of the Council’s decision to remove Bildirici from the board have also made RTÜK’s autonomy questionable.
Despite denying during a video conference on 15 May 2020 that RTÜK makes decisions upon instruction from the political authority, Şahin said: “There was no suggestion or instruction given by our honorable president. But, if this happens, his suggestions and instructions would concern all government bodies. He is the leader of our state. We consider his suggestions and instructions an order,” Şahin said.
Şahin also warned newscasters about commentary: “Consider this a warning. We are choosing not to ban commentary [during TV news programs] so as to not prevent commentary by our friends [journalists] who are really good at this job. If the situation continues like this, we will make a new decision. The law has given us this authority. In that case [anchors] will only report the news and not be allowed to comment.”
Şahin’s statements have raised questions as to whether RTÜK receives instructions from the president. However, since it is a constitutional supreme council, it is out of question for RTÜK to receive instructions from the political authority. According to the law, the president can make a claim by submitting a petition, like every citizen, if he has a complaint concerning RTÜK.
On the other hand, it is unclear according to which criteria Şahin made a distinction between news anchors “who are good at this job and those who are not.”
İlhan Taşçı, a RTÜK member elected from the CHP quota, states that many provisions on the principles for media services are subjective and extremely broad. For this reason, objective and concrete criteria that are not open to interpretation should be introduced Taşçı says.
Taşçı thinks the recent controversial decisions by RTÜK are based in the appointment of pro-AKP persons to high-level positions in the council without taking into consideration their competence levels, and the transfer of impartial, experienced, competent personnel to dysfunctional units within the council.
To prove his point, Taşçı says that no single evaluation report about pro-government broadcasters has recently been brought to RTÜK’s agenda.
Taşçı’s recent report about the penalties RTÜK imposed on TV channels in the last 18 months revealed that pro-government TV channels A Haber, Kanal 7, and TV Net received no penalties while ATV and Ülke TV were each given one warning and TGRT Haber was given an administrative fine. During the same period, among critical broadcasters, Halk TV was fined 10 times and given three broadcast suspension penalties; Tele 1 received eight administrative fines and three broadcast suspension penalties; Fox TV was fined seven times and given one broadcast suspension penalty; KRT was fined three times and received one broadcast suspension penalty.
Penalties imposed on Halk TV
RTÜK gave Halk TV five broadcast suspension penalties for an episode of journalist Ayşenur Arslan’s show “Medya Mahallesi” on Halk TV, where investigative journalist and Parliamentary deputy Ahmet Şık was a guest. RTÜK said the penalty was given on the grounds of Article 8/1-a of the Law No. 6112, which stipulates that “media services shall not be contrary to the existence and independence of the State of the Republic of Turkey, the indivisible integrity of the State with its territory and nation, the principles and reforms of Atatürk.” The penalty was implemented before the end of the period of appeal against RTÜK’s decision.
Another Halk TV show titled “Sözüm Var,” hosted by journalist Şirin Payzın and featuring journalists Levent Gültekin and Murat Sabuncu as commentators, was suspended five times and fined TL 29,000. The penalty, imposed for an episode where CHP Istanbul Provincial Chair Canan Kaftancıoğlu was a guest, was based on Article 8/1-b of the Law No. 6112.
Article 8/1-b stipulates that “media services shall not incite the society to hatred and hostility by making discrimination on the grounds of race, language, religion, sex, class, region and sect or shall not constitute feelings of hatred in the society.”
RTÜK reviewed the following remarks of Kaftancıoğlu: “[...] I foresee a trend towards a change of government. Furthermore, I foresee a system change, not just a change of government, and I believe this is going to happen. It’s not an easy undertaking, but I believe that we can only cure these wounds, these damages we suffered, through such a management approach, a change of government and a system change.” The council also cited the program host’s lack of intervention among the grounds for the penalty imposed on the show. The Ankara 14th Administrative Court established that RTÜK’s suspension decision given without taking any statements from the channel was “irrecoverable” and ruled for a stay of the execution of penalty.
Article 8/1-b was also the grounds for a penalty imposed on Fox TV. RTÜK suspended Fox TV’s evening news show three times under Article 8/1-b of the Law No. 6112 due to anchorman Fatih Portakal’s comments about the Covid-19 outbreak during the episodes that aired on 30, 31 March and 1 April 2020.
Habertürk TV was imposed a maximum administrative fine due to a remark by journalist Fatih Altaylı on an episode of his show “Teke Tek,” where İYİ Party Chairwoman Meral Akşener was a guest. Altaylı had uttered the Turkish proverb, “İt ürür, kervan yürür” (the dogs bark, but the caravan goes on).
