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The Role of the Print Media

The media in Turkey today is caught between two contradictory roles. On the one hand, it tries, not without some success, to report news objectively and serve as a forum for public debate. Thanks to the hard work and dedication of a relatively small group of journalists, columnists, and editors, critical columns appear and unpleasant facts are reported under the arbitrary eye of state prosecutors. What is written in newspapers—despite their low daily circulation of only around three million—still counts. Sahin Alpay, a columnist for the daily Milliyet, commented that,

Despite all the setbacks, if it weren’t for the press, you couldn’t talk about democracy or about pushing a liberalizing agenda. In the 1960s and 1970s, universities were the principal spokesmen for civil society, but they were put back in their place after the coups of 1971 and 1981. After 1980, it became the press that served as the voice for civil society.42

Another journalist acknowledged that the press, when it wishes, can make a difference.

If the press wants to do something, it can. It does have some power. For the first three days after Metin Göktepe was murdered the papers wrote that he was killed under suspicious circumstances. But then most journalists, especially young ones, realized that the same could happen to them and started to pressure the higher ups to really investigate. It was completely through these efforts that the newspaper editors had to change their approach. At Yeni Yüzy1l fifteen of us told the directors that if the approach wasn’t changed we would all resign.... If all events were followed like Göktepe, today things would be better.43

A daily reading of the Turkish press bears out these observation, revealing an often lively and critical debate on any number of issues. Even commentary on the Kurdish conflict, a highly-charged and sensitive topic, is often critical and open. One study of the conflict noted that,

All is not in solid conformity, however, even in the mainstream press. An important distinction has to be made between the reporting end of the news and columnists. Nearly every day in one paper or another—most often in the more liberal or intellectual papers, or even in the Islamist press—there are analyses or pieces by columnists who take a more critical and thoughtful approach to the Kurdish problem....44

On the other hand, the media often views itself as an advocate of state interests in general and a friend or a foe of a particular government. Economic dependence, many believe, lies at the root of this stance.45 According to many journalists Human Rights Watch interviewed, more and more newspaper ownershave begun to play an unhealthy role in setting editorial policy. They are all too eager to fall into line to support official state policy, even at the cost of sacrificing journalistic ethics and standards. Mr. Alpay noted that,

My experience in working in the Turkish press is that if a sensitive issue comes up, editors would say, “How would the authorities take this, how is this coordinated with Turkish national interests.”46

One columnist at a mainstream Istanbul daily echoed these sentiments:

Mainstream papers often see themselves as spokesmen for the state. They often use the first-person plural “We” voice. Many of our reporters, for example, talk to officials in a deferential way. They start a question by saying, “My General” or “My Minister”, rather than “Mr. Minister” or “General.” Once you establish that link, it is difficult to ask tough questions.” Look at the emblems on, for example, Sabah or Hürriyet. When I was an editor at Hürriyet the reporter from Germany suggested that we remove the slogan on the front page “Turkey for Turks.” For example, during the flag incident at the HADEP congress, the mainstream papers wrote headlines like, “If the state doesn’t punish them, we will punish them.”47

This tendency has only been exacerbated by increasing monopolization of the media. At present, two main holdings, the Do_an and Sabah groups, control between 65 and 70 percent of daily newspaper sales, depending upon circulation.48

Nazmi Bilgin, the head of the Ankara Journalists Association (Ankara Gazeteciler Cemiyeti) added that,

There is a certain kind of censorship connected with monopolization. Two groups control 75 percent of readership. Monopolization is the twin sister of censorship....There is a certain level of self-censorship because of the relationship of owners and the state. I want anti-trust laws in Turkey to be passed.49

Deunionization has accompanied monopolization. Except for Cumhuriyet, the semi-official Anatolian News Agency, and two smaller press agencies, ANKA and ULUSAL, journalists and other press workers do not enjoy union representation. One journalist noted that,

The Journalist Union still exists, but deunionization started in 1990 and 1991. People were pushed to resign from the union. It started at Milliyet. The newspapers simply do not want to have to conduct collective bargaining with their employees. Earlier all the papers had union representation.50

