Turkish media bill aims to monitor ‘moral values’

The legislation is viewed as a further clampdown on freedom of the press.

February 17, 2018 03:57
4 minute read.
Supporters listen to the speech by Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan during a rally for the upcoming

Supporters listen to the speech by Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan during a rally for the upcoming referendum in Istanbul, Turkey. (photo credit: REUTERS)

ANKARA – The Turkish government has proposed a bill to allow the country’s media authority to regulate all audio and video posted online to guard against any broadcasts that are deemed contrary to national security and “moral values.”

Outlets and groups that will have to follow the new rules include political parties, digital TV and news agencies that broadcast online.

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Organizations will have to apply for licenses, which can be revoked by the regulator, the Turkish Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTUK).

Selina Dogan, a parliamentarian in Istanbul for the main opposition party, CHP, told The Media Line that if the bill becomes law, she believes video of CHP’s regular Thursday meetings will not be allowed online.

She added that traditional television is already dominated by coverage of the ruling AKP.

“They are dominating 99% of Turkish media... We are paying the taxes, however we cannot appear on national TV. Still they have all the power,” asserted Dogan, before qualifying that the legislation was still in the process of being formalized.

During last year’s referendum, which gave Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vast new powers, the “Yes” campaign dominated media coverage with 76% of television airtime, according to the Organization for Security and Cooperation, most of which was favorable.

Erdogan’s AKP party also got more attention than any other political entity with 33.5% of total airtime.

With an election slated for 2019, CHP will be looking at other mediums through which to convey its platform.

“We will be trying to find other ways... to touch people’s minds, we are going to be at homes, we are going to be on streets to raise the voice of justice and to ask for justice,” Dogan said.

In a poll conducted last week by Istanbul Economics Research, almost 44% of respondents said they did not want RTUK to oversee online media, while about 36% were in favor of the move and the rest had no opinion.

“We are in a position to take precautions, to [implement] a procedure for the issue of TV and radio broadcasts if an error is being made against national security and the country’s moral values,” said Transportation, Maritime Affairs, and Communications Minister Ahmet Arslan, according to a report by Hurriyet Daily News.

Arslan denied this amounted to censorship.

A REUTERS INSTITUTE Digital News Report in 2016 found that 73% of Turkish respondents in urban areas used social media to consume news. The report singled out Medyascope.tv, an outlet that airs via Periscope, as an increasingly influential source that gives a platform to former officials who are barred from television debates.

If the bill passes, Medyascope will have to be licensed and monitored by RTUK.

“This bill is clearly aimed at censoring forms of broadcasting that the Turkish government does not already control,” the International Press Institute’s Turkey advocacy coordinator Caroline Stockford wrote in an email to The Media Line.

“Turkish authorities apparently view these forms of sharing content as a threat to the government’s desired information monopoly. We fear that the licensing process in particular will be used as a tool to force off-air platforms that challenge the government’s narrative and to force Internet users more broadly into self-censorship.”

After last year’s failed coup in Turkey, the country shut down almost 150 media outlets, including 16 TV channels and 23 radio stations, according to the Digital News Report.

The Council of Europe’s legal advisory panel, the Venice Commission, called the closures a “mass liquidation.”

The proposed bill – which was submitted February 2 – comes as the government launched its own version of WhatsApp Messenger. State-run bodies will have to use the system, which is expected to be accessible to citizens in six months. Critics fear it could lead to greater monitoring, whereas the government claims the application will be safer than WhatsApp because data will not be stored.

Research company Statista estimates that 40% of the Turkish population uses WhatsApp Messenger, which enables encrypted communication.

Following the coup attempt, thousands of people who were thought to be using a similar messaging app called Bylock were jailed. The government claims coup plotters used the app to organize the attempted overthrow.

Murat Utku, who worked as a journalist for 20 years in Turkey, expects that the government’s initiative will include RTUK’s recruitment of people who will be tasked with constantly inspecting what is put online.

“They’re watching each and every TV channel, 24 hours [a day], 7 days [a week]... They could ban each and every material they want,” affirmed Utku, who is now employed as a media lecturer at Kadir Has University.

He stressed that no specific criteria has been presented to evaluate what constitutes a violation of moral values and noted that outlets like Medyascope are willing to talk to politicians that larger television channels, like CNN Turk and Kanal D, are not.

“The main idea of putting such censorship on digital platforms is also to silence political views,” he concluded.

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