Evrensel and Yeni Asya are prohibited from running public ads since September 2019 and January 2020, respectively, as the majority of the penalties issued by the Public Advertising Agency target critical newspapers
Media organizations and journalists are the primary targets of the crackdown on freedom of expression and the press in Turkey. In particular, since 2016, hundreds of journalists have been investigated, many of them have been placed under pre-trial detention; 170 media and publishing outlets were summarily shut down. According to the Turkish Journalists Union (TGS), access to 62 news websites and 1411 news content was blocked in the one-year period between April 2020- April 2021.
As part of the overall crackdown on free speech, the financial clampdown on dissenting media outlets has been growing stronger in recent years. Newspapers and television stations critical of the government are attempted to be “tamed” by means of the financial clampdown, which includes compensation cases, as well as the penalties imposed by the Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK) and the Public Advertising Agency (BİK). So much so that a total of TL 7,488,851 administrative fines and 41 broadcast suspension orders were issued by RTÜK in the period between 1 April 2020 and 1 April 2021.
The public ad penalties levied against newspapers by BİK have increased by 150 percent in 2020. Of all the bans on public announcements and advertisements imposed on national newspapers, 97 percent were handed down on dissenting Evrensel, BirGün, Cumhuriyet, Korkusuz and Sözcü newspapers. In the same year, media outlets close to the government pocketed a total of TL 141,932,00 in public advertising revenue. The majority of the advertising revenue was shared by pro-government Turkuvaz and Demirören groups, as the lion’s share was divided among Sabah and Hürriyet newspapers, owned by the said companies.
The situation is much starker for the dissenting newspapers. Evrensel has been restricted from publishing public announcements and advertisements since September 2019, and has received a total of 103 days of public ad penalties in the same period. Yeni Asya, on the other hand, has been prohibited from receiving public ads since 28 January 2020. Moreover, the penalties continue to pile up despite the Constitutional Court’s (AYM or the Court) ruling in March that considered the public advertising bans a violation of freedom of expression and the press in the application lodged by Korkusuz newspaper, and the numerous similar applications pending before the Court.
From “fair distribution” to a disciplinary tool
BİK was established in 1961, in the aftermath of the military coup of 1960, to ensure the fair distribution of public ads on the grounds that the former civil government formed by the Democrat Party (DP), led by Adnan Menderes, transferred all the public ads, as well as the private ads, to the media outlets that supported the government.
As a matter of fact, Article 32 of Law on the Establishment of the Public Advertising Agency, enacted in 1961, states that, “Public advertisements are distributed to periodical publications, whose qualifications will be determined pursuant to Article 34, in accordance with the principles that will be determined by the General Assembly of the Public Advertising Agency, regardless of the differences of opinion or previous practices.” That being the case, there was a crucial element that was neglected in the establishment of BİK: autonomy. It was inevitable for BİK to eventually turn into a censorship tool when the agency, a legal entity affiliated with the state, was also handed the authority to cut off public ads on the grounds of non-compliance with the Press Ethics Principles, which were, again, set by the agency. And that is exactly what happened. The principle of autonomy, which had been breached in various forms over the years, was completely ignored under the Justice and Development Party (AKP) rule. When the Presidency’s Directorate of Communications was given the added authority to supervise the Public Advertising Agency with an emergency decree by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan published in the Official Gazette on 6 August 2018, BİK turned into a “disciplinary tool” in the hands of the government. This argument is further supported by the figures of BİK.
78 percent of all public ads go to pro-government media
BİK terminated the practice of sharing its activity reports with the public after the transformation of the political governance structure from a parliamentary system to an executive presidency, which became effective as of June 2018. DW Turkish has recently uncovered the activity reports of BİK, which has not disclosed the newspaper circulation figures or the public ad distribution numbers since its supervision was overtaken by the Directorate of Communications. The reports reveal that the distribution of public ads was utilized to enrich the newspapers that support the government and punish the critical newspapers. To share a few findings from the reports: BİK distributed TL 416,182,000 worth of public announcements and advertisements in 2020. Of this, TL 182,492,436 went to 30 national newspapers. National newspapers that support the government received more than TL 141,932,000 from BİK, with a share of approximately 78 percent of all public ads. The newspapers that received the majority of the public ads were Sabah, Hürriyet, Posta, Milliyet and Yeni Şafak, respectively.
