Penalties imposed on opposition media outlets by institutions whose actual obligation is to safeguard freedom of the press not only restrict the right to information enshrined in the Constitution, but also cause the sanctioned media outlets financial trouble
“Tele 1 was silenced as an entailment of the regime that Turkey is dragged into.” These words belong to Merdan Yanardağ, editor-in-chief of Tele 1 TV, whose broadcast was recently suspended for five days by a decision of the Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK).
RTÜK decided to suspend the broadcast of Tele 1 for five days, stating that Article 8/1(b) of the Law No. 6112 on the Establishment of Radio and Television Enterprises had been violated during the newscasts that aired on 30 April and 24 May 2020.
The decision was rendered over the remarks of Merdan Yanardağ about Ottoman Sultan Abdülhamid II. Yanardağ had said, “In 1908, he was a despot, who was a despicable dictator serving imperialism, drowned Mithat Pasha in Taif, oppressed all intellectuals who advocated the Ottoman-Turkish enlightenment and modernization, such as Namık Kemal, Tevfik Fikret..."
Upon Tele 1's objection to the penalty, the Ankara 4th Administrative Court ruled for a stay of execution. However, RTÜK appealed this decision, and the higher court subsequently reviewed it and took a decision against Tele 1 and lifted the stay of execution.
Blacking out the screens of Tele 1 marked the first such penalty imposed by RTÜK under the current legislation for TV channels broadcasting on national level.
Yanardağ: RTÜK is committing a constitutional crime
“RTÜK is pretending to be a court and committing a constitutional crime,” Merdan Yanardağ says.
Yanardağ emphasizes that it is not possible for RTÜK to take an administrative decision and impose a penalty that would completely abolish freedom of the press and freedom of expression safeguarded in the Constitution and explains the purpose of this censorship as follows:
“RTÜK aims to create a media environment suitable for the totalitarian regime that the AKP government has dragged Turkey into, and for this, it wants to silence independent institutions such as Tele 1. I think that the AKP moves towards the place where it wants to drag Turkey into, meaning that they are trying to establish a fascist and reactionary totalitarian regime. This penalty was part of an operation against the media, and the most important stage of this operation was to silence Tele 1. Because this five-day broadcast suspension is the heaviest penalty ever.
“Even though the government has already taken over 95 percent of the media under their control, they want to put it in their order once again,” Yanardağ says. As for the reason why Tele 1 was targeted, Yanardağ says: “We have become a television channel that is watched more than the other channels with big capital groups and power. That's why they try to silence us.”
The five-day broadcast suspension also has financial consequences, Yanardağ states that they were censored at a time when they were “only just beginning to break the ad embargo" and even though the screen is blacked out, the payment of staff members’ wages, insurances, and other expenses continues. “This cost us around TL 300,000 or 400,000,” he says.
Yanardağ points out that if they receive a similar penalty within the framework of Law No. 6112, which regulates the broadcasting principles, their license can be permanently revoked.
RTÜK fines TL 11 million in 1.5 years
Although the screen blackout penalty is the first in RTÜK's history, it is not the first time that the council comes to the fore as a censorship mechanism. According to a report prepared by İlhan Taşçı, a member of RTÜK from the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), RTÜK imposed a total of 36 fines on Halk TV, Tele 1, KRT, and Fox TV between 1 January 2019 and 15 May 2020. These television channels paid a total of TL 11 million in fines.
Penalty to Sözcü TV before it begins broadcast
The amendment to the RTÜK Law, which started to be discussed in February 2019 and entered into force as of 1 September 2019, also functions as a separate censorship mechanism for televisions that want to broadcast over the Internet.
The regulation stipulates that platforms broadcasting online must also obtain a broadcast license from RTÜK. Despite this, RTÜK has not reviewed Sözcü’s logo and name change application for a television project for about 10 months. According to a report published by Sözcü, in the first seven months of 2020, RTÜK examined 18 logo and name change applications and concluded positively. Moreover, 12 of these applications were made after Sözcü’s application. Furthermore, RTÜK imposed an administrative fine of TL 26,000 on Sözcü, which has not even started broadcasting yet.
