October 25, 2015

Video showing censorship plan by Erdoğan’s chief advisor sparks outrage

There has been a recent development concerning the removal of critical channels from TV streaming platforms in which newly emerged video footage provides evidence that such movements are politically motivated, as the chief advisor of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is featured urging a minister to drop critical TV channels from the state-owned Turkish Satellite Communications Company (Türksat) -- a move that has attracted widespread criticism.

The video footage taken before a live interview with President Erdoğan earlier this year has revealed that Mustafa Varank, one of Erdoğan's advisors and a board member of Türksat, urged then-Transportation, Maritime Affairs and Communications Minister Lütfi Elvan to drop critical TV channels from the platform that are linked with the faith-based Gülen movement.

The backstage footage, published by the Cumhuriyet daily on Saturday, shows Varank chatting with journalists Hilal Kaplan, Akif Beki, Saadet Oruç and Mahmut Övür before the interview with Erdoğan that was aired by the state-run broadcaster Turkish Radio and Television Corporation (TRT) news channel on Feb. 2. He informs the journalists he had told Elvan that TV channels close to the Gülen movement, a grassroots social initiative inspired by Turkish Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen, should be dropped from Türksat but that Elvan had refused to do so fearing public pressure.

“It is our guilt. I told [Elvan] ‘let's take their [Gülen movement's] channels from Türksat. It is a private company. The minister said it would spark debate etc… It would have been better,” Varan is heard telling Beki.

Kaplan interferes in the conversation and says: “I agree. It [the fight with Gülen movement] is going ahead with mercy.”

Varank then says that such a move to ban the channels would be justified as “they are airing reports that harm the government's prestige.”

TV channels Irmak TV, Bugün TV and Kanaltürk, known for their critical stance against the government, were recently notified by Türksat that their contracts would not be renewed as of November.

The channels were told to remove their platforms from Türksat's infrastructure by the end of the month.

Head of Turkey's Press Council Pınar Türenç has said the "scandalous video" has once again showed how the government planned months ago to silence the voices of media organizations that do not share its same view. She said the politically-motivated efforts that were recorded before a program at a state-run TV company eight months ago are yet more proof of how the government ignores the freedom of the press.

Türksat's move to drop Irmak TV, Bugün TV and Kanaltürk is the latest instance of TV streaming platforms removing channels critical of the government and means that viewers will not be able to tune in to the channels on any platform with the exception of the channels' own online streaming applications.

Similarly, Digiturk, Turkcell TV+, Tivibu, Teledünya and Kablo TV streaming services have recently removed seven TV channels critical of the government, namely Bugün TV, Mehtap TV, Kanaltürk, Samanyolu TV, S Haber, Irmak TV and Yumurcak TV.

Contemporary Journalists Association (ÇGD) Chairman Ahmet Abakay said those who are involved in censorship attempts on the media will be tried sooner or later, adding that the video footage shows that the government planned to take action against critical TV channels months ago.

According to the president of the Media Ethics Council (MEK), Halit Esendir, the conversation in the controversial video footage shows that those people have no respect for the Constitution or the law in Turkey.

"They commit a crime and then sit and confess it. An account of this will be asked by the judiciary. They have ruined Turkey's image very badly in the eyes of the world. I hope this country will be able to get rid of unlawful practices as soon as possible," said Esendir.

In addition to press organizations, there was heavy criticism from politicians over the controversial video footage.

The Republican People's Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu said on Saturday that what Varank did constitutes a crime and described the move as unacceptable.

"I will watch the [TV channels] I want and not watch the ones I don't want," said Kılıçdaroğlu.

Another senior CHP official, the party's deputy chairman Mehmet Bekaroğlu, who visited the Zaman daily headquarters on Sunday, said the removal of critical TV stations from TV platforms is a crime because it violates the public's right to information.

"They know no limits and do everything [that they think is in their favor]. They have the understanding that they have the power [to do anything they want]," said Bekaroğlu.

CHP deputy Barış Yarkadaş said the video footage revealed by Cumhuriyet is a video of "real censorship" and "clear evidence for arbitrariness, unlawfulness and the committing of a constitutional crime."

Yarkadaş said Varank should immediately resign from his post at the presidential palace and be tried as he violated the Constitution by preventing the public's right to information.

Both Varank and Kaplan, who did not deny their conversation in the video footage, posted on their Twitter accounts later on Saturday stating that they are proud of what they said.

Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) deputy chairman Oktay Öztürk said he was not surprised by the pro-censorship remarks of the president's advisor as he thinks the government and Erdoğan have no respect for the law.

"How can you expect a just attitude from people who killed the law? They are using the power in their hands fully and forcefully. They have no respect for their posts, either. Everything is legitimate for them," said Öztürk.

The Justice and Development Party (AK Party) and Erdoğan have been receiving heavy criticism for creating a partisan judiciary and violating the law since a corruption probe became public in late 2013, in which Erdoğan's close circle was implicated.

The corruption probe also marked the beginning of Erdoğan's war on the Gülen movement, which it accused of masterminding the probe to topple then Prime Minister Erdoğan's AK Party government, a claim strongly denied by the movement. From then on, Erdoğan launched an all-out war against all the individuals and organizations that are thought to be linked with the movement.

There was also criticism from pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) deputy chairman Demir Çelik who said the disputed footage shows the lack of democracy in Turkey.

"Varank is an advisor and it is not the job of an advisor to impose pressure on media organizations. The presence of such pressure on Türksat shows an arbitrariness in the law. Such practices are seen only in sultanates," he said, adding that Varank should be tried for his remarks that constitute a crime.

Former Culture Minister Ertuğrul Günay said he regrets the fact that President Erdoğan hires people like Varank as his advisors. He said individuals who are involved in unlawfulness just to win the appreciation of the powerful will one day be tried.

Current and former members of the Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK) also raised their voices against the censorship attempts of the president's advisor.

Ali Öztunç, a former member of RTÜK and a CHP parliamentary candidate, called on RTÜK to file a case against the administrators of Türksat because they lead to a public financial loss over their decision to remove some channels from the platform.
"RTÜK should do whatever is necessary. If I were still a RTÜK member, I would file all the necessary cases myself. I would definitely file a public lawsuit against them," Öztunç said.

İsmet Demirdöğen, who is currently a RTÜK member from the ranks of the CHP, said the video footage has shown from where the efforts aimed at creating a single-voiced media are being directed.

"This is a confession and crime. Being proud of a crime does not make people gain status," he said.

In the video published by Cumhuriyet, Varank also comments on the reports that emerged in January about the managing board members of Türksat, himself included, that state that those members are required to pay back the excess part of their salaries that were illegally paid for years following the approval of an audit report by Minister Elvan. He said the audit report was published in 2013 whereas he took the post in 2014.

In the meantime, it emerged that while Turkey's Court of Accounts has criticized the lack of representation of the Turkish Undersecretariat of the Treasury on Türksat's executive board, not even one representative from the undersecretariat has been appointed to the board, which is dominated by pro-Erdoğan figures.

In its report, the Court of Accounts said the appointment of all members of Türksat's executive board by the Transportation, Maritime Affairs and Communications Ministry is not right, adding that the Undersecretariat of the Treasury, based on its rights coming from the ownership of Türksat, should also be represented on the board.

Published on Sunday's Zaman, 25 October 2015, Sunday