Turkey’s broadcasting watchdog, the Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK), is imposing punitive and disproportionate sanctions against independent television and radio channels that broadcast commentary and news coverage critical of the Turkish government, Human Rights Watch said today.
In a context in which the vast majority of television news outlets are pro-government, the radio and television watchdog has contributed to the deepening censorship of independent and critical broadcasting by imposing five-day broadcasting bans on two TV stations and heavy fines on others.
“The heavy sanctions on broadcasting outlets critical of the government by Turkey’s media watchdog demonstrates how a crucial public institution has become an arm of President Erdoğan’s government,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Suspending broadcasts or levying heavy fines against the few remaining television stations that dare to air programs critical of the government violates their right to free speech.”
Human Rights Watch interviewed several executives and lawyers of the sanctioned TV channels and former and current members of the Radio and Television Supreme Council and analyzed more than 43 rulings by the Council, court documents, and relevant domestic and international legislation.
In line with Law 6112 on the Establishment of Radio and Television Enterprises, the Council is a nominally autonomous and independent regulatory watchdog body. It licenses television channels, radio stations, and video-on-demand content in addition to monitoring their content to uphold professional and ethical broadcasting standards.
Recent decisions to impose five-day broadcasting suspensions on Halk TV and Tele 1 TV channels and to fine the other few remaining channels that broadcast views critical of the government demonstrate that the regulatory body is closely aligned with the interests of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party, in coalition with the far-right Nationalist Action Party. Public statements by the Council chair, Ebubekir Şahin, over the past year directly declaring a political affiliation to Erdogan’s party are further evidence of the Council’s lack of impartiality.
Most recently, on December 2, 2020, the Council fined the highly popular television station Habertürk and ordered the suspension of five episodes of a program because, on November 28, an opposition politician who was a guest on the program had criticized Qatari investment in Turkish military tank production. The Council ruled that the criticism was contrary to the integrity of the state and principles of Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, in violation of article 8/1a of Law 6112, which regulates broadcasting. An Ankara prosecutor simultaneously announced a criminal investigation into the politician for his comments.
The Council imposed the five-day broadcasting bans – blackouts – on two critical TV channels in September. The first, from September 2 to September 7, was imposed on Tele 1 TV for its criticism of Turkey’s Religious Affairs Directorate on one show and on the other criticism over President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan joining a program on another TV channel through a video call where his image appeared on a screen below a sign saying “Allah” with several religious figures standing before him. The Council ruled that the comments in the program about the president’s image incited hatred and enmity toward a certain religion, violating article 8/1b of Law 6112.
In the second case, the regulatory body sanctioned a program on the widely watched Halk TV for criticisms by the show’s host and a guest of the government’s military operations and foreign policy. The Council ordered a blackout, suspending the channel’s broadcasting from September 28 to October 3, saying that the criticism violated article 8/1a of Law 6112.
Both channels appealed to courts in Ankara, but their requests to suspend enforcement of the sanctions pending appeal were rejected. The channels’ legal teams are continuing the appeal processes in higher courts.
Halk TV and Tele 1 TV have each been sanctioned twice during 2020 for violating the same provision of Law 6112. If either receives a third sanction for the same provision within a year, it will lose its broadcasting license and be unable to operate in Turkey.
In the first 11 months of 2020, the Council issued at least 43 sanctions against 7 independent TV channels and radio stations and imposed fines totaling 8,433,730 Turkish liras (US$1,086,470) for alleged violations of their responsibility toward the public, as laid out in article 8 of Law 6112. Such fines are particularly onerous for smaller channels with little advertising revenue.
The Council has also ordered the suspension of seven individual programs across three TV channels and a radio channel. The suspension orders are pending judicial review and have yet to be enforced. The Council will determine the duration of the suspensions if they are upheld.