Press Advertising Agency’s “ad embargo”
RTÜK is not the only state institution becoming a current issue regarding censorship. The Press Advertising Agency (BİK) is also criticized for operating as a censorship mechanism.
In December 2019, BirGün and Evrensel newspapers announced that BİK has blocked the official ads given to them over various reasons. A statement published on the website of BirGün said that BİK imposed on the newspaper a three-month ban on running public ads, and as a justification for this, it first asserted that “Print and Distributor-Return Books were kept with a delay,” and when this justification became invalid, it alleged that the newspaper failed to “reference the source” in some news articles.
BirGün’s statement read: "Our newspaper has a subscription with the top three news and photo agencies in Turkey and provides the source for all the news it receives from the agencies. However, even a simple scan of daily newspapers will clearly demonstrate that an unfair imposition is applied to BirGün. Another sanction imposed on BirGün by the BİK was the penalties for blocking of ads for two to 15 days over our news. In the last three months, we have been subjected to a total of 49 days of penalty over the contents of news. We would like to underline that no lawsuits were filed, nor were even any corrections submitted because of the news that the BİK deemed problematic, asked for defense, and then imposed penalty.”
On the other hand, upon bringing up the ad embargo against BirGün and Evrensel to the agenda of the Parliament, Vice President Fuat Oktay replied to the parliamentary question submitted by opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) MP Ali Kenanoğlu by stating that “BİK evaluates and concludes the denunciations and complaints about newspapers and magazines that do not abide by ethical principles of the press.”
Record-length penalty for Evrensel
Even though practices such as imposing ad bans for opposition newspapers and not sending those sanctioned newspapers to prisons have long been a topical issue, the most reactive practice of BİK was the 45-day public ad ban imposed on Evrensel newspaper in June. The agency cited columnist Ragıp Zarakolu’s May 2020 article titled “Makus kaderden kaçış yok” (No escape from ill-fate) as the grounds for the penalty.
Regarding the penalty given by BİK, Evrensel newspaper's Editor-in-Chief Fatih Polat says: “BİK had a problematic structure in the previous periods as well. However, after SETA [a pro-government NGO that was criticized for blacklisting journalists who work for international media organizations in Turkey in a report published in 2019] members came to power following the management change, these penalties started to become harsher.”
Polat: Every penalty by the BİK is the denial of its establishment law
“We as Evrensel have a problematic relation with BİK for two main reasons,” says Polat, adding: “In September , we stopped receiving public ads. According to the law, if a newspaper is excluded from running public ads for six months, it forfeitures its right to publishing public ads. The Covid-19 outbreak in Turkey in March was considered a ‘force majeure’ by the BİK, which then notified us that it will not supervise the distributors, and the supervision was postponed to July. In the upcoming days, it will be determined whether we are still entitled to publishing public ads or not. If there will be a cancellation, we will be regarded as a ‘newly founded newspaper’ when we reapply.”
Polat emphasizes that the aim of BİK’s establishment in 1961 was “to support printed publication regardless of the difference of opinion," and reminds that when they published Zarakolu’s article, which was originally published on Artı Gerçek, they were already imposed over three months of public ad ban, and yet they received an additional 45-day ban.
Polat describes the management structure of BİK as follows: “It is in line with AKP’s policy and even has a militant stance.” Polat says: “Both Evrensel and BirGün were given penalties over our headlines in the past. This is a direct interference with the editorial policies of newspapers.”
"This is done with the following logic: ‘If I give you the money, you will give me the headline I want to see; you will cover the news within the framework I determine.’ But if all newspapers must operate with the same editorial policy, only one newspaper would be enough,” Polat says.
Noting that every single penalty handed down by BİK is “the denial of its establishment law,” Polat added: “These [ads] are placed on the newspaper by the people’s taxes. It is not the personal money of the person in charge of the BİK or of Fahrettin Altun [the Presidency Communications Director], to whom they are affiliated, or of the President of the Republic, or of anybody, but the taxes of the people. Besides, [the government] cannot purchase my editorial policy just because they are giving us public ads. We are journalists who want to keep their heads high. We are bound by the universal principles of journalism and the public's right to information. We can never accept the [editorial] line demanded by the BİK in terms of telling the truth. We cannot accept the line it imposes with its punitive mechanism. For this reason, we do journalism as we know it. And, they continue to punish us.”
