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The Press Advertising Agency has updated its Press Ethics Code for the first time in 28 years. Ceren Sözeri underlines the ambiguity of the new principles while for Süleyman İrvan, “The actual intent is to silence the critical newspapers more easily”
MELTEM AKYOL, ISTANBUL
The government has postponed its attempt enact the much-criticized “disinformation” bill until the next legislative year, even though its preparations were in their final stages. However, while the 40-article bill entitled “Bill on the Amendment of the Press Law and on Other Laws,” which the government says is intended “to combat disinformation” but which is widely denounced by critics as the "censorship law," has been put on hold for now, several of the restrictions that it was envisaged to introduce appear to have been put into effect through the recently-adopted update of the Press Ethics Code, quietly drafted by the BİK.
With their ambiguous wording, the BİK’s overnight amendments to the Press Ethics Code open the door to the blocking of all kinds of critical news, experts warn.
First amendment in 28 years
The BİK was established in 1961 with the stated purpose of ensuring the fair distribution of revenues from public advertisements among press institutions. However, the way in which it carries out this mission has gradually become contentious over the years. The BİK has the power to deprive media organizations that do not abide by its own Press Ethics Code of income from public advertisements, and has therefore come to be criticized as a tool of censorship. The BİK’s composition and decision-making processes have become increasingly politicized in recent years, and it has been accused of turning into a “beating bat” in the hands of the government and a vehicle for transferring resources to pro-government newspapers.
This long-standing criticism of the BİK has been fueled further following its update of the disputed Press Ethics Code. The amendments published on the Official Gazette on July 6th 2022 based on decisions taken on 25 - 27 May 2022 are the first changes to be made to the Press Ethics Code for 28 years. The updated Code introduce open-ended criteria such as “general ethics,” “national and social values” and “family structure” into the Press Ethics Code. Moreover, in addition to newspapers publishing formal announcements, the internet news websites and social media accounts belonging to these newspapers are now also obliged to abide by the Press Ethics Code.
So why have the Press Ethics Code been updated after 28 years? In a statement, the Press Advertising Agency (BİK) said that the new principles aim to avert all kinds of discrimination, particularly the protection of the rights of the child, gender equality, violence against women and discrimination based on gender.
However, experts aware of the current practices of the BİK are quite sure that these justifications will remain only on paper. Prof. Dr. Süleyman İrvan, Head of the Department of Journalism of the Faculty of Communications at Üsküdar University stated: “We all know that the actual intent is to silence critical newspapers more easily by expanding the scope. How do we know that? From current practices, of course. It should have been named the Press Ethics Stick rather than the Press Ethics Code.”
“The first act of the new management”
Assoc. Prof. Dr. Ceren Sözeri of the Faculty of Communications at Galatasaray University begins her words with a reminder: “The General Assembly of the BİK is formed of 36 people, consisting of 12 government representatives, 12 media representatives and 12 independent representatives. It was unable to convene for a long time because the representatives to participate on behalf of the government had not been appointed. Moreover, the current assembly was still making decisions even though its term had expired. Finally, the General Assembly of the Press Advertising Agency was reconstituted in February 2022 with new appointments. So, this could be considered as the first act of the new management.”
There is also the question of the “disinformation bill,” which has been postponed until October. Sözeri reminds us again: “The censorship legislation, which also encompasses social media, and particularly internet journalism, and which subjects internet journalism to certain rules, contained restrictions similar to this. After it was postponed, they may well have thought to themselves: ‘There are representatives of some newspaper organizations in the Press Advertising Agency, but there is nothing preventing us from changing the Ethics Code. Let’s at least do this one.’”
Sözeri underlines that it is extremely objectionable for the Press Advertising Agency to determine the Press Ethics Code by itself. She also emphasizes that there are some very serious points in the amendments. She continues:
“The article in the Press Ethics Code which states that ‘No publications shall be made that encourages terrorism’ is already highly ambiguous. This article has been broadened further and amended to read, ‘Publications shall not include information or visuals about terrorist organizations, their members or incidents in a manner that legitimizes these organizations’. Who determines the ‘legitimacy’ here? What is meant by ‘information and visuals?’ There are no answers.”
“The code also includes the article, ‘Religion may not be abused’. It remained an open question of whether this article was valid for all kinds of religions. In the new text, we see that this article has been changed to, ‘Religion, religious feelings or values of religious importance may not be abused and misused’. For example, what counts as ‘values of religious importance’? Who decides? Are ‘values of religious importance’ determined by the President of Religious Affairs? Then could it be expanded so far as to make running a news item about the luxury car purchased by the President of Religious Affairs an ‘abuse of religious values?’ It’s easy to see the ambiguity.”
“Again, the existing code included a principle stating that ‘No publication shall be made that is contradictory to morality.’ The answer to the question of ‘whose morality?’ was already vague before, but as if that was not enough, this article has now been changed to read ‘No publication shall be made that is contradictory to general morality. To this have been added statements to the effect that ‘No publication shall be made that is intended to destroy the family structure of society and which is contradictory to the protection of the family’ and ‘No publication shall be made that is intended to weaken the mutual national and sentimental values of Turkish society’. These are such vague statements; the possibilities are endless… And let’s not think of this only as an issue of journalism. If you praise a Netflix serial which depicts LGBTI+ people, or deals with this subject, on social media, this could be labelled as something ‘intended to destroy the family structure of society’.”
