Turkey’s broadcasting watchdog, the Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK), is contributing to increasing censorship in the country by imposing punitive and disproportionate sanctions on independent television and radio stations critical of the Turkish government, Human Rights Watch said in a press statement on Tuesday.
The statement said RTÜK contributed to censorship in a country where the vast majority of television news outlets are already pro-government 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.”
According to the statement, recent decisions to impose five-day broadcasting suspensions on Halk TV and Tele 1 TV 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 (AKP), in coalition with the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). The statement underlined that public comments by RTÜK Chairman Ebubekir Şahin directly declaring a political affiliation with Erdogan’s party are further evidence of the council’s lack of impartiality.
RTÜK imposed five-day broadcasting bans on two critical TV channels in September. The first was imposed on Tele 1 TV for its criticism of Turkey’s Religious Affairs Directorate on one show, and the other on Halk TV, for its criticism of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan participating in 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.
Most recently, RTÜK fined popular TV news network Habertürk on December 2 and ordered the suspension of five episodes of a program because of an opposition politician, a guest on the program, criticizing 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.
A majority of the Turkish public relies on television for news coverage. The Turkish government shuttered 60 TV and radio channels by decree during the state of emergency imposed after an abortive putsch in July 2016. The government has also played an active role in the takeover of big media outlets since 2007 by companies that it considers friendly. Under new ownership, the media outlets have tailored their coverage to avoid criticism of the government, and in some cases, acted as direct mouthpieces for the presidency.
Human Rights Watch said the presence of the few independent TV channels remains vital in such a setting. Journalists with Halk TV and Tele 1 TV told the rights watchdog that the harsh sanctions made them opt to avoid certain topics the government viewed as sensitive so they could continue their work.