Evrensel newspaper’s lawyer Devrim Avcı, RSF Turkey representative Erol Önderoğlu and main opposition CHP Deputy Utku Çakırözer discussed the distribution of public ads and the effects of ad penalties on press freedom
Expression Interrupted organized a free webinar to address the distribution of public announcements and advertisements, the public ad penalties issued by the Public Advertising Agency (BİK), and their role in stifling the independence of media in Turkey. Moderated by journalist Meltem Akyol, the panelists included Evrensel newspaper’s lawyer Devrim Avcı, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) Turkey representative Erol Önderoğlu and Republican People’s Party (CHP) MP Utku Çakırözer, a journalist by career.
In Turkey, where 67 journalists and media workers are currently in prison, either in pre-trial detention or serving a sentence, a total of 213 journalists appeared before courts in at least one trial against them in the first four months of 2021. During the same period, 20 journalists were sentenced to a combined 57 years and 10 months in prison. However, prosecution is not the only tool by which the government restricts freedom of expression and the press in Turkey, which currently ranks 153rd among 180 countries in RSF’s 2021 World Press Freedom Index. Public ad penalties can be just as effective.
In 2020, public ad penalties imposed on critical newspapers -- already financially clamped down by the Public Advertising Agency (BİK), which operates under the supervision of the Presidency’s Directorate of Communications -- have increased by 150 percent. Of all the public ad penalties levied against national newspapers, 97 percent were imposed on Evrensel, BirGün, Cumhuriyet, Korkusuz and Sözcü.
“Public ad penalties continue despite the Constitutional Court’s judgment”
Devrim Avcı, the lawyer for Evrensel newspaper, which has frequently been the target of public ad penalties, explained that they have been waging a legal battle against the penalties issued by BİK on political grounds: “BİK brings up ex officio inquiries into news items for which no criminal complaints have been filed, and based on that, cuts off the public ads. As a result of our appeals against the public ad penalties, six lawsuits have been launched. However, we have yet to win any of the challenges.”
Referring to a recent Constitutional Court judgment issued in an application lodged by Korkusuz newspaper, in which the top court held that the financial clampdown on media outlets is a violation of freedom of expression and the press, Avcı said: “The Constitutional Court concluded that press freedom cannot be separated from financial independence. This sets a precedent in that it underscores that public ad penalties should not be utilized as a means to cause self-censorship. Nevertheless, news reports and articles penned in line with freedom of opinion and expression have been coerced into serving as a pretext for pressure on the media, and thus, public ad penalties continue.”
“Evrensel is a resilient newspaper that endeavors to survive despite all the lawsuits, whether criminal or for compensation, problems with distribution, the public ad penalties and not being allowed in prisons [due to the public ad embargo],” Avcı remarked, adding: “The penalties imposed on political grounds by BİK also risk limiting freedom of expression of the columnists, and hence, leading them to self-censorship. Members of the press are not represented within the institutions that interfere with the press. Journalists do not have a say in a platform that profoundly affects their profession; they cannot voice their objections.”
“Public ad penalties impede press freedom”
CHP lawmaker Utku Çakırözer underlined that Evrensel and Yeni Asya newspapers have not received any public ads due to the BİK penalties since 2020. Çakırözer mentioned that he had recently visited Selahattin Demirtaş, the jailed former co-chair of pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), in Edirne Prison, where he has been held in pre-trial detention since November 2016. Çakırözer said: “Demirtaş stated that Evrensel and Yeni Yaşam newspapers were not allowed in the prison. Newspapers are not allowed in prisons due to the public ad penalties imposed by BİK for purely political reasons, which are not grounded in law in any way. Such penalties impede freedom of the press in Turkey.”
Stressing that the official duty of BİK is not to issue penalties but to fairly distribute public announcements and advertisements to newspapers, Çakırözer said, “BİK adopts the practice of introducing arbitrary public ad penalties to block critical reporting.” In addition to public ad penalties, Çakırözer pointed out the role of targeted tax probes in further silencing critical media: “Public ad penalties and tax fines have become a major hindrance to the financial strength of critical newspapers. News coverage, commentary and criticism are conflated with terrorism, and thereby, criminalized. Through BİK, pro-government newspapers are being allocated large amounts of funding from taxpayers’ money while newspapers that refuse to swear allegiance [to the government] are being punished. It is, of course, essential to refrain from imposing penalties in the first place. However, BİK penalties should be meticulously supervised by the courts. The parliament should pass relevant legislation in this regard. Likewise, newspaper circulation figures should be audited independently, and public ads should be accordingly distributed.”
“Critical journalism being brought to its knees by economic sanctions”
RSF’s Erol Önderoğlu suggested that the public ad penalties imposed by BİK pointed to a climate of financial repression: “Newspapers are attempted to be incapacitated due to their influential reporting by targeting their financial strength. BİK positions itself as a dominant editorial partner; it legitimizes itself with the argument that its decisions can be taken to court. Critical journalism, which cannot be disciplined by the judicial authorities, is attempted to be brought to its knees by means of economic sanctions. They are trying to reshape the media landscape through discriminatory practices.”
Önderoğlu stated that he interpreted BİK’s sanctions as an attempt to “cleanse the media sector of the unwanted journalists and media outlets.” “Public ad penalties are levied against newspapers that do not fit into the concept of ‘domestic and national journalism.’ They are trying to build a concentrated unilateral media platform. BİK’s sanctions take the pressure mechanism on the media to the next level,” Önderoğlu said.
Noting that more balanced methods of distributing public announcements and advertisements are currently implemented in other countries, Önderoğlu added: “Turkey is a heaven for institutionalism. There is a myriad of institutional structures, but political bias utterly overshadows their functioning. Changing the organizational structure of institutions such as BİK and RTÜK, severing their ties with the political authority and appointing people from varying worldviews as their members can help prevent this destruction.”
Önderoğlu also voiced his concern that although the penalties imposed by BİK and RTÜK have been challenged in courts, the courts take too long in deciding cases. “High courts such as the Court of Cassation, the Council of State, the Constitutional Court, the European Court of Human Rights [ECtHR] do render some key decisions regarding our media system, however these decisions often come too late. We do not even know whether these decisions, albeit late, will be recognized by the institutions in question,” Önderoğlu said.