97 percent of all public ad penalties go to 5 critical newspapers
BİK’s activity reports for 2019 and 2020 also illustrate the unprecedented increase in the penalties, issued by the agency, that prohibit newspapers from publishing public announcements and advertisements, which are an essential source of income for newspapers. Issuing public ad penalties on the grounds of failing to fulfill the requirements of the provisions as per the relevant legislation and violating the decisions of the General Assembly pertaining to the Press Ethics Principles, BİK imposed a total of 324 days of advertising bans in 2019. All of the national newspapers that were imposed penalties were critical of the government.
In 2020, the penalties increased by two-and-a-half fold to a total of 808 days of public ad bans. Of the penalties issued on national newspapers in 2020, 97 percent were imposed on five dissenting newspapers: Evrensel, Cumhuriyet, BirGün, Sözcü and Korkusuz. According to the reports, BİK also issued a total of 244 days of advertising bans to the local press, which can barely sustain themselves under pandemic conditions, on the grounds of violating the Press Ethics Principles.
In spite of the Constitutional Court’s judgment
A key judicial decision regarding the practices of BİK was adopted recently. In its decision announced on 18 March, the First Section of the Constitutional Court held that the penalty imposed on Korkusuz newspaper by BİK in the form of cutting off public announcements and advertisements constituted a “violation of freedom of expression and the press,” and noted, “The anxiety of being subjected to such financial sanctions has a disruptive effect on individuals, as a result of which, and under such influence, one might avoid future statements of thought or carrying out press activities.” The AYM made its position clear, however, despite this judgment and numerous similar applications before the Court, pending review, BİK continues to issue heavy penalties.
Evrensel cannot run public ads since September 2019
One of the newspapers that are most frequently penalized by BİK is Evrensel. Evrensel, which will celebrate its 26th year in publication on 7 June, has been subject to the supervision of BİK since 2008. The newspaper became eligible to publish public announcements and advertisements in 2011 at the end of a three-year preliminary review process that began in 2008, and has been audited every two years since then. However, as of the second half of 2019, and for reasons unknown, the newspaper has been issued numerous notices, advertising bans and, on one occasion, a defense statement in writing request on the allegation of “failure to comply with the Press Ethics Principles,” by BİK. And finally, on 18 September 2019, BİK suspended the newspaper’s right to publish public ads. As of 31 May 2021, when this article was originally published, Evrensel has not published any public ads for 622 days.
The grounds for the suspension of the right to publish public ads imposed on Evrensel by BİK is the solidarity among the paper’s readers. While inspecting news dealers and newsstands, BİK officials claimed to have identified readers who bought more than one copy of the paper in an act of solidarity with Evrensel, and questioned them. One such reader, for instance, was a retired teacher, who purchased three copies; he left one copy at the coffeehouse, another one at the barbershop, and took the last one home. In the end, Evrensel’s right to publish public ads was suspended on the grounds of “bulk buying,” citing such occurrences. The appeals against the sanction were either left unanswered or directly rejected by BİK.
The penalties continue at full throttle
In addition to the suspension of the right to publish public ads, BİK imposed 25 days and 65 days of advertising bans on Evrensel in 2019 and 2020, respectively. With the addition of the penalties levied in 2021, the newspaper’s advertising bans have already reached a total of 103 days, which means that Evrensel will not be able to publish public announcements and advertisements for an additional 103 days, even if the suspension of their right to run public ads is immediately lifted.
