Staggering RTÜK fines levied against TV stations for their coverage of recent wildfires raging in Turkey’s southwestern coastlines may result in the spread of self-censorship and disinformation
Turkey’s Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK), slammed in recent years for politicization and censorship, is once again in the spotlight due to a written “warning” issued to broadcasters over their coverage of the recent wildfires that have ravaged the Mediterranean and Aegean Sea coasts, and the subsequent harsh fines imposed on six TV stations.
Although it is legally mandated to oversee and regulate television and radio broadcasts in the country, RTÜK has been accused of becoming a “censorship tool” in the hands of the government due to the continuous stiff fines levied disproportionately against the critical media outlets in recent years. As a matter of fact, five of the six TV stations that were imposed fines at the Supreme Council meeting held on 11 August 2021 are FOX TV, Halk TV, KRT, Tele1, and HaberTürk TV, which are frequently sanctioned by the broadcasting regulator. The total amount of penalties issued over 17 separate cases, mostly due to remarks in news reports or TV programs about the wildfires, is reportedly TL 3,3 million (about 330,000 euros).
On 3 August, RTÜK sent a private letter of instructions and warning to the executives of TV stations. The letter claimed that the broadcasters were reporting on the wildfires “in a manner that provokes fear and concern amongst the public,” and that the live broadcasts from the area of the fires were carried out “in a manner that will demoralize the public and the firefighting teams.” According to the letter, broadcasting from areas where the fires continued to rage instead of those where the fires had been successfully extinguished is the sort of “broadcasting that serves those who seek to create an atmosphere of chaos.”
“In this respect, it is of utmost importance that broadcasts related to the wildfires are carried out in line with the broadcasting principles laid out in Law No. 6112, and in case of hesitation, those concerned should be in contact with the Department of Monitoring and Evaluation [of RTÜK]. Otherwise, it will become inevitable to impose the heaviest of sanctions on the media service providers who disregard the broadcasting principles in question,” the letter said.
According to the Journalists’ Union of Turkey (TGS), the letter is a direct interference with the editorial independence of the broadcasters, and “the President of RTÜK, who goes above and beyond his job description to operate RTÜK as a censorship tool, is committing a crime by threatening TV stations.” Turkish Journalists Association (TGC), on the other hand, issued a statement that condemned the fines imposed on six TV channels, noting that RTÜK is obligated to act impartially, and in accordance with the Constitution and the principle of press freedom. “RTÜK took up the duty to practice censorship as soon as the government expressed its discontent due to the news coverage of the problems encountered in the course of the efforts to extinguish the forest fires,” the statement read.
RTÜK: Who are the members? How does it function?
RTÜK was established following the adoption of the Law No. 3984 on the Establishment and Broadcasting of Radio Stations and Television Channels in the Grand National Assembly of Turkey (TBMM) on 13 April 1994. The Supreme Council consolidated its position over time and became, in itself, a focus of power. It wouldn’t be wrong to say that RTÜK, which took its current form following the entry into force of the regulation in 2005, is the very institution that determines what you can and can’t see when you turn on the television or the radio in Turkey. In 2019, the media watchdog’s supervisory and regulatory powers were expanded to include online broadcasts, as well.
RTÜK consists of nine members who are elected by the TBMM from amongst the individuals nominated by political parties on the basis of the number of seats they hold in the Parliament. Five of the current RTÜK members are from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP); two are from the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP); one is from the coalition partner Nationalistic Movement Party (MHP), and one is from the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). However, one of the five members nominated to the regulatory watchdog by AKP is the editor-in-chief of Türkgün newspaper, a mouthpiece of the MHP. Hence, it is often speculated that MHP is currently represented by two members in the Supreme Council.
The Supreme Council holds meetings once a week, and the contents of these meetings are considered confidential as per the law. The President of RTÜK holds the authority to determine which issues will be brought to the agenda of the Supreme Council, according to the law. The current President of RTÜK is Ebubekir Şahin, who was nominated as a member by AKP.
The decisions to impose penalties on six TV stations were taken in the absence of RTÜK member İlhan Taşcı, one of the two CHP-nominated RTÜK members, because he was removed from the weekly meeting by the majority votes of the AKP and MHP members on the grounds that he had revealed his position on the issue when he had announced on social media that RTÜK was to discuss penalizing TV stations over their coverage of the fires and criticized the impending fines. Taşcı later filed a lawsuit against the decision to expel him from the RTÜK meeting.
“Lies will spread if you obstruct the truth”
Expression Interrupted interviewed Taşcı and academic Ceren Sözeri, widely known for her work on media-related issues, about the latest RTÜK penalties and the possible repercussions of the media watchdog’s ongoing interventions. Both Taşcı and Sözeri warn against disinformation which can proliferate as a result of media censorship.
