(Istanbul) – Turkey’s broadcasting watchdog, the Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK), is imposing punitive and disproportionate sanctions against independent television and radio channels that broadcast commentary and news coverage critical of the Turkish government, Human Rights Watch said today.
In a context in which the vast majority of television news outlets are pro-government, the radio and television watchdog has contributed to the deepening censorship of independent and critical broadcasting by imposing five-day broadcasting bans on two TV stations and heavy fines on others.
“The heavy sanctions on broadcasting outlets critical of the government by Turkey’s media watchdog demonstrates how a crucial public institution has become an arm of President Erdoğan’s government,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Suspending broadcasts or levying heavy fines against the few remaining television stations that dare to air programs critical of the government violates their right to free speech.”
Human Rights Watch interviewed several executives and lawyers of the sanctioned TV channels and former and current members of the Radio and Television Supreme Council and analyzed more than 43 rulings by the Council, court documents, and relevant domestic and international legislation.
In line with Law 6112 on the Establishment of Radio and Television Enterprises, the Council is a nominally autonomous and independent regulatory watchdog body. It licenses television channels, radio stations, and video-on-demand content in addition to monitoring their content to uphold professional and ethical broadcasting standards.
Recent decisions to impose five-day broadcasting suspensions on Halk TV and Tele 1 TV channels and to fine the other few remaining channels that broadcast views critical of the government demonstrate that the regulatory body is closely aligned with the interests of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party, in coalition with the far-right Nationalist Action Party. Public statements by the Council chair, Ebubekir Şahin, over the past year directly declaring a political affiliation to Erdogan’s party are further evidence of the Council’s lack of impartiality.
Most recently, on December 2, 2020, the Council fined the highly popular television station Habertürk and ordered the suspension of five episodes of a program because, on November 28, an opposition politician who was a guest on the program had criticized Qatari investment in Turkish military tank production. The Council ruled that the criticism was contrary to the integrity of the state and principles of Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, in violation of article 8/1a of Law 6112, which regulates broadcasting. An Ankara prosecutor simultaneously announced a criminal investigation into the politician for his comments.
The Council imposed the five-day broadcasting bans – blackouts – on two critical TV channels in September. The first, from September 2 to September 7, was imposed on Tele 1 TV for its criticism of Turkey’s Religious Affairs Directorate on one show and on the other criticism over President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan joining a program on another TV channel through a video call where his image appeared on a screen below a sign saying “Allah” with several religious figures standing before him. The Council ruled that the comments in the program about the president’s image incited hatred and enmity toward a certain religion, violating article 8/1b of Law 6112.
In the second case, the regulatory body sanctioned a program on the widely watