A tragic farce: TRT’s unfair election coverage

A national farce, tragic in its nature, is taking place, with Turkey’s tightly controlled state-broadcaster the Turkish Radio and Television Corporation (TRT) cast as the main actor.

A new act in this drama was noted yesterday. When Devlet Bahçeli, leader of the right wing Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) was addressing the crowds in the Afyon province during a rally aimed at endorsing the presidential candidate Ekmeleddin Ihsanoğlu, he started criticising the TRT, accusing it of massive censorship and unfair coverage of the election campaign.

“If the TRT conducts a propaganda campaign from morning to evening, devoting some 500 hours of airtime to him [referring to presidential candidate and current Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan] and only five hours to this [event] and seven hours to the other candidate, it means that TRT stops being owned by the nation, and hands over its ownership to Erdoğan. TRT is now serving him,” he said, while being broadcast live by TRT.

At the end of the remarks above, TRT immediately cut off the live broadcast.

With every day that goes by, the TRT is being exposed as a staunch, relentless mouthpiece of Erdoğan and his government. Before Bahçeli’s being censored, it was Selahattin Demirtaş, the presidential candidate of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democracy Party (HDP), who spoke critically of Ibrahim Şahin, the general director of TRT, for unfair coverage during a speech he made in Aydın province.

Şahin’s response was that of a typically Turkish bureaucrat. He issued a harsh statement, warning that TRT would cut the live broadcast should accusations targeting the TRT continue.

“Our nation is bearing witness to how those who see themselves as already beaten in the race resort to the tactics of creating excuses at our expense. Everybody must stop producing cheap justifications for their own failures by using other people or institutions. Demirtaş’s speech in Aydın province is, to put it mildly, unfortunate. From now on, if these serious accusations targeting the TRT on live broadcasts continue, we will cut the broadcast,” Şahin said.

No surprises here. Şahin’s background provides some answers as why he ignores the most fundamental aspects of public broadcasting. He served as the Director of the Postal and Telecommunications General Directorate (PTT), appointed by the Justice and Development Party (AKP), and later advanced to the position of undersecretary of the Ministry of Communication and Transport, which was followed by the “promotion,” that made him the general director of the TRT. The latter appointment was twice vetoed by the former president, Ahmet Necdet Sezer, but President Abdullah Gül, soon after being elected, approved it.

Under normal circumstances, such a post would be occupied by a person with at least basic credentials in journalism and professional ethics, but in Şahin’s case there is apparently none. That is sufficient to explain why he behaves as he does toward public criticism: he prioritizes loyalty to even minimum fairness in his work.

The debate had already started when TRT was accused of unfair coverage and given a series of reprimands by the Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK) during the local election rallies in March this year.

But the issue was later blocked when the RTÜK, whose board is dominated by AKP members, decided with a majority vote of 4/5 that the Prime Minister’s coverage could not be equal to that of other candidates, and decided against punishing the TRT. The RTÜK is now paralyzed through the loss of their independence.

The Press Council, an independent professional journalism association, called on the general manager of the TRT in late July to resign over what it called “the network’s apparent favoritism” toward Erdoğan, but it was to no avail.

One option that remains is that the citizens, who are obliged to finance TRT with their taxes, could submit complaints, individually or en masse, to the office of the public ombudsman, complaining that Şahin as an appointee abuses the powers that the TRT law gives to him.

Yet, I have noted no such action — yet. It may be due to a widespread fatigue in society so that people feel, “whatever one does, complain or protest, it hits a wall.”

Indeed, since the Dec. 17 corruption scandal last year, it has been observed that the AKP leadership and government responds with indifference and even defiance by making counter-statements to any critique that is directed toward them regarding abuses of power. Anything goes, and it is business as usual.

Add to this, a massively self-censored, “frightened” private media, and the conclusion is clear: it will be yet another election where the Turkish public will emerge as the definitive loser.


About yavuzbaydar

Yavuz Baydar has been an award-winning Turkish journalist, whose professional activity spans nearly four decades. In December 2013, Baydar co-founded the independent media platform, P24, Punto24, to monitor the media sector of Turkey, as well as organizing surveys, and training workshops. Baydar wrote opinion columns, in Turkish, liberal daily Ozgur Dusunce and news site Haberdar, and in English, daily Today's Zaman, on domestic and foreign policy issues related to Turkey, and media matters, until all had to cease publications due to growing political oppression. Currently, he writes regular chronicles for Die Süddeutsche Zeitung, and opinion columns for the Arab Weekly, as well as analysis for Index on Censorship. Baydar blogs with the Huffington Post, sharing his his analysis and views on Turkish politics, the Middle East, Balkans, Europe, U.S-Turkish relations, human rights, free speech, press freedom, history, etc. His opinion articles appeared at the New York Times, the Guardian, El Pais, Svenska Dagbladet, and Al Jazeera English online. Turkey’s first news ombudsman, beginning at Milliyet daily in 1999, Baydar worked in the same role as reader representative until 2014. His work included reader complaints with content, and commentary on media ethics. Working in a tough professional climate had its costs: he was twice forced to leave his job, after his self-critical columns on journalistic flaws and fabricated news stories. Baydar worked as producer and news presenter in Swedish Radio &TV Corp. (SR) Stockholm, Sweden between 1979-1991; as correspondent for Scandinavia and Baltics for Turkish daily Cumhuriyet between 1980-1992, and the BBC World Service, in early 1990's. Returning to Turkey in 1994, he worked as reporter and ediytor for various outlets in print, as well as hosting debate porogrammes in public and private TV channels. Baydar studied informatics, cybernetics and, later, had his journalism ediucatiob in the University of Stockholm. Baydar served as president of the U.S. based International Organizaton of News Ombudsmen (ONO) in 2003. He was a Knight-Wallace Fellow at University of Michigan in 2004. Baydar was given the Special Award of the European Press Prize (EPP), for 'excellence in journalism', along with the Guardian and Der Spiegel in 2014. He won the Umbria Journalism Award in March 2014 and Caravella/Mare Nostrum Prize in 2015; both in Italy. Baydar completed an extensive research on self-censorship, corruption in media, and growing threats over journalism in Turkey as a Shorenstein Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.
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