March 1, 2016

Another critical TV channel goes off air amid increasing gov’t pressure on media

Bengü Türk TV, a private TV channel known to be close to the opposition Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), was taken off the air by the state-owned Turkish Satellite Communications Company (Türksat) early on Tuesday due to financial problems amid increasing government pressure on critical media.

A number of TV channels, including Samanyolu TV, S Haber TV, Bugün TV, Kanaltürk TV and İMC TV, were dropped from the Türksat platform as part of government-orchestrated investigations in recent months against media outlets that are critical of the government.

Hundreds of journalists became unemployed after these channels went off the air and fell into financial difficulties due to a sharp drop in advertising.

On Feb. 25 the Türksat administration, which also includes Mustafa Varank, one of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's advisers, suspended the broadcasting of İMC TV upon a written notice to Türksat by the Ankara Public Prosecutor's Office stating that IMC TV was disseminating propaganda in favor of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK).

In a message on his Facebook account on Tuesday, Bengü Türk TV General Manager Murat İde said: “If you are going to ask me why the broadcasting of Bengü Türk has stopped, it is because of a problem that originated from our agreement with Türksat. We don't have anything to say to them.”

He added: “I hope that this break, which I believe will last for a short time, does not become something permanent. This is a medal of honor for us. ... May God protect you, my beloved people."

Speaking with Today's Zaman on Tuesday, İde said that Bengü Türk TV's broadcasting stopped after it failed to fulfill its obligations towards Türksat due to financial problems. Underlining that all critical media outlets have a problem due to fewer advertisements, İde noted that Türksat might have renewed their agreement considering the financial situation of the channel; however, they did not renew it.

“We are trying to fulfill the conditions of the agreement, and we don't know whether they will renew it even if we do,” İde said. According to him, Türksat used this opportunity to stop the broadcasting of Bengü Türk TV.

İde also noted that Bengü Türk TV only broadcasts via the Türksat satellite as the Internet and other platforms are very expensive. “The Bengü Türk TV screen went black [off air] at 11:59 p.m. on Monday night,” he said.

Video footage published on the Cumhuriyet daily website in October of last year of a live interview with Erdoğan in February 2015 revealed that Varank had urged then-Transportation, Maritime Affairs and Communications Minister Lütfi Elvan to drop critical TV stations from the platform.

The footage published by Cumhuriyet shows Varank chatting with pro-government journalists Hilal Kaplan, Akif Beki, Saadet Oruç and Mahmut Övür before their interview with Erdoğan which was aired by state-run broadcaster the Turkish Radio and Television Corporation (TRT) news station on Feb. 2. He is heard telling the journalists that he told then-Minister Elvan that TV stations close to the Gülen movement, a social initiative inspired by Turkish Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen, should be dropped from Türksat, but Elvan refused to do so for fear of public pressure.

Following the release of the video, Türksat suspended the broadcasting of 14 TV channels as well as several radio stations that operate under the Samanyolu Broadcasting Group in November 2015 after the Ankara Public Prosecutor's Office sent a notice to Türksat claiming the channels support the Gülen, or Hizmet, movement.

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

Türksat dropped these media outlets despite having signed an agreement with Samanyolu Broadcasting Group to provide service until 2024.

In another government crackdown on critical media, police raided the İpek Media Group's headquarters in İstanbul on Oct. 28, 2015, whereupon they took the Kanaltürk and Bugün TV channels and the Kanaltürk radio station off the air following a court decision to seize Koza İpek Holding and appoint pro-government trustees to take over management of its companies.

Subsequently, Türksat dropped İpek Media Group's TV channels and radio stations from its platform in November 2015.

Journalist Toros: Türksat's suspension of Bengü Türk is not reasonable

Commenting on Türksat dropping Bengü Türk TV from its platform, former General Manager of Bugün TV and Kanaltürk TV Tarık Toros told Today's Zaman on Tuesday that the suspension due to financial obligations is not reasonable as there are hundreds of TV channels broadcasting via Türksat that are not able to fulfill their financial obligations.

“Out of about 600 TV channels on Türksat, there are nearly 100 TV channels, which are popular across Turkey, that are able to pay their monthly payments to Türksat, which is about $30,000-40,000 per channel. There remain more than 400 TV channels, which are either local TV channels or TV channels that broadcast to a limited audience, and Türksat tolerates those TV channels being behind on their monthly payments as they have limited income,” Toros said.

According to Toros, the dropping of Bengü Türk TV is an arbitrary decision as there must be a court ruling for the suspension and the Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK) must carry out the decision.

Toros added that it is not surprising to see such arbitrary moves being taken by the government as it has reshaped state institutions, especially the judiciary, according to its understanding after the revelation of a graft scandal in December 2013 that implicated members of ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) and people from the inner circles of Erdoğan.

“Unless all TV channels raise their voice against the arbitrary suspension of critical TV channels, Türksat will drop all critical channels and only those that broadcast programs the government likes will remain,” he added.

Speaking about İMC TV's suspension from Türksat, Toros underlined that pro-government TV channels used to broadcast programs sympathetic to the PKK and its leader Abdullah Öcalan prior to the termination of a peace process between the government and PKK in July of last year.

Toros believes prosecutors must carry out investigations against pro-government TV channels if they send notices to Türksat for the suspension of İMC TV broadcasting over propaganda in favor of the terrorist PKK.

He also noted that Türksat told the İpek Media Group on Oct. 12, 2015, that they would not renew their agreement without citing any investigation or prosecutor's notice against the group over terror charges. “However, it has turned into a tool in the hand of the government to silence the critical media through arbitrary accusations,” Toros added.

Giving an example of Türksat's arbitrary decisions, Toros said broadcasting of Russian TV channels RTR Planeta and Russia 24 was suspended via the Türksat satellite after a Russian jet was shot down by Turkey on Nov. 24, 2015, but was then restored after a few weeks with no explanation.

Published on Today's Zaman, 1 March 2016, Tuesday