News Column

With a mouthpiece like that...

July 11, 2014

ISTANBUL (CIHAN)- If anyone these days cares to measure the state of journalism and its role in informing the Turkish public at the critical juncture of the election, a look into the row involving the Turkish Radio and Television Corporation (TRT) should be sufficient.

Along with the semi-official Anatolia news agency, Turkey's publicly financed broadcaster seems to have secured its position as the full-scale mouthpiece of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The recent shouting match and the vote at the state regulatory body, the Supreme Board of Radio and Television (RTÜK), reveals how the government maximized its control over the vast TRT network, as part of its campaign for a power grab.

It was Selahattin Demirtas, presidential candidate of the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), who raised the alarm. He said that his main rival, Erdogan, appeared on air for a total of 305 minutes on TRT TÜrk, while he and Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, the joint candidate of the Republican People's Party (CHP) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), were completely censored.

According to Demirtas, the main channel of the public broadcaster, TRT 1, has so far devoted 24 minutes to Erdogan, two minutes to Ihsanoglu and none to him. He said the news channel TRT Haber broadcast 204 minutes of the prime minister, 80 seconds of Ihsanoglu and 45 seconds of him.

Article 5 of the TRT Law states the corporation is obliged to "produce sufficient broadcasts on subjects of interest to the public in order to enable the healthy and free development of public opinion; produce broadcasts that are impartial; and should not be used as an instrument for the interests of a political party, group, interest group, belief or idea."

When the issue was brought to the RTÜK, the discussion between the Justice and Development Party (AKP)-affiliated members and the others turned into an ugly shouting match. At the end, the RTÜK voted by a majority of AKP members that the TRT had no bias.

Fierce partisanship blocking journalism is nothing new. The TRT's test case had been under exposure already during the March 30 elections, when its enormous pro-government stance had led to shocking reports and RTÜK for the first time in its history delivering a warning to the TRT.

The regulator's report, dated March 7, detailed the time allocated to each party from Feb. 22 to March 4. The AKP had 812 minutes of coverage, the CHP 45 minutes, the MHP 48 minutes and the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) only two minutes.

This time, it was Ali ÖztunÇ, a CHP-affiliated member of the RTÜK, who came with a harsh claim that the government had been forcing inspectors to prepare tendentious reports that hold the TRT exempt from any sanctions for its biased programming.

He added that not only the TRT, but also RTÜK has fallen under the control of Erdogan.

I have long argued in this column that if anyone wants to check the state of democracy -- or its emergence -- in any country, the prime criterion is to look at its public broadcaster.

Is its autonomy or independence guaranteed, protected from political interference? Is it run by professional journalists? Is it bold enough in its reporting of corruption, when the privately owned media is politically polluted or corrupt itself? Is it inclusive of dissent and diversity?

The TRT's sad story constitutes the focal point of journalism's collapse in Turkey. When applied, the criterion above only helps confirm an utterly dangerous "operation" to make it an organic extension of the government -- Soviet or Central Asian style.

"Turkey must embrace the reform of 'public broadcasting' as an urgent priority," wrote Tayfun Ertan, from the Platform for Independent Journalism.

"The fact that public broadcasting has not been able to take root in Turkey stems from the authoritarian nature of ruling parties that cannot tolerate different opinions. Laws are written in a way that serves this purpose. Governments appoint people that will support them to corporations that are supposed to be independent, and these corporations can easily violate the theoretical principles of impartiality, autonomy and independence."

YAVUZ BAYDAR (Cihan/Today's Zaman) CIHAN

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Source: Cihan News Agency (Turkey)

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