The Role of Private Television

Television was introduced in Turkey in 1963 with the establishment of the state-run Turkish Radio and Television (TRT).51 In 1980, a second state-run channel was added, TRT-2. It broadcast in the periods when TRT was off the air.52 In 1990, while on a visit to the United States, then President and former Prime Minister Turgut Özal announced that private foreign broadcasters could sendprograms to Turkey via satellite despite a constitutional ban on private broadcasting.53 At the time, Article 133 of the constitution gave the state-owned TRT a complete monopoly on radio and television broadcasting. Mr. Özal’s son, Ahmet, quickly founded Turkey’s first private television station, Magic Box, which began broadcasting from Germany. Soon a myriad of stations followed, preparing stories in Turkey but broadcasting them via satellite from abroad. By 1993 there were close to 700 private radio and television stations in Turkey despite their precarious legal status.54 Finally, on July 8, 1993, parliament amended Article 133 of the constitution to permit private broadcasting in Turkey.55

The introduction of private television has undoubtedly increased the overall level of free expression—as well as the number of game shows, glitzy pop videos, and sensationalist reporting. Today the majority of Turks, like people all over the world, get their news from television. At present, there are sixteen national television stations—only four of which are state-owned—and another 360 local stations.56 Dr. Haluk Sahin, a professor of communications and news coordinator of Kanal-D, a private television station, stated that,

With the private channels, a lot changed. Old taboos were broken. Programing was shown that dealt with Islam, the Kurdish question, homosexuality, adultery. TV found that there was an audience. Free and more aggressive reporting was allowed. Anything went from early 1991 to mid-1994. There were no rules.57

Political talk shows lasting hours-on-end provided an unregulated forum to discuss Turkey’s most pressing problems, whether Kurds or political Islam. One commentator noted that, “The past year [1994] has brought a revolution. In a country where the very word Kurd was taboo until a few years ago, millions tunedin two weeks ago to a no-holds-barred debate about the Kurdish question between top Turkish officials, Kurdish nationalists, and ordinary people that lasted nine hours until seven o’clock in the morning.”58

Regulation, however, soon caught up with the free-wheeling private television senders in the form of the Radio and Television Law of April 13, 1994 (RTÜK).59 Article 4 of the law mandates broadly-worded broadcasting principles and dictates sweeping restrictions. It states, among other things, that broadcasts cannot contradict, “the national and spiritual values of society” and “the general morality, civil peace, and structure of the Turkish family.”60 The law also prohibitsbroadcasting in Kurdish.61 A nine-member board, with five seats appointed by the government and four named by the opposition parties, implement the RTÜK law.

Radio and television stations face two penalties under the law: a warning and temporary closure. Article 33 allows the board to warn stations that violate provisions of Article 4; should the station violate a provision again, it can be closed temporarily for up to one year. Usually, the penalty consists of a one-day broadcast stop, which the station has a right to appeal in an administrative court. A bill amending the RTÜK law was recently presented by the Y1lmaz government to the Turkish parliament. It appeared, however, to be targeted more at increasing the sphere of economic activity for owners of television stations than at increasing free expression. The bill was defeated.62

Almost all the national television stations—as well many of Turkey’s 1,500 radio stations—have been closed down for various periods, causing revenue loss and reduction in market share. On any given day, it is not uncommon to see a black screen on television with the words, “Closed by order of RTÜK.” On June 20, 1997, the daily Milliyet reported that eight television stations and two radio stations have been given closure penalties.63 A major broadcaster, Kanal D, had the following record of warnings and closures: 1994, five warnings; 1995, two closures and five warnings; 1996, ten closures and five warnings; 1997, six closures; 1998, thirteen closures.64 Many of these penalties were handed down for violating either Article 4d of the law, which states that broadcasts must be made in context of “the general morality, civil peace, and structure of the Turkish family,” or Article 4m, which prohibits broadcasts that a “negatively affect the physical, mental, psychological, or moral development of children and youth.” Sometimes closure is the result of a politically-charged broadcast. A local television station inDiyarbak1r, Metro TV, was closed for one month in January 1998 after broadcasting a program featuring interviews with relatives of PKK security detainees who had taken part in a hunger strike.65 Metro TV was closed for violating Article 4g, “the principle of not allowing broadcasts that create feelings of hatred in the community by encouraging violence and ethnic separatism.”

