September 28, 2015

Tivibu under fire for dropping channels critical of gov’t ahead of election

Tivibu, an online TV streaming service provided by TTNet, has come under fire this week from both civil society groups and politicians after it stopped carrying TV channels Bugün TV, Samanyolu Haber and Mehtap TV, which are known for having a critical stance with regard to the government, as the move is seen as the latest example of pressure being exerted on free media.

The decision was put into practice on Sunday night and Tivibu subscribers were unable to watch the three TV channels. The TV streaming service has around 2 million subscribers.

There are also rumors that the two other digital pay-TV operators, Digiturk and D-Smart, will also be forced to put the same controversial policy in force.

Reactions to the TV channels being eliminated from those provided by Tivibu have emphasized that a restricting move of this sort is also a blow to the audience's right to information as well as freedom of the press ahead of the approaching Nov. 1 general election, putting the people's right to access alternative information sources at risk and has a potential effect on election results.

TTNET was founded in 2006 as an Internet service provider (ISP) under Türk Telekom, Turkey's largest fixed-line operator. It offers users the ability to stream TV service at any time from more than 100 national, local and foreign TV channels, in addition to the ability to rent and watch movies online.

Türk Telekom is run by pro-government figures who are known for their close ties to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. These figures include businessman Abdullah Tivnikli; Higher Education Board (YÖK) member Fahri Kasırga, who was appointed by Erdoğan in February; İbrahim Eren, a friend of President Erdoğan's son, Bilal Erdoğan and Erdoğan's top economic adviser, Yiğit Bulut.

Claims about Tivibu censoring TV channels that have expressed criticism of the government were initially made by main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) İstanbul deputy Eren Erdem on Twitter on Saturday. After Erdem was informed that Tivibu would drop all such channels, he posted several tweets expressing his concerns.

The Tivibu move is seen as the continuation of a government-led media crackdown designed to muzzle dissenting media outlets since a massive corruption scandal implicated Erdoğan's inner circle and four former ministers on Dec. 17, 2013. The interim Justice and Development Party (AK Party) is pursuing a policy many see as aiming to silence media outlets that cover the graft scandal. Numerous journalists have been investigated and some have been detained on thin accusations of "insulting Erdoğan," "propagating terrorism," "espionage," "being member of a terrorist organization."

Speaking to Today's Zaman about the censorship, Utku Çakırözer, a CHP deputy who is also a veteran journalist, said that he and CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu recently paid a visit to key European Union institutions where European politicians they met with commented every day about pressure on critical media and journalists.

"A very high-ranking EU official expressed his sadness about such massive violations of the freedom of the press as we discussed imprisoned journalists and attacks on a daily's headquarters and journalists who face investigation for their critical coverage [of the government and Erdoğan]. The Tivibu decision has confirmed that official's concerns," Çakırözer noted.

Çakırözer also pointed out that the pressure being imposed on the media is increasing and that this is called censorship. "The public's right to access objective and different sources of information is being prevented with this ban. Also, those subscribers' rights are being violated, as they were not asked about their preferences when the decision to drop the channels was made though they continue to pay for Tivibu and its service," he added.

Tivibu has made no public statement explaining the decision.

The state owns 30 percent of Türk Telekom, meaning that state officials are also on the managing board of the institution and such decisions likely cannot be made without the approval of the government.

While 55 percent of Türk Telekom was sold to the Oger Group of Saudi Arabia in 2005 and the remaining 15 percent is public.

"In terms of its broadcasting service, Tivibu is partly a public service company, a situation that should prevent it from acting on the basis of an arbitrary decision to drop channels from its broadcasting list. This creates a problem in terms of the violation of the subscribers' rights. There is no a court ruling or state body's decision requiring Tivibu to prohibit access to anything. Efforts to create a media that speaks with only one voice also breach the principles of the rule of law," Çakırözer added.

The Turkish Journalists' Association (TGC) made a written statement on Monday condemning the cessation of broadcasts that have been critical of the government and said: "This will go down in history as a black mark. The ruling power has violated the people's right to information by censoring the digital platform's broadcasting list. The TGC demands that the decision to drop the channels be reversed.”

Contemporary Journalists Association (ÇGD) Chairman Ahmet Abakay, who spoke with Today's Zaman on Monday, stressed that the space given for all kinds of freedoms is being limited by the political authority and Tivibu's move shows the poor condition of freedom of press following the government crackdown.

"This ban on these channels should immediately be ended. The decision prompts further concerns regarding the government's intention to silence the media prior to the election, and confirms their attempts to find a way to garner more votes in the upcoming election. However, they are not aware that such controversial steps will backfire. It serves to incite reaction to the government among more people," Abakay warned.

Head of Turkish Journalists Federation (TGF) Chairman Yılmaz Karaca also told Today's Zaman that this is obvious interference with media freedom and also might be called a kind of censorship imposed on the audience because they were not asked their opinion on the issue.

Erdem, who spoke with Today's Zaman on Monday, warned that similar censorship is being sought through Digiturk and D-Smart, and he asked: "How can a fair and objective election be held in such an atmosphere of censorship? People's right to access information has been blocked. Media outlets are being forced to engage in spreading the government's political views while the remaining opposition is being silenced through a serious of steps to limit them. Such bans and censorship block the possibility of holding an objective election. This is called fascism, dictatorship and immorality, since Erdoğan designs the media according to his political ambitions. However, Erdoğan and those who serve his interests will be brought to justice in the end," Erdem commented.

Veteran journalist Nazlı Ilıcak, who writes columns for the Bugün daily, joined the criticism of Tivibu and told Today's Zaman on Monday that Tivibu offers a public service and has no right to cancel the contract with these TV channels unilaterally.

"The logic when blocking people from watching TV channels that are critical of the government is the same as abolishing a political party to punish its supporters. Dropping these channels from the Tivibu list also hurts the audience that watches these channels and serves to punish those who have ideas similar to those expressed on the banned TV channels. The service offered by Tivibu is similar to supplying electricity to subscribers. No electricity company can abandon providing electricity to its consumers and clients arbitrarily. Likewise, Tivibu cannot do this," Ilıcak noted.

Like many others, Bugün TV and Kanal Türk General Manager Tarık Toros, who spoke with Today's Zaman on Monday, also lambasted the decision made by Tivibu and said: "Tivibu just informed us of the unilateral decision to cancel the contract between us without providing any reason for this. We have started the required legal proceedings against Tivibu for its unlawful act. I urge the audience to protest Tivibu's arbitrary decision to drop these channels."

Published on Today's Zaman, 28 September 2015, Monday