İlhan Taşcı has been a member of RTÜK for the past four years. He believes that even though RTÜK has been historically used as “the backyard of politics,” the situation has considerably deteriorated in recent years as a result of the increasing penalties and sanctions, especially following the election of Ebubekir Şahin as the President of RTÜK. “The penalties have become harsher and heavier,” says Taşcı. “We have come to experience a period in which the Council discussed cases related to certain channels that have come in every week on the dot, as if they subscribed to get penalties regularly, and the penalties have become more and more severe. We have come to witness RTÜK issue five-day total blackout orders, while it previously had imposed reasonable administrative fines.”
Taşcı claims that the situation exacerbated at the latest RTÜK meeting, where he was barred from attending due to the allegation that he had made comments expressing bias: “Usually, there would be one or two cases a month on the Council’s agenda against certain TV stations, which happen to be the independent ones. However, at the meeting from which I was unlawfully removed for warning the public of the danger that was coming, 17 separate penalties were issued. Halk TV was imposed three fines; Fox TV was imposed three fines, and Tele1 was imposed three fines. In other words, multiple cases were discussed in relation to the same three channels; and each case means a separate penalty. This week’s council meeting alone cost the TV stations TL 3,3 million. This is a very serious and awfully severe punishment. We are now witnessing the repercussions of the anti-democratic and unlawful practices implemented by the government more severely through the RTÜK penalties.”
The current administration and president of RTÜK have come to view the broadcasters as those who praise the government and those who criticize it -- as “our TV stations and the others,” according to Taşcı. “The RTÜK president insists that they never discriminate against anyone. So, here’s the question: Did only the penalized news channels cover the wildfires? No. All channels, from [pro-government] A Haber and ATV to others, reported these fires, as they should. Why do you use different standards when every station broadcast the same thing?” asks the RTÜK member. “You issue penalties against certain TV stations based on this, while you don’t even draft a case for others just because they are close to the government.” According to Taşcı, “What matters for the President of RTÜK is not whether the footage of wildfires was aired, but which channels will be penalized.”
“RTÜK disturbed by questions”
Taşcı explains his comments: “Otherwise, there would have to be 50 or 60 cases to examine, not just 17, due to the media coverage of the wildfires. To me, the red line here is this: The wildfire itself is a horrible sight. But you cannot ban footage of the fire altogether. However, if you broadcast images of a dead body, be it human or animal, as part of this all-too-horrible fire footage, it will be disturbing. And yet, there is no such thing in either the drafted reports or the reasoning of the penalties. That’s not so much the issue here anyways; it’s about pointing a finger at some people, and gaining control over the broadcasts.”
Recalling that the scorching wildfires consumed vast swathes of land that extended from the Mediterranean Sea coastline to the Northern Aegean coasts, and that the western Black Sea region was hit by a catastrophic flooding soon afterwards, Taşcı states, “People are asking, ‘Where are the firefighting planes? Where are the aids as promised?’; they are asking, ‘Why did you allow environmental destruction through hydroelectric power plants? Why didn’t you take any precautions despite the reports?’ It is actually these questions that disturb the RTÜK; the news reports about the failure of the government to deliver the aids as promised. And, why does the RTÜK feel disturbed? Because these questions reveal that the government failed to manage this process.” According to Taşcı, the RTÜK administration can take action, of its own accord, and impose penalties and sanctions to prevent any broadcasting related to the failures of the government, without so much a need for any instructions from the government in this respect.
Taşcı is of the view that suppression of news, and journalism in general, contributes to the spread of fake news: “If you fail to deliver real, accurate, reliable, and fact-based news to people, and if you prevent it, people will turn to other means to satisfy their curiosity. Sometimes it can be social media, sometimes it can be other methods. Now, for instance, there is flooding, and many people who cannot reach their relatives in that area are hungry for all kinds of information, and wounded enough to consider all kinds of information as accurate. If you, however, act in accordance with the freedom of press, safeguarded in the Constitution, and pave the way for the kind of journalism that respects the right of 84 million citizens to information, then people will no longer crave for this ill-intentioned, disinformation-based information.”
“More dangerous than censorship: Self-censorship”
Taşcı describes the written instructions of the RTÜK Head concerning the wildfires and the subsequent penalties against the TV stations as a clear attempt at censorship, and points to a greater risk: “This takes us to an even more dangerous point than censorship: self-censorship. In their line of work, broadcasters have started asking themselves, ‘What would RTÜK do had it been in our place and looked at this footage,’ as they perform their job. The financial strength and income levels of certain TV stations are pretty obvious. It is not easy to deal with all the RTÜK penalties, and as a result, broadcasting has started to get timid. Every time a broadcaster practices self-censorship, it takes you one step further from the truth, which seems to be what’s happening right now.”
Taşcı continues: “When you cut ties with the life and the truth, you destroy the people’s right to reliable information, and from then on, anyone can fill up that space as they see fit. Then comes, ‘I heard from somewhere that...’ For instance, someone who calls themselves a professor comes out and says the vaccine does this and the vaccine does that, and people fall for that. Then, you check out the guy who says that, and he turns out to be a tobacco expert. Now, how could people be aware of this fact? So, they believe it. RTÜK is supposed to intervene at times like this and prevent the spread of such false information, but it does nothing, not even draft a report in this regard. We can see that RTÜK has become a council of censorship, and it is OK with that. Journalism is a profession that abides by universal rules in pursuit of the truth and the facts. The problem rests with some people’s idea of what journalism is or should be. And they do this for the sake of political gain and profit, that’s it.”
