Turkish watchdog will use new powers to target foreign media outlets, opposition says

An opposition member of Turkey’s state-run media watchdog has warned that the body’s new powers over internet broadcasts will be used against foreign press outlets, Turkish left-wing daily BirGün reported.

The regulation, announced last year and put into effect in August, requires all broadcasters, including those on the internet, to apply for a licence from the Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK). The council also has the authority to withdraw licences to outlets.

The application period for licences ended on Sunday, and from Monday broadcasts will be audited by RTÜK, BirGün said.

News of the new regulation raised concerns that the watchdog will use its new powers to censor on-demand streaming companies like Netflix and that it could restrict critical reporting from independent web-based news outlets.

İlhan Taşçı, an RTÜK board member affiliated with the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), has said that foreign press companies may be the first in the firing line.

International press institutions including the BBC, German state broadcaster Deutsche Welle, British newspaper the Independent, France-based Euronews and Russian state-funded Sputnik host Turkish-language news sites and regularly broadcast programmes in Turkish on social media.

A Turkish government-aligned think tank, SETA, was accused of profiling the foreign news outlets in July, when it released a 200-page report detailing the journalists working for them and their political views.

“The adoption of this regulation and the publication of SETA’s ‘International Media Institutions’ Turkish Extensions’ report were not made independently of one another,” Taşçı said.

“Think, this regulation had been held up for a year, and then it was implemented immediately after the SETA report, because the report was a signal flare for internet censorship,” he said, adding that the report would be used as a “roadmap” by RTÜK.

The vast majority of Turkey’s traditional press organisations are owned by businesses linked to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), a report published this year by international media advocacy organisation Reporters Without Borders said. 

Taşçı said the government had its eye on the remaining media outlets and that it would use RTÜK to run a mechanism to “pressurise, censor and sanction” outlets not under its control.

“RTÜK will be hanging over them like the Sword of Damocles. All broadcasters mentioned in the SETA report will be included in this,” he said.

The AKP controls four seats on the RTÜK board, while its coalition partners in the far-right Nationalist Movement Party hold two seats. Candidates from opposition parties hold three seats.