The latest example of the penalties levied against Evrensel as of the date of publication of this article was a five-day advertising ban due to an article penned by columnist Ceren Sözeri, published on 14 March 2021 and titled “The motherland makes history while the people suffocate” (“Vatan destan yazmış halk nefes alamıyor”). The grounds for the ban was stated as the use of the word “attack” in Sözeri’s article, in particular, in the sentence that read, “In a peaceful demonstration that followed the rules on masking and social distancing, police attacked, battered up and pepper-sprayed bar association presidents at a time when the protection of lungs was most needed. Police also arrested journalists who reported on the incident.” According to BİK, the word “attack” in the article was “aimed at creating a negative perception in our society about our police officers who are loyal to our republic and our people, (…) and who continue their work with devotion, and, as such, rendering the fight against crime ineffective by damaging their reputation.”
In another case, Evrensel was imposed a five-day advertising ban due to a news report published on 16 April 2020, which included the remarks of People’s Republican Party (CHP) Group Deputy Chair Özgür Özel criticizing the Presidency’s Director of Communications Fahrettin Altun for allegedly facilitating an unauthorized construction on a patch of foundation land next to his place of residence in İstanbul’s Kuzguncuk district. The paper entered the year 2021 with a separate advertising ban due to the same subject: Evrensel was handed a three-day advertising ban over a news article, published on 1 May 2020, which reported that Cumhuriyet newspaper workers were summoned to give their statements due to their coverage of the allegedly unauthorized construction facilitated by Altun, in January 2021.
The newspaper was also hit with a 10-day advertising ban for a news item, dated 13 November 2019 and titled “Public Advertising Agency finishes off Kurdish publishing” (“Basın İlan Kurumu Kürtçe yayımcılığı bitirdi”), which included the findings of a report that was drawn up by Gaziantep University after conducting interviews with journalists who worked in the region.
The law establishes the upper limit of public advertising penalties as 60 days. However, the past practices of BİK reveal that the agency did not come close to the stipulated limit in terms of public ad bans until recently. For instance, when we look at the penalties issued by BİK in the 2000s, it can be seen that the sum total of penalties given in a year by the agency did not exceed a total of 100 days. By 2020, however, we witnessed that BİK imposed a 45-day public ad ban on Evrensel over a column penned by Ragıp Zarakolu, titled “There’s no escape from the ill fate” (“Makus kaderden kaçış yok”).
Yeni Asya cannot run public ads since January 2020
Yeni Asya is another newspaper that has been subjected to frequent public ad penalties. The Public Advertising Agency suspended the right of Yeni Asya to publish public announcements and advertisements on 28 January 2020. The grounds for the penalty was stated as the “violation of the General Communique related to the Electronic Bookkeeping Obligations.” The newspaper objected to the decision, as a result of which an administrative examination was carried out on 7 August 2020 by the Control Board, which found three violations, and hence, decided to “continue the suspension of the right to publish public ads.” Expression Interrupted previously contacted Kazım Güleçyüz, editor-in-chief of the newspaper, for comments on the public ad penalties. Güleçyüz stated at the time that the newspaper was prohibited from running public ads for 484 days. As of 31 May 2021, this period has reached 490 days.
Güleçyüz also stated that the newspaper had filed a lawsuit against the public ad penalties, as their appeals to BİK did not yield any results. “We have launched a legal battle against BİK which has laid a public ads embargo on our newspaper for over a year,” said Güleçyüz, “We have commenced legal proceedings against BİK to demand the cancellation of their decision to reject our objection and the reinstatement of our right to publish public ads. It is obvious that such practices are unlawful; we are waiting for the outcome of the trial.”
“The attempts to bring the entire media under control”
Arguing that the process they are forced to endure cannot be explained “in terms of law,” Güleçyüz states that they are faced with “a completely arbitrary practice.” According to Güleçyüz, the main reason for the public ads embargo is that Yeni Asya “does not pledge allegiance to the government, and instead, criticizes it.”
