November 15, 2015

Samanyolu becomes latest victim of gov’t crackdown on critical media

Hours before the leaders of the world's major economies gathered for the Group of 20 (G-20) summit in the Mediterranean coastal city of Antalya on Sunday, Turkey saw the screens of 14 TV channels go black, as well as the silencing of several radio channels that operate under the Samanyolu Broadcasting Group, the latest in a string of government-backed measures to crack down on critical media in the country, drawing widespread anger and condemnation as an explicit act of censorship and yet another blow to the deteriorating freedom of the press in Turkey.

The broadcast of the TV channels and radio stations were removed from the state-owned Turkish Satellite Communications Company (Türksat) infrastructure in a government-backed decision as of 12 a.m. Saturday.

Some employees of the channels, including presenters like Samanyolu TV anchor Kemal Gülen, could not hold back their tears as the screen for their channels went black in the first minutes of Sunday morning. The move led to great disappointment, sadness and regret among the some 600 media employees who are likely to lose their jobs soon if Türksat does not change its decision.

Gülen said Türksat's "unlawful" decision shows that some people in Turkey, those representing the government, have been deeply disturbed by the broadcast policy of the Samanyolu group, which is, he said, accurate, ethical, decent and lawful and that they had ordered Türksat to drop the group's channels without any legal grounds.

"You cannot explain this move to the Americans, the Europeans, even to countries in Africa who don't even know the definition of democracy in the simplest terms," said Gülen, referring to the fact that Turkey is simultaneously hosting the G-20 summit.

The broadcast of the TV stations, which are known for their critical stance toward the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government, were halted by Türksat because of a “legal obligation” to an order from a prosecutor's office, based on the suspicion that the channels support a terrorist organization.

Media have reported that the prosecutor's demand came as part of an investigation into media outlets inspired by the faith-based Gülen movement also known as Hizmet.

The TV and radio stations removed are: Samanyolu TV Europe, Mehtap TV, Samanyolu Haber, Yumurcak TV, MC TV, Dünya TV, Tuna Shopping TV, Irmak TV, Samanyolu TV Turkey, MC EU, Ebru TV, Samanyolu Africa, Samanyolu Haber Radio, Burç FM, Radyo Mehtap, Dünya Radyo, Radyo Berfin, Radyo Cihan.

Türksat dropped these media outlets despite having signed an agreement with Samanyolu Broadcasting Group that necessitated service being provided until 2024.

Turkish Journalists Federation (TGF) Chairman Yılmaz Karaca described Türksat's move concerning the Samanyolu Broadcasting Group as a "direct act of censorship and unacceptable." Karaca said Türksat acting before a defense of the decision that had been requested by an Ankara court was delivered is unlawful and "very flawed" with respect to press freedom.

The state-run company's controversial act came in spite of a court decision asking Türksat to submit a defense of its decision to remove the broadcast of the outlets.

The Ankara 6th Administrative Court ruled on Friday to have Türksat submit “documents, information and legal evidence” it has to justify the ban to the court. The court also urged Türksat to submit its defense within the required legal period.

Samanyolu Broadcasting Group lawyer Fikret Duran earlier said Türksat cannot implement its decision to stop the broadcast of the channels until it submits its defense to the court. Duran said Türksat is obliged to explain the legal grounds of its decision to the court.

On its official Twitter account, the Samanyolu group vowed to challenge this “arbitrary” decision by Türksat and to pursue its rights, both in domestic and international courts.

Duran said in comments after the channels had been dropped from Türksat that the move is an open assault on people's freedom of access to information as well as the right to property, stating that Türksat officials had committed the crimes of abuse of power, preventing people from using their freedom of belief and the right to labor.

For his part, Turkish Journalists Association (TGC) Chairman Turgay Olcayto described the removal of Samanyolu Group's channels by Türksat as "new blows dealt to freedom of the press and freedom of expression in Turkey."

Republican People's Party (CHP) İstanbul deputy Barış Yarkadaş said the elimination of 14 TV channels and some radio stations of the Samanyolu group in an "unjust and unlawful way" is a blow both to the law and the freedom of the press.

Yarkadaş said Türksat's move shows the AK Party government, which emerged victorious from an election held on Nov.1, and will now rule the country as a single-party government for another four years, will impose more pressure and censorship on the media in the upcoming years.
"Democracy means criticism, freedom to criticize, freedom of expression, pluralism and having different voices. But the AKP and their leader [President Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan want a Turkey where critical voices are not heard," the CHP deputy said.