The majority of the Turkish public relies on television for news coverage. The government shuttered 60 TV and radio channels by decree during the state of emergency imposed after the violent coup attempt in July 2016. Government-friendly companies have purchased big media outlets since 2007 and have tailored their coverage to avoid criticism of the government, and in some cases, to act as direct mouthpieces for the presidency. In such a setting, the presence of the few independent TV channels remains vital. Journalists with Halk TV and Tele 1 TV told Human Rights Watch that the harsh sanctions made them opt to avoid certain topics the government viewed as sensitive so they could continue their work.
Turkey remains a candidate for European Union membership and, in this context, the European Commission’s 2020 progress report strongly criticized Turkey’s record for failing to uphold freedom of expression in various areas. With regard to broadcasting and the role of the Council, the European Commission focused on its harsh sanctions that stifle freedom of speech and recommended that Turkey strengthens the independence of the regulatory body and its board members to ensure media pluralism.
The European Union’s 2018 Audiovisual Media Services Directive specifies in article 30 that regulatory bodies must be independent of respective governments. In terms of its lack of independence and impartiality, the media watchdog also fails to comply with a Council of Europe Committee of Ministers’ Recommendation in 2000 and Declaration in 2008 on the independence and functions of the regulatory authorities for the broadcasting sector. Turkey is a member of the Council of Europe.
“The chair of Turkey’s Radio and Television Supreme Council has repeatedly demonstrated his direct political allegiance to the president, and the institution as a whole lacks independence,” Williamson said. “The Radio and Television Supreme Council should stop serving as a means to censor and intimidate media, promptly revoke its fines, and commit itself to impartiality and plurality, as is its mandate.”
Politics of a Media Watchdog
The Radio and Television Supreme Council was established in 1994 after a 1993 constitutional amendment abolished the state monopoly over television and radio channels and allowed for private enterprises. Amendments in June 2005 set out the composition of its membership and said that its members should be impartial and independent even though they are nominated by political parties in parliament.
The nine Council members are nominated in numbers proportionate to their representation in parliament, so its composition mirrors the political balance of power. Currently, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its Nationalist Action Party (MHP) coalition partner hold six seats, while the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) holds two seats and the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) holds one. Its composition lays the Council open to alignment with the government and leaves it vulnerable to political interference. The Council chair, Ebubekir Şahin, has publicly expressed his allegiance to President Erdogan and to his political party with statements such as, “We consider his [President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s] instructions and suggestions as orders.”
The Peoples’ Democratic Party member on the Council was detained in October 2020 on terrorism charges in the context of a broader clampdown on his party and unrelated to his position on the Council. His seat has not been filled.
In 2019, the government-aligned members voted to strip Faruk Bildirici, a board member nominated by the Republican People’s Party, of his seat after he held a news conference in the parliament and accused Şahin of a conflict of interests because he sits on the board of a network provider (Turksat), which he is assigned to monitor.
The Council then said that Bildirici had lost his seat for violating the confidentiality of its meetings and having links with a political party, offenses under article 38 of Law 6112, which Bildirici had also accused Şahin of violating. An administrative court rejected Bildirici’s challenge to the decision to remove him and his request for reinstatement. Bildirici has appealed to a higher court. Şahin resigned from the board of Turksat in November 2019.
The Radio-TV Law
The Turkish government passed Law 6112 on the Establishment of Radio and Television Enterprises in 2011 to comply with the European Union’s Audio-Visual Media Services Directive as part of information society and media requirements for all the European Union candidate countries in the accession process.
Article 8 of Law 6112 lays out principles with which media outlets must comply. While outlining various professional and ethical standards, article 8 is problematic because it contains a number of vaguely drafted provisions that are open to broad interpretation and misused by the Council to restrict and sanction content by independent media outlets in violation of freedom of expression.
The provisions include in particular: a prohibition on content “contrary to the existence and independence of the State of the Republic of Turkey, the indivisible integrity of the State with its territory and nation, the principles and reforms of Atatürk” (article 8/1a); a prohibition on content that incites “hatred and hostility by discriminating on the grounds of race, language, religion, sex, class, region and sect” (article 8/1b); and a provision that content “shall not glorify and encourage terror; shall not display terrorist organizations as powerful or justified; and shall not portray terrifying and deterrent features of terrorist organizations” (article 8/1d). The Council uses both articles 8/1 (b) and (d) in an overly broad, selective, and arbitrary manner.
Law 6112 provides for sanctions ranging from warnings to fines, temporary broadcast bans on specific programs, total blackout bans on a station’s broadcasts, or cancellation of a channel’s operating license. The Council was given the authority to cancel licenses during Turkey’s state of emergency which followed the July 15, 2016 coup attempt. Under article 32/5 of Law 6112, if a broadcaster is sanctioned three times in a year for violations of articles 8/1a, b, or d, the Council can cancel its license. Sanctions can be appealed to the administrative court, but the appeal does not automatically suspend enforcement of the sanction, and in cases in which a license is revoked, the channel may have to close. Lawyers and journalists told Human Rights Watch that courts often do not suspend carrying out sanctions until a final ruling is made.
Halk TV started broadcasting in 2005 as a TV news channel, close to the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), the founding party of the Turkish republic, but has recently evolved into an outlet hosting figures from various political backgrounds in its news coverage and political debate shows. Over the last 11 months, Halk TV received 12 sanctions including the 5-day total blackout. The Council imposed the blackout for the channel’s harsh criticism of Turkey’s foreign policy on a show called Medya Mahallesi (Media Neighborhood). The show was sanctioned four times in 2020, twice under article 8/1a. If sanctioned again under the same provision, the channel will lose its license and be forced to shut down.
The channel was fined a total of 51,762 Turkish liras ($6,577 ) for two shows, aired in January and February, criticizing the government’s responses to an earthquake in the country’s eastern province of Elazığ and the Covid-19 pandemic. The Council ruled that the channel was “biased” and should “avoid statements that might create panic among public at times of disasters.” The Council fined two shows, broadcasted in March and April, on which oppositional politicians appeared, with at least 55,000 Turkish liras ($6,988) and ordered each show to be suspended on five occasions. The channel has paid 288,064 Turkish liras ($36,600) in fines this year, which impose a significant burden on an outlet relying on limited advertising revenue. The channel’s court appeals against all the sanctions are pending.
Tele 1 TV Channel
Tele 1 TV was established in 2017 and covers popular news in a critical manner and occasionally airs movies. In the last nine months, the TV channel received 13 sanctions including the five-day blackout. The total blackout was imposed because of events on two shows: prime time news and Karanlıktan Aydınlığa (From Dark to Light). The Council ruled on July 1 that the channel had “incited hatred” after the news show anchor and guest strongly criticized Turkey’s Religious Affairs Directorate for its Covid-19-related statements, and the anchors and guests on Karanlıktan Aydınlığa criticized a program on another TV channel which President Erdogan joined through a video call on a screen below a sign reading “Allah.”
On the July 4 episode of a talk show, 18 Dakika (“18 Minutes”), the host criticized Şahin, the chair of RTÜK, for imposing several sanctions on the channel and accused him of enmity toward dissident media outlets. The Council retaliated by fining the channel 25,881 Turkish liras. (3,290 US$) The sanction was based on article 8/1ç of Law 6112 which provides that broadcasts “shall not be contrary to human dignity and the principle of respect to privacy, shall not include disgracing, degrading or defamatory expressions against persons or organizations beyond the limits of criticism.”
On August 27, the Council fined the channel for airing an advertisement for the left-leaning Evrensel newspaper, which consisted of a woman holding a scarf with the colors red, yellow, and green, which are associated with the Kurdish political movement. The channel has been fined 39,000 Turkish liras ($4,958) for allegedly “making terrorist propaganda,” in violation of article 8/1d.
The channel has paid 362,700 Turkish liras ($46,111) in fines so far this year. Administrative courts will often suspend sanctions if media outlets appeal them but tend to rule in favor of the Council when they challenge the appeal. At least 27 prosecutions have been opened against Merdan Yanardağ, the editor-in-chief of Tele 1 TV. Yanardağ told Human Rights Watch that he also receives death threats and that there have been protests in front of the channel’s building. If sanctioned again under article 8/1/b of Law 6112, the channel will lose its license and have to close. Lawyers have appealed all the sanctions to court, including sanctions from the previous years that are yet to be finalized.
Fox TV in Turkey is a franchise of the United States channel with the same name. It has been operating in Turkey since 2007 with popular morning shows and a prime-time news show. The channel’s news coverage offers an alternative for people seeking an independent voice in a highly censored media environment in Turkey. The channel became the target for the Council sanctions mainly for its prime-time news show presented by a popular anchor Fatih Portakal. Portakal has criticized the government on many issues. The channel was fined for Portakal’s comments on the government’s handling of the economy, the government’s decision to block opposition municipalities from running their own fundraising campaigns to combat the Covid-19 pandemic, and his criticism of controversial statements by the head of Turkey’s Religious Affairs Directorate.
The Council sanctioned the channel on seven occasions imposing seven fines and two orders temporarily blocking prime-time news and morning news shows. The blocking orders have yet to be enforced and the Council is to set the length of the ban.
The channel paid a total of 7,296,513 Turkish liras ($927,593) including 3,420,231 Turkish liras ($434,808) for Portakal’s news show. At the same time, the authorities inspected his property on the grounds that he had violated construction standards. Portakal announced his resignation from Fox TV on September 7 and stated that he was retiring from journalism, though he now runs his own YouTube broadcast. A new anchor replaced Portakal and the Council sanctioned the channel soon after.
KRT TV is an independent media outlet that has offered culture, daily news, and political debate shows since 2014. The Council has fined it three times in 2020, for content in its news shows. On February 17, the channel was fined 68,827 Turkish liras ($8,750) for criticizing the delayed rescue of a person in an earthquake and for insulting comments about the president by a guest on a news broadcast. The Council ruled that the comments were “insulting individuals or organizations beyond the limits of criticism” in violation of article 8/1ç of Law 6112.
Habertürk TV, a channel with prime news shows and popular political debate shows, received five sanctions and one warning in 2020 over its critical coverage of the government and its handling of certain crises such as the economy and an earthquake. The channel has been fined at least 330,475 Turkish liras ($42,014). On December 2, the Council fined the station and ordered the suspension of five episodes of the program Gerçek Fikri Ne (What’s its Actual View).
Ali Mahir Başarır, a member of the parliament with the main opposition Republican Peoples’ Party, said on the program on November 28 that “[f]or the first time in the republic’s history, the army of the state has been sold to Qataris,” a criticism of a recent transfer of the right to operate Turkey’s tank production to a company linked with Qatar. The Council ruled that the guest’s comments violated article 8/1a of Law 6112. In addition to the sanctions, Ankara’s Chief Prosecutor’s Office announced an investigation into Başarır for “denigration of the Turkish nation,” under article 301 of the Turkish Criminal Code.
Radio Harman is a music radio channel with hourly news updates, including exclusive shows with prominent political figures. In a news show (Gündemdekiler) in February, the radio hosted a member of parliament from the opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) who discussed Turkey’s foreign policy and Turkish-backed militant groups in Syria. The Council imposed a fine of 2,579 liras ($327) and a broadcast ban on the show for two days selected by the Council on the grounds that the channel had violated article 8/1a of Law 6112.
TLC, which features reality TV and entertainment shows, was fined a total of 84,392 liras ($10,694) for two programs, My Extraordinary Pregnancy and Unfaithful: Stories of Betrayal. The Council accused the station of broadcasting content “contrary to the national and moral values of the society, general morality and the principle of protection of family” in violation of article 8/1f of Law 6112. Such a vague and overbroad provision is open to abuse and the Council’s subjective interpretation of general morals and values.
(A version of this article was originally published by Human Rights Watch and reproduced by permission.)