Media critical of Turkish gov’t pays $1.5 million in fines since 2019

Turkey’s state broadcasting regulator RTÜK has issued a total of 11 million liras ($1.59 million) of fines since 2019 to four television networks that are critical of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) government, opposition lawmaker and RTÜK member İlhan Taşçı said.

“Penalising networks that question the government 36 times, while merely warning those that are on its side, is proof that some channels are being protected,” Taşçı, RTÜK’s member from the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), told the Cumhuriyet newspaper on Monday.

Twenty eight of the 36 penalties were outright administrative fines, while the remaining eight also cost the networks Halk TV, Tele 1, Fox TV and KRT a sizeable amount as it meant they lost advertising revenue.

One news anchor who racked up three counts of broadcast suspension for Fox TV for inciting hatred and slandering the state was Fatih Portakal, whose offending comments include saying pro-government groups were keen to find fault with Istanbul’s CHP Mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu, and criticising the treatment of Selçuk Mızraklı, the dismissed mayor of Turkey’s biggest majority-Kurdish province, during his arrest, according to the pro-government Sabah newspaper.

Commentator Can Ataklı earned his network Tele 1 another three counts of broadcast suspension for insulting national values when he said of the tendency in Turkey to proclaim fallen compatriots as martyrs, “Why is everybody called a martyr? Whoever you support would be the martyr. Every side has its own martyrs and its own terrorists.”

One of Fox TV’s fines came from a morning news segment about a fight that broke out in a bakery queue after the Interior Ministry announced the country’s first coronavirus lockdown in April with just two hours’ notice.

Halk TV received a five-count broadcast suspension and a hefty fine for hosting the CHP’s Canan Kaftancıoğlu, who was deemed to have incited hatred by saying on air, “I see a change in government approaching, and I believe that will come to pass.”

Yet last week, RTÜK’s president Ebubekir Şahin decided that a televised threat of a massacre by pro-government figure Sevda Noyan, who proudly declared that her family could take out 50 opponents of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, was “not a big deal.”

“We are not in a position to punish what is said against those who praise the coup,” Şahin initially said, before saying he could not act until the president gave his command. When the outrage continued, he finally settled on saying, “Noyan’s comments are unacceptable under RTÜK’s principles.”

Ülke TV, the same network that aired Noyan’s comments, received a warning for heavily implying that the CHP’s Alevi religious minority members constituted “a terrorist vein within the CHP,” after broadcasting details that it said showed many senior politicians from the CHP had ties with terrorists.

The only fine issued to a network that favours the government, for the relatively negligible sum of 21,114 liras ($3,067), came when commentators in a debate programme called the journalists at opposition daily Sözcü and their readers “drug addicts”, “feeble minded people”, and “terrorists”.

“If one word of Noyan’s comments had been uttered on an opposition network, the fine would come instantly,” Taşçı said.

The apparent imbalance in treatment and the actual sum of money critical media have had to come up with are dwarfed by one key issue: At a certain point, when RTÜK decides a network has repeated an offence one too many times, the watchdog can cancel the network’s broadcasting licence.

“We never prioritise punishment. But as per our laws, we do not refrain from issuing penalties or cancelling licences,” Şahin was quoted as saying by Milliyet newspaper.

Şahin professes not to prioritise punishment, but on another occasion, he pled with journalists to self-censor after reminding them that the law allows his institution to impose an outright ban on commentary on news shows.

“Normally they shouldn’t have been able to comment,” he warned during a livestream. “We don’t move to prohibit the others so we won’t hinder commentary by our friends who truly do this job well.”

“Please, do not take any sides so we don’t have to do that,” he said.