All journalists whom Human Rights Watch interviewed criticized the RTÜK Law and its effect on broadcasting. Oktay Eksi, editor-in-chief of Hurriyet and the director of the Press Council, stated that,” You must have legislation to change RTÜK. At present, political will shapes it. Its board consists of nine members: five from the government parties and four from the opposition. It must be completely independent.”66 Senol Caner, legal council for Kanal D, complained about the imprecise wording of the law: “We are always walking on thin ice because many of these prohibitions are so vaguely worded.”67

At present, private television still provides an important forum for debate, along with the usual soft news programing and fluff found on commercial television stations around the globe. Thanks to the RTÜK laws and other politically-inspired restrictions, however, private broadcasting has lost a large degree of its earlier luster and near absolute freedom. A producer for a popular news program summed up the present situation in the following way:

The contribution of private TV. The fact that there are seven or eight or however many private television stations doesn’t show that there is freedom of expression. It is appropriate to me. We have one of the best news programs in television. We try to do things in a Western way....We have a lot of information and we do respectable work...[But] sometimes we have to say things indirectly. The bosses of the program have to make a decision. Do we show everything or do we pull back. Two out of three programs will send people’s eyes out of their heads; one we pull back on.68

Fehmi Koru, the chief columnist at the daily Zaman, believed the influence of private television had largely been positive until early 1997, when the military began to play a more open role in politics. According to him,

If you asked me three to four months ago about private television, I would have said yes. All gave credence to new ideas and new thoughts. People learned things on the news programs. But in the past four to five months, all stay more or less in line with the official line.69

The Role of the Military

The military today sees itself as the defender of the Kemalist republic and all it stands for. Supported by trade unions, the press, and big business, the military ousted the Islamist-led government of Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan in June 1997. Since that time, the military has not left the political scene. In its fight against “fundamentalism,” the military today plays a greater role in day-to-day politics than at any time since the restoration of civilian rule on December 24, 1983.

The army wields its influence mainly through the National Security Council (Milli Güvenlik Kurulu-MGK), a half-civilian/half-military organ chaired by the president and provided for under Article 118 of the constitution.70 The MGK gives the military a voice on matters “with regard to the formulation, establishment, and implementation of the national security policy of the state.”71 “National security policy” is understood to include almost all issues, both foreign and domestic.

Not surprisingly, the high-profile role of the military has had a negative effect on the freedom of the press and the media. Pressure can come directly or indirectly. In November 1997, the National Security Council called on the Supreme Radio and Television Board (RTÜK) to crack down on the burgeoning number of private Islamist radio and television stations.72 In March 1998, Yasar Kaplan, a columnist for the radical, pro-Islamist daily Akit, was arrested and remanded into custody on charges that he violated Article 95.4-5 of the Military Penal Code prohibiting “press crimes aimed at poisoning hierarchial military relations.”73 That same month, the Office of the General Staff banned Mehmet Ali Birand, Yalç1n Do_an, and Muharrem Sar1kaya from entering military bases or from speaking with members of the military, reportedly because of their reporting.74 In April, alleged testimony from a captured PKK field commander, Semdin Sak1k, fingered Birand and another columnist, Cengiz Çandar, as “PKK stooges.” The unsubstantiated and highly improbable charges would most likely not have been leaked without the permission of the army, which captured Sak1k and took part in his interrogation. The daily Sabah, for which both men worked, suspended Mr. Çandar temporarily and forced out Mr. Birand.

Human Rights Watch has also heard first-hand reports from several mainstream, respected journalists concerning the military’s heavy-handed pressure against those it perceives as troublesome or as not fully supporting the drive against “fundamentalism.” Some have even asserted that the Office of the General Staff has begun to keep files on journalists, noting the tone and content of their reporting and columns. One reporter stated that,

In late March or April General Çevik Bir, who was then Deputy Chief of Staff, went to Istanbul to the office of our publisher, Ayd1n Do_an, with a folder of articles that he did not like. He also had a number of names of journalists with whom he was displeased. After that my editor called me on the phone and said, “Be careful.”75

Human Rights Watch is aware of at least one case in which a career journalist, Koray Düzgören, a former writer and editor of the “Forum” page of the daily Radikal,was fired after his editors received pressure from military authorities.76 Mr. Düzgören apparently ran afoul of the military because of his critical writing on the Kurdish question and because of his assertions that the military—as well as the police—were implicated in the Susurluk scandal.77 According to Mr. Düzgören,

Radikal started to publish in October 1996. The paper glowed because of its earnest publishing about the gangs that were uncovered following the Susurluk incident. Circulation increased. But, later, when all the big media groups joined the campaign to force Refah out of power, Radikal was no exception....It turned out that writing and criticism distant to state discourse were not approved. The military was not to be criticized. This situation was openly communicated to the writers by the paper’s administrators. It was stated that the military kept files for some journalists either at the National Security Council or the General Staff and gave grades on performance; we were told that, “In the past few days Radikal’s grades have been falling a lot....” On March 2, I was told the following by the General Director of the paper: “We know that you have been successful, and the affair doesn’t stem from you. Your writing at this paper is not wanted by the military....The owner of the paper, Ayd1n Do_an, could not do anything about this demand.Therefore you are not going to write anymore. We apologize for this and for the unexpectedness of the situation.”