“Actually, this is what’s happening: We are now face to face with an extremely ambiguous situation and we cannot be certain who these ‘values’ belong to. Undoubtedly, these are the values which belong to the government and which they want to ingrain in society. The new text is effectively incorporating [Interior Minister] Süleyman Soylu’s frequently-stated view that ‘They will strip us of our gender and turn us into LGBT’ into the Press Ethics Code.”
“The aim is to block news that are undesirable”
Along with the recent amendments to the Press Card Regulation and the censorship law which is expected to discussed in Parliament in the fall, the amendments to the Press Ethics Code are one more step towards restricting the freedom of the press in Turkey.
Süleyman İrvan argues that the aim of putting these restrictions into effect one after another is to block news that the government has no desire for the people to see. İrvan continues: “The AK Party government has succeeded in reining in 90 per cent of the traditional media – that is, newspapers and television channels – by changing their ownership and creating bosses close to themselves. However, this transformation has not had the anticipated effect. Circulations and ratings plummeted, and the controlled media was rendered ineffective. Moreover, critical platforms emerged on the internet and started setting the agenda. Now the government is trying to silence these platforms by labelling them as disinformation and blocking critical and undesirable news. They don’t want any negative stories to be published about their actions. They don’t want anyone to question the failures in the economy, or to speak about corruption and unemployment. They want everything to look like a rose garden.”
News blocked on the day the ethics code was updated
Immediately after the publication of the new code, they bore their first fruit in Çankırı. A local news site in Çankırı called sozcu18.com published a news story about an allegation that a person working for a subsidiary of the MHP-led Çankırı Municipality embezzled money and was dismissed after the incident came to light. The person allegedly responsible for the embezzlement went to court to have access to this news item blocked. The court ruled in favor of blocking the item on 6 July, the very day the updated Press Ethics Code were published. The ruling referred to Article 8 of the Press Ethics Code entitled Presumption of Innocence.
Decisions to block news were already being taken very easily. However, this ruling was a bit different. Prof. İrvan says that it was odd for the judge making the decision to issue a blocking order on the basis of an article of the Press Ethics Code on the same day they were published in the Official Gazette. He continues: “The ‘presumption of innocence’, the grounds on which the ruling was based, was not included in the previous text. Article 8 states that, “No one shall be pronounced guilty until proven by a final judgment; the presumption of innocence and the right to a good reputation shall not be violated during criminal investigations or in news and commentary about events related to ongoing court cases; no statements or comments shall be made that may affect the natural and legal course of the investigation and judgment, particularly the decisions of judges, and the confidentiality of the investigation shall not be violated”. A judge who interprets this broadly could issue a blocking order for every news item that contains accusations of a crime. In fact, a news item stating that access to such news has been blocked could be blocked itself. This will put constrain critical journalism even further. Newspapers such as Evrensel, Birgün and Cumhuriyet, which are constantly receiving announcement bans, will continue to be punished. Local newspapers, which are the life-blood of local democracy, will be added to that list. Auto-censorship will spread.”
Prof. Sözeri interprets the reference made to the Press Ethics Code in the blocking order handed out to the local news site sozcu18.com as follows: “This is actually a sign of what will come next. Courts will now be able to issue blocking orders by referring to the ‘Rights and Obligations Declaration of Journalists’ of the Association of Journalists or to an ombudsman’s critique of a newspaper as well as to the Press Ethics Code, because all these texts have become pieces of evidence in the eyes of the court and have all but taken on the status of an expert opinion.”
Are the activities of RTÜK a sign of things to come?
Another possible consequence of the amendments to the Press Ethics Code is its transformation into a regulatory institution similar to the Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK), which has the power to hand out fines and almost to prevent broadcasting.
Sözeri outs it like this: “RTÜK and the Press Advertising Agency are different in nature: To be able to broadcast on radio and television, you have to obtain permission and obtain a license, frequencies, etc. Every institution that intends to broadcast on radio and television in Turkey is thus subject to the rules and supervision of RTÜK. RTÜK therefore hands out penalties to any channel it likes. RTÜK even holds the supervisory power to cancel the license of the relevant organization if it receives consecutive penalties. On the other hand, permission is not needed to publish newspapers or magazines in Turkey: everyone can publish newspapers or written material in accordance with their ideology and point of view. However, the Press Advertising Agency deprives newspapers of the public announcements which they are due to publish, even though they have fulfilled all the requirements, on the basis of ambiguous values which it has determined itself. If we look at the example of Evrensel, BİK has not given it any announcements since September 2019.”
“Can a newspaper say, ‘I won’t take public announcements. I want to publish freely. I’ll try to survive with the support of my readers’? That’s where the mechanism starts working which will transform the Press Advertising Agency into RTÜK. Newspapers then become unable to publish due both to the Internet Law No. 5651 and to other methods such as content removal or blocking of content by criminal courts.”
Sözeri also warns us about the envisaged amendments to the composition of the BİK: “The censorship law, which has been postponed to October, also includes changes to the structure of the General Assembly of the Press Advertising Agency. The bill envisages the addition of a RTÜK representative, a representative of the Information and Communication Technologies Authority (BTK) and representatives from other regulatory institutions to the BİK General Assembly, increasing the number of members from 36 to 42. If this regulation comes into effect in October, the presence of a RTÜK member and a BTK representative in the assembly will mean an increase in the government’s influence and will completely tie the hands of the existing representatives of newspaper organizations in the Press Advertising Agency.”