Internet broadcasts targeted by RTÜK
Evrensel newspaper, Tele 1, and Halk TV are not the only media outlets targeted by the censorship attempts of the state’s apparatuses.
In 2019, RTÜK fined 12 TV channels, one radio station, and 23 broadcasts, imposing them a combined penalty of TL 3,854,476. Among them, FOX TV received the highest fine with TL 1,312,515.
RTÜK evaluated comments by Serdar Savaş, who appeared on KRT’s "Gündem Özel" program aired on 19 June 2020, about the re-opening of high schools and universities during the Covid-19 pandemic as "insulting the President, the Minister of Health, and the state administration," and decided to fine KRT. RTÜK also imposed program suspension and administrative penalties on the radio station Radyo Harman over HDP group deputy chair Saruhan Oluç’s remarks about Turkey’s Syria policy during a program where he appeared as a guest.
With RTÜK gaining the authority to license online broadcasting following last year’s legislative amendment, the "sword of censorship” is swinging on digital platforms such as Netflix, BluTV, MUBI and the like.
While the discussion of “whether Netflix will be banned in Turkey” is always on the agenda, the policies of AKP government continue to affect RTÜK decisions. Upon allegations that there was a gay character in Netflix Turkey original series Aşk101, a hashtag campaign targeting Netflix was launched on social media in Turkey and RTÜK President Ebubekir Şahin stated that they “warned Netflix.”
“It is not possible for us to ignore the content of the broadcasts that may negatively affect the physical and mental development of children and young people. Our red lines are clear. As RTÜK management, we are determined to not allow any kind of broadcast content to disturb our society. As RTÜK, we especially emphasized that we will not tolerate broadcasts that are contrary to the national and moral values of our society. We act with the authority we get from the relevant law enacted by the will of the nation,” Şahin had said.
Netflix, on the other hand, denied the allegations that one of the characters in the series was gay.
Netflix continues to afflict with RTÜK censorship. The platform also had to remove an episode of its original series Designated Survivor upon RTÜK's request.
DİSK Basın-İş: Institutions functioned to ensure control of power
State bodies utilized as censorship tools has been on the agenda of freedom of expression and press freedom organizations, professional unions and the international public for a long time.
On 15 March, 10 members of the European Parliament called on BİK to lift the public ad ban imposed on Evrensel newspaper for an indefinite period of time. In their letter addressed to BİK General Director Rıdvan Duran, the signatories of the letter, including Kati Piri, former Rapporteur on Turkey of the European Parliament, requested the lifting of the ban and wrote: “It is important that publications such as Evrensel have economic means of survival for the growth of pluralism in Turkey’s media.”
Özge Yurttaş, the General Secretary of DİSK Basın-İş, the journalists union under the Confederation of Progressive Trade Unions of Turkey (DİSK), says: "RTÜK and BİK are two different institutions that have been serving to ensure the control of governments over the media. However, we see that the AKP government has been using these institutions as an oppression tool more effectively, especially in the recent years. Moreover, when we look at the content of the penalties given by both institutions, it is clear that they are now moving forward from underlining ‘the red lines of the sovereign' to erase every content/voice that the government does not consent.”
Noting that the Savings Deposit Insurance Fund [SDIF] creates media groups and institutions that support it with public resources and similar economic and political opportunities, Yurttaş adds: “It wants to surround alternative media institutions, which could not be captured with these opportunities, by RTÜK penalties and penalties given through BİK, which come with severe financial consequences for the media outlets. Considering the fact that penalized media institutions already have limited financial resources, these penalties function as more than just censorship; they aim to destroy the institutions by preventing them from being able to commercially survive.”
At this point, one can ask “Where is the exit?”
Polat emphasizes that the abolition of the BİK’s current censorship mechanism is necessary.
Yanardağ says that the current censorship environment can be overcome with the common sense of the society: “It is necessary to keep independent media organizations such as Tele1 alive, that are already extremely few. For this, a great social solidarity is needed. Every segment of the society needs this. We actually address the majority of the society. The support given needs to be transformed into a more active and dynamic political and social support, rather than just visits. There is no other choice.”