Another CHP official, the party's deputy chairman Bülent Tezcan, described the removal of the Samanyolu group's TV channels and radio stations from Türksat's infrastructure as an "act of tyranny," adding that the move is the kind that will make Turkey enter the status of a dictatorship.

In a similar vein, in early October, the Digiturk satellite network, announced that it had stopped broadcasting the aforementioned TV stations in addition to the Bugün TV and Kanaltürk TV channels, following a request from a prosecutor.

Turkcell TV+, an online TV streaming service from Internet provider Superonline, and Tivibu, another service provided by TTNet, previously announced they, too, had removed the stations in question from their platforms on the order of the Ankara Public Prosecutor's Office, on the suspicion that the channels were supporting a terrorist organization.

Even children's channel Yumurcak TV was removed, prompting anger from some users, who were perplexed at the idea that a children's TV station could be accused of supporting terrorism. Irmak TV's broadcast was cut off during a recitation of the holy Quran.

In a statement in May, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu denied claims that critical media outlets would be closed down. He said that without a court process, such a development would not take place based on a prosecutor's request.

The Bugün TV, Kanaltürk, Shaber and Samanyolu channels have become targets of the government's crackdown because they are seen as affiliated with the Gülen movement, a grassroots social initiative inspired by Turkish Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen. President Erdoğan accuses the movement of instigating the massive corruption probes of Dec. 17 and 25, 2013, which implicated ministers in his government and even some of his family members, as part of a plot to overthrow the government.

Video footage from before a live interview with President Erdoğan earlier this year, revealed last month, showed that Mustafa Varank, one of Erdoğan's advisers and a board member of Türksat, urged the relevant minister at the time to drop critical TV stations from the platform. The remarks of Varank in the footage led to an outrage at the political motivation behind the Türksat's decision.

Although Türksat had also decided to drop Bugün TV and Kanaltürk last month and had sent a message to the channels giving them a month to remove their platforms from its infrastructure, the decision was not implemented after the two channels were seized by the government in a highly controversial move late last month. On Oct. 27, an Ankara court ordered the takeover of Koza İpek Holding, which owns the İpek Media Group, appointing trustees to run its five critical media outlets -- Bugün TV, Kanaltürk, the Bugün daily, the Millet daily and the Kanaltürk radio station. The outlets, owned by businessman Akın İpek, were taken over based on an expert opinion that their financial records were implausibly clean.

The channels and the dailies were turned into government mouthpieces within a short period of time after their seizure, with the trustees sacking dozens of journalists and appointing new pro-government ones to replace them.

Samanyolu group's channels continued their broadcasts by way of the Internet and Hot Bird satellite, though they could only reach a small number of people.

Jurists slam Türksat decision as 'unlawful'

Legal experts have called Türksat's decision to remove Samanyolu Broadcasting Group's TV channels and radio stations from its infrastructure is a clear violation of the Constitution and the relevant laws that concern the freedom of the press.

Associate Professor Yılmaz Yazıcıoğlu, a criminal lawyer, recalled that the state is responsible for protecting the media organization's activities according to Articles 2, 26 and 28 of the Constitution, adding that failure to achieve this means an assault on the boundaries of the Turkish Republic.

Former head of the İstanbul Bar Association Muammer Aydın said there is no legal ground behind the Türksat decision and it is merely politically motivated. He said he is sure that the Ankara court will make a ruling against Türksat's unlawful move.

CHP deputy Mahmut Tanal, who is also a lawyer, called on people to file complaints at prosecutor's offices against Türksat, on the grounds that the company violated their right to information. He said he will personally file such a complaint.

In the meantime, CHP deputy Yarkadaş announced on Saturday that Samanyolu TV administrators sold the Samanyolu Broadcasting Group building in Ankara at $6.5 million.

In addition, some participants of Sunday's 37th Vodafone İstanbul Marathon, including some Samanyolu employees, held a demonstration in protest of the Türksat decision about Samanyolu media outlets. Holding Turkish flags and banners in their hands, the protestors silently walked over the Bosporus Bridge. Their banners read: "We, the free media, will not fall silent."

Published on Sunday's Zaman, 15 November 2015, Sunday