Erdoğan’s communications chief signals new regulation on foreign funding of media outlets

A new regulation will be implemented for media outlets that receive financial support from overseas, Director of Communications Fahrettin Altun said in response to recent news about the foreign funds received by some independent media outlets in Turkey.

“The government is closely following claims that a foundation headquartered in the United States is funding some media outlets in Turkey,” Fahrettin Altun told the state-run Anadolu news agency on Wednesday. “Obviously there is need for a regulation for the media organizations operating in our country with funds provided by foreign governments or organizations.”

Altun was referring to a story published by the ultranationalist OdaTV news website about media outlets and civil society organizations that receive funding from the US-based Chrest Foundation. Based on publicly available information, OdaTV said Medyascope, Serbestiyet, 140 Journos and the Platform for Independent Journalism (P24) were the media platforms supported by the foundation.

Medyascope received the most funding among media outlets with $476,720 to date, followed by P24 with $124,015. The outlets publicly declare their sponsors, including Chrest Foundation, on their websites.

In an open reference to US President Joe Biden’s comments during a meeting with The New York Times in December 2019 before he emerged as a Democratic candidate for the presidency, Altun said, “In an environment where some foreign leaders make obvious their intentions and efforts to design Turkish politics, we cannot take funding of the media sector by any foreign government or organization independently of the said interests and targets.”

Biden had said Washington should embolden Turkish opposition leaders “to be able to take on and defeat Erdogan. Not by a coup, not by a coup, but by the electoral process.”

Altun claimed that a similar regulation governing foreign funding already existed in the United States. “For example in the US, media organizations funded by foreign governments are required to submit detailed information about their activities to the US authorities,” he said. “There are different media organizations in Turkey operating in a similar status with funding from foreign governments. We will complete the necessary arrangements as soon as possible to protect public order and to ensure the right of our people to get correct news.”

Altun was referring to the US statute known as FARA (the Foreign Agents Registration Act), which requires certain individuals working as “agents of foreign principals who are engaged in political activities or other activities specified under the statute to make periodic public disclosure of their relationship with the foreign principal, as well as activities, receipts and disbursements in support of those activities.”

The US Justice Department ordered TRT World, an English language news channel owned by Turkey’s state television TRT, to register as a foreign agent in 2019. According to Al-Monitor, the Justice Department concluded that TRT — the Turkish Radio and Television Corporation — is engaged in “political activities” and acts as a “publicity agent” and as an “information-service employee” on behalf of the Turkish government. US officials rejected TRT’s argument that it is financially and editorially independent, concluding instead that Ankara “exercises direction and control of TRT by regulation and oversight, and by controlling its leadership, budget, and content.”

News outlets funded by foreign governments but deemed to have editorial independence, such as BBC news and France 24, are not required to register as foreign agents.

Independent news outlets have increased in popularity in Turkey since the government muzzled the press by imprisoning journalists, shutting down media outlets, overseeing the purchase of media brands by pro-government conglomerates and using regulatory authorities to exert financial pressure.

The popularity of the Turkish versions of news outlets owned by foreign governments, such as Deutsche Welle, BBC and Voice of America, has also grown.

Turkey is one of the world’s biggest jailers of professional journalists and ranked 153rd among 180 countries in terms of press freedom, according to Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

According to the Stockholm Center for Freedom’s “Jailed and Wanted Journalists in Turkey” database, 173 journalists are behind bars in Turkey and 167 are wanted and either in exile or at large.

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