Güleçyüz states: “Our newspaper has completed its 50th year in publication. I’ve been the editor-in-chief since 1992. Since 2015, and in particular, after the declaration of State of Emergency (OHAL) in the aftermath of the attempted coup of 15 July, and the subsequent transition to the ‘one-man’ rule, the pressure on us has been mounting. It’s not just the public ads embargo, either. Then, there are the sentences we have been given. For instance, I was sentenced to 1 year and 8 months in prison for ‘making propaganda for a terrorist organization,’ and our Responsible Editor İbrahim Özdabak was sentenced to 1 year 6 months and 22 days in prison. The file is currently before the regional appellate court, pending review. We weren’t able to obtain the new press credentials, either. We used to hold press cards, but since the cards were renewed, we couldn’t get the new cards. Our friends have repeatedly asked the reason, and all we got as a response was ‘We are currently evaluating.’ We have an ongoing case on this issue, as well. We see these practices as part of an operation to make barriers for the newspapers, TV stations and publications that they cannot keep in line. These are an indication of the attempts to bring the entire media under control.”
“The aim is to silence critical newspapers”
CHP’s journalist-turned-lawmaker Utku Çakırözer closely monitors the penalties imposed on newspapers by BİK, and often raises the matter in the parliament.
In response to Expression Interrupted’s questions, Çakırözer sums up the current situation as follows: “Evrensel newspaper is prohibited from receiving public ads for more than 600 days, since 18 September 2019. Yeni Asya newspaper cannot receive public ads since 28 January 2020. In the first five months of this year, the total advertising bans imposed on Evrensel and BirGün newspapers have amounted to 20 days. In the year 2020 alone, Cumhuriyet, BirGün, Evrensel, Korkusuz and Sözcü newspapers were imposed advertising bans for 110 days, 112 days, 65 days, 29 days and 17 days, respectively.”
What is the reason for such penalties then, one might ask. Çakırözer answers the question as follows: “BİK has turned into an apparatus that unfairly punishes a handful of newspapers that write the truth and defend the public’s right to know, while supporting the newspapers, which are newspapers only by name, that run innocuous headlines that the palace rule, the one-man rule wishes to see. We didn’t like this title; we didn’t like that column; we didn’t like this assessment by that deputy; and then comes an immediate penalty. The aim is to intimidate and silence the newspapers that the one-man rule and its environment disagree with or dislike by means of such penalties. To prevent the public from finding out the truth.”
“BİK puts itself in the place of the judicial mechanism”
Recalling that the Constitutional Court had concluded that the public ad bans imposed by BİK constituted an intervention on freedom of expression, Çakırözer says, “Despite this, the agency continued to impose unfair and unlawful public ad penalties on newspapers. In mid-May, it issued another five-day advertising ban to Evrensel newspaper. Due solely to a news item that was published in line with the public’s right to know… The Public Advertising Agency continues to maintain its repressive attitude towards newspapers, putting itself in the place of the judicial mechanism.”
“Unfortunately, the Public Advertising Agency has become an agency of censorship, an agency of disciplining the press, newspapers and journalists,” says Çakırözer, noting that such penalties contravene freedom of the press and the public’s right to know. The lawmaker stresses that the task of BİK is not to develop a framework to detect what counts as news coverage, criticism or commentary, and says, “What the palace rule wants, they want it written. They don’t tolerate criticism or differing views.”
Considering all this, is there a way out? Moreover, what should be done? Çakırözer asserts: “The press, the news media is the Fourth Estate in democratic societies. Therefore, the institutions that should have a regulatory role should immediately cease to act as the media courts of the government. In order to be in a position to discuss democracy and freedom of the press in Turkey, such unlawful penalties and censorship attempts should be abandoned immediately. We have introduced a bill in that regard in the parliament. Regulatory institutions should get back to their constitutional duties and their impartial and objective missions.”
In addition, Çakırözer underlines the urgent need for the transparent audit of newspaper circulation figures to put an end to the unjust distribution of public announcements and advertisements, and to ensure the financial independence of newspapers. According to Çakırözer, “the circulation and distribution of newspapers must undergo independent audit, and then announced to the public; and public ads must be distributed accordingly. It should be guaranteed that all newspapers, whether national or local, can carry out their professional duties freely, ensuring their financial independence.”