Diyalog TV expelled from satellite
Separately, RTÜK also stopped the transmission of the Turkish Cyprus-based Diyalog TV’s broadcast over the Türksat satellite. The council concluded that some remarks by Liberal Democrat Party (LDP) founding Chairman Besim Tibuk on the show titled “Dünyaya Bakış” “amounted to insult to President Tayyip Erdoğan and damaged the independence and territorial integrity of the Turkish Republic.” In a statement, RTÜK explained that the “transmission was stopped due to unauthorized and unlicensed programming against Turkey, in violation of Article 29/3 of the Law No. 6112.”
Reşat Akar, the director of Diyalog Media, which also operates Diyalog TV, asserted that Diyalog TV was licensed by the KKTC’s High Council of Broadcasting (YYK), and this license has not been subjected to any decertification and is still valid. Akar said RTÜK bypassed the authority of KKTC’s broadcasting watchdog in its decision to stop the satellite broadcast of Diyalog TV.
Supervision of digital media
RTÜK also started supervising digital media as of 3 September 2019 under a new regulation that came into force on 1 August 2019. The main target of the regulation is independent online news platforms based in or outside Turkey. The regulation stipulates that media service providers obtain a broadcast license from RTÜK. License fees are TL 10,000 for online radio broadcasts and TL 100,000 for online television and on-demand broadcasts.
This was seen as a new threat against critical journalism, which had to shift from traditional to online broadcasting. The license fees required are too costly for independent online platforms. This leads to concern that due to financial difficulties, small and independent news platforms will be unable to continue to operate, or go through a monopolization process as experienced by conventional media.
Streaming services such as Netflix, BluTV and Puhutv applied for a license under the new regulation and are therefore continuing to operate in Turkey. However, RTÜK has recently been keeping Netflix under surveillance.
In April, RTÜK President Şahin warned Netflix about its locally produced original series, Aşk 101 (Love 101). Before its release, the series stirred a heated debate on social media based on a post from a fake account. Because of rumors that it portrayed a gay character, the series was targeted by pro-government media, such as Yeni Akit.
Joining the debate with a statement about Aşk 101, RTÜK President Şahin said: “RTÜK’s red line is clear. We issue warnings when necessary. We are watching them closely. RTÜK’s management is determined to not allow any content that would disturb our society.”
Recently, RTÜK also interfered with another Netflix series. US-based entertainment industry magazines Variety and Deadline reported on 30 April that Netflix has removed one episode of the series “Designated Survivor” in Turkey following a demand from RTÜK. The episode depicted a fictitious Turkish president.
Broadcasts that are not subject to sanctions
The content RTÜK allows on TV stirs as much controversy as the penalties it imposes. While the penalties and fines it imposes on critical broadcasters are implemented without delay, RTÜK has yet to deal with Professor Muttalip Kutluk Özgüven’s remarks on Akit TV, in which he claimed that girls aged 12 to 17 were at “the ideal age for giving birth to their first child.”
Comments by author Sevda Noyan during a talk show hosted by Esra Elönü, titled “Arafta Sorular,” that aired on 3 May on Ülke TV also stirred a lot of controversy: “We couldn't get enough on 15 July [coup attempt]; we couldn't accomplish what we wanted. My family alone can take down [kill] 50 people. We are very well-equipped in this regard, both financially and emotionally. My list is ready.” When RTÜK member İlhan Taşçı brought Noyan’s remarks to RTÜK’s agenda, RTÜK President Ebubekir Şahin cited an excuse and skipped the council’s regular meeting, and the said program was not discussed during the meeting.
Şahin came under fire for not attending the council’s meeting and for failing to bring “Noyan’s kill list” to RTÜK’s agenda. In response to criticism, Şahin said on a live broadcast: “We are not in a position to penalize what [Sevda Noyan] said [on Ülke TV] in the face of those who are praising the coup. This is not such a big deal.”
After public backlash, Şahin made a new statement and said that Noyan’s words were unacceptable in terms of RTÜK principles and that the necessary action would be taken at the next Supreme Council meeting.
Eventually on 22 May, some 20 days after the program aired, the Supreme Council decided to hold a meeting to assess Noyan’s remarks. In a report they submitted, the Department of Monitoring requested that the show be given a penalty under Article 8/1-b of the Law No. 6112, which stipulates that “media services shall not incite the society to hatred and hostility, or constitute feelings of hatred in the society.” Subsequently, the Supreme Council unanimously decided to suspend the broadcast of the show three times.
Since its founding, this is the period when RTÜK has come under fire the most for its biased decisions. Taking into account the council’s recent decisions and Ebubekir Şahin’s statements, the discussion surrounding RTÜK is likely to continue for a while.