After a thirty-year career as a journalist in the mainstream press, Mr. Düzgören is unable to find work in his profession.

42 Interview, Princeton, New Jersey, June 1998.

43 Interview, Istanbul, September 1997. A photojournalist for the now defunct left-wing daily Evrensel, Metin Göktepe was beaten to death in police detention in January 1996. After much public outrage and dogged media coverage, five policemen charged in the case were convicted in March 1998 and sentenced to five years. Four others were acquitted.The convictions, however, were overturned on appeal in July 1998. Another court ordered their retrial, and the men are presently on trial in Afyon in western Turkey.

44 Henri J. Barkey and Graham E. Fuller, Turkey’s Kurdish Question (Oxford, England: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers), 1998, p. 122.

45 According to many interviewed for this report, media holding groups have increasingly moved away from the news as their main source of activity and income to other, more lucrative fields. They want a free hand to run their businesses as they see fit and in return offer, through favorable coverage, legitimization of the government and state.

Some pointed toward the recent unsuccessful attempt to amend the Radio and Television Broadcasting Law (RTÜK) as nothing more than an effort to legalize the recent purchase by media holding groups of state-owned electricity distribution networks. Under the present version of the RTÜK Law, individuals who own more than 10 percent of the shares in a media company are forbidden from taking part in public tenders, such as the privatization of the electricity distribution networks.

For a critical interpretation of the amendment to the RTÜK Law, see _lnur Çevik, “Why all the obstinacy to please media bosses,” Turkish Daily News, Ankara, Internet Edition, May 8, 1998; _lnur Çevik, “Will the Parliament start working at last,” Turkish Daily News, Internet Edition, May 18, 1998; Kemal Balc1, “Media barons block Parliament,” Turkish Daily News, Internet Edition, May 26, 1998.

Those who defended the bill argued that it would introduce transparency and greater financial oversight. See Derya Sazak, “Sefafl1k Korkusu” (“The Fear of Transparency”), Milliyet, Internet Edition, May 26, 1998.

46 Interview, Princeton, New Jersey, June 1998.

47 Interview, Istanbul, September 1997. About one-half of the estimated two million Turkish citizens who live in Germany are believed to be ethnic Kurds. In 1996, provocateurs ripped down the Turkish flag at the party congress of HADEP, a Kurdish nationalist party. In its place, they hung a PKK flag and a portrait of its leader, Mr. Abdullah Öcalan.

48 Ayd1n Do_an, who heads a company bearing his name, owns three of Turkey’s leading dailies that control about thirty-five percent of daily circulation: Milliyet, Hürriyet, Radikal. Dinç Bilgin of the Sabah group controls another 35 percent of newspaper circulation along with two mass-circulation dailies: Sabah and Yeni Yüzy1l. Each man also owns a television station.

The rest of the market is divided among a number of national dailies of various ideological and editorial points of view. They include the following: Cumhuriyet, Kemalist intellectual; Türkiye, nationalist-conservative; Aksam, conservative; Milli Gazete, editorial support for Islamist Fazilet Party; Akit, radical Islamist; Yeni Safak, Islamist intellectual; Zaman, mainstream Islamist. The local press in Turkey is generally weak or non-existent.

49 Interview, Ankara, September 1997.

50 Interview, Istanbul, September 1997. The individual asked that he remain anonymous.

51 "An ‘Idiot Box’ or Instrument for Indoctrination,” Turkish Probe (Ankara), April 12, 1996, p. 16.

52 Ibid.

53 Ibid, p. 18.

54 Ruhican Tul, “Radio Stations Hit the Ceiling,” Turkish Probe, April 13, 1993, p. 19.

55 The amended Article 133 states that: “Within a framework of conditions regulated by law, founding and running radio and television stations is free.”

56 "Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression,” report of the special rapporteur, Mr. Abid Hussain, submitted pursuant to the Commission on Human Rights Resolution 1996/53, United Nations, E/CN.4/1997/31. There are also 1,500 local radio stations.

57 Interview, Istanbul, August 1997.

58 Hugh Pope, “Broadcast Revolution in the Air for Turks,” The Independent, London, January 14, 1995.

59 The full name of the law is, “The Law Concerning the Founding and Broadcasts of Television and Radio/ Radyo ve Televizyonlar1 n Kurulus ve Yay1nlar1 Hakk1nda Kanun” (No. 3984). The law was published in the Official Gazette on April 20, 1994.