Sözeri: Written instructions through private channels is outright censorship
Often overlooked due to the severity of the penalties levied against the broadcasters is the fact that the RTÜK gave instructions to the TV stations concerning the coverage of the wildfires through private channels.
“This is a very interesting situation,” says Associate Professor Ceren Sözeri, academic at Galatasaray University’s Faculty of Communication and columnist for Evrensel daily. “There is no provision regarding a prior warning in Law No. 6112 that regulates radio and television broadcasts, to which RTÜK is subject. In other words, RTÜK cannot dictate how TV stations should cover issues by calling, texting, or through other private channels. It does not have such an authority. RTÜK can only review a broadcast once it is aired to find out if there has been any violations of Article 8 of Law No. 6112. In other words, this whole instructions through ‘private channels’ business is unlawful from the get-go. Calling the TV stations in advance to say ‘You should broadcast in such a manner,’ is outright censorship. It is necessary to stress this very clearly,” she says.
“RTÜK is expanding its powers”
In response to the public outcry following the revelation of the RTÜK instructions concerning the coverage of the wildfires sent through private channels, RTÜK President Şahin made a statement, holding that the letter issued to the executives of broadcasters were in line with the 2018 principles approved by the owners of TV stations. The principles in question are included in a 20-article document, entitled “Ethical Principles of Audio-Visual Broadcasting,” which was signed by the owners of TV stations in a ceremony that was also attended by İlhan Yerlikaya, the then President of RTÜK. The relevant article of the document reads, “Act sensibly and responsibly in times of crisis brought about by war, terrorist attacks, natural disasters, and similar extraordinary situations; avoid broadcasts that may cause public fear or unrest.”
According to Sözeri, RTÜK cannot render its decisions based on such principles; all decisions must be based on Article 8 of Law No. 6112. Recalling that there is no provision in the relevant article concerning the media coverage in times of disasters, Sözeri notes: “RTÜK has come up with its own broadcasting principles, and has these principles signed by the owners of TV stations. It is all but impossible for an owner of a TV station, who wants to start a TV network and is extremely dependent on RTÜK in this respect, to say, ‘I am not signing that document.’ Consequently, RTÜK expands its powers in this way. And this is very dangerous.”
“RTÜK decisions reflect the current state of media and politics”
Like Taşcı, Sözeri underlines that RTÜK penalties target critical TV stations; so much so that, according to Sözeri, even someone who does not have the slightest idea about Turkey can acquire accurate information regarding the current atmosphere of media and politics in the country just by glancing over the decisions rendered by RTÜK.
According to Sözeri, “When we look at the routine decisions delivered by RTÜK for the last two years alone, we can see that systematic punishment has been inflicted invariably on the same channels: Halk TV; KRT; Tele1, and FOX TV. Anyone, including a person who does not know anything about Turkey, can see that there is a systematic punishment here; that RTÜK pursues an unfair policy, is far from acting autonomously as it should, and does not render decisions that can protect freedom of expression.”
While the discussions regarding the media coverage of wildfires continued, RTÜK President Ebubekir Şahin made yet another “request” to media outlets concerning the news reports on the flooding in the Black Sea region, which left dozens of people dead, according to official reports. “Our state is on full alert and has mobilized all its units to heal the wounds in the region,” Şahin posted on his social media account, “Just like the wildfires, we call on all our organizations broadcasting from the disaster area to adhere to press ethics, and we request that valuable media organizations share accurate news and avoid disinformation.”
Sözeri says: “There are reports of many people missing in the flooded areas, but the official figures are nowhere near those numbers. There is zero transparency. The reporters who go there cover these stories, and express these claims. Warning reporters not to voice such claims amounts to a continuation of the same censorship practice. If RTÜK considers it necessary to tackle disinformation in this case, they should warn the Presidency’s Directorate of Communications. There should provide a transparent briefing here to prevent any disinformation, in case there is any. Otherwise, RTÜK is committing a brand new unlawful act at every turn.”
How to stir up disinformation
According to Sözeri, the statements made by state authorities in times of disasters are full of misrepresentations and inconsistent (as was the case with the conflicting statements about whether Turkey had any firefighting planes to control the blazes). Therefore, the public confidence is eroding. As long as the authorities resort to censoring the media to overcome this, the public distrust grows even more, and it becomes harder for the society to obtain reliable information. As a result of this vicious cycle, it becomes inevitable that even resorting to harsher censorship tools fails to yield any results after a certain point.
Sözeri points out that public confidence in media is shrinking all over the world: “If you don’t allow the reporters in the fire grounds, and if you prevent them from reporting, people who don’t understand what’s going on begin to speculate. These speculations get circulated as if they are facts after a while, by which point it becomes extremely difficult to prove that what’s being circulated has nothing to do with the reality. In other words, while the government claims to fight against disinformation, it uses all the means at its disposal to further spread disinformation.”