60 Article 4 states that, “Radio and Television broadcasts are to be carried out in the understanding of public service according to the principles below:

Broadcasts cannot be contradictory to the following:

a) The existence and independence of the Turkish Republic, the indivisible unity of the state with its territory and nation;

b) The national and spiritual values of society....

d) The general morality, civil peace, and structure of the Turkish family....

g) The principle of not allowing broadcasts that create feelings of hatred in the community by encouraging violence and ethnic separatism;

Must be conducted in accordance with:

h) The general goals and basic principles of Turkish national education and the development of national culture;

I) Fairness and objectivity in broadcasting and the fundamental principle of respect for the law....

l) Presenting news in a speedy and correct way;

m) The principle that broadcasts will not be made that have a negative effect on the physical, intellectual, mental, and moral development of children and youth....

t) Radio and television broadcasts will be made in Turkish; however, for the purpose of teaching or of imparting news those foreign languages that have made a contribution to the development of universal cultural and scientific works can be used.”

61 For more on this see, “Restrictions on the Use of the Kurdish Language.”

62 See section, “The Role of Print Media” for a greater discussion of this draft law. In September 1997, the Press Council of Turkey gave the Justice Ministry a draft bill amending the RTÜK Law. There was also talk of changing the law to substitute fines for the closing of stations. See “TV, Radio Broadcasting Principles Revised,” Turkish Daily News, Ankara, September 20, 1997; Sungurlu Receives Press Council’s Draft New RTUK Law,” Turkish Daily News, September 11, 1997.

63 "TV’lere ceza ya_d1” (“Penalties Rain Down on Television Stations”), Milliyet (Internet version), June 20, 1997. ATV, Cine-5, Show-TV, Kanal E, HBB, Kanal 7, and Kanal 6, all television stations, were all closed for a day; Interstar TV was closed for two days. Sok Radio was closed for a day, while Radio Hedef was closed for four days.

64 Interview with Senol Caner, Legal Adviser, Kanal D, Istanbul, August 1997. Records from Kanal D’s Legal Office, January 1999.

65 "Turkey Closes TV station for Kurd Rebel Programme,” Reuters, January 19, 1998.

66 Interview, Istanbul, August 1997.

67 Interview, Istanbul, August 1997.

68 Interview, Turkey, November 1997. The individual requested anonymity because he is not the executive producer for the program and did not have permission to speak ex officio for the show.

69 Interview, Ankara, September 1997. In early 1997, the General Staff of the Turkish military began to pressure the then Islamist-led government of Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan over what it deemed the government’s Islamic policies. On June 18, 1997, Prime Minister Erbakan resigned under intense military pressure. See following section, “The Role of the Military.”

70 In addition to the president, the MGK includes the prime minister, the ministers of defense, foreign affairs, and the interior, as well as the chief of the General Staff and all major military commanders, including the commander of the gendarmerie. The body meets monthly.

To track Islamists, the military has also created purely military bodies, such as the “Western Working Group” (Bat1 Çal1sma Grubu). Former Prime Minister Y1lmaz unsuccessfully tried to force the military to disband the organization.

71 Article 118.3

72 Hürriyet, November 24, 1997; “Council Asks Turk Government to Hit Islamic Media,” Reuters, November 26, 1997. The National Security Council charged that these stations were airing broadcasts that, “conflict with the constitutionally inviolable principles of the state.”

73 T_HV:Türkiye’de Bas1n Özgürlü_ü (Human Rights Foundation of Turkey: Press Freedom in Turkey), March 1998, pp. 5-8, p. 11; “Turkish Islamist Reporters Face Eight Years in Jail,” Reuters, May 21, 1998. In Turkey, civilians can be tried in military courts if they violate provisions of the military penal code.

74 All three are long-time, respected journalists. Mr. Birand has written widely on the military, including works on the institution Shirts of Steel (Emret Komutan1m) and on the 1980 coup, The Generals’ Coup in Turkey (12 Eyül saat 04.00). The order was lifted shortly after it was issued.

75 Interview, August 1998, by phone to Istanbul. Individual requested anonymity.

76 Information for this section comes from phone interviews with Mr. Düzgören and from material Mr. Düzgören sent Human Rights Watch. Mr. Düzgören was also interviewed for this report in Istanbul in August and September 1997.

77 In November 1997, Mr. Düzgören published a collection of his columns written at Radikal and at Yeni Yüzy1l, Excuse us for the Gangs (Çeteden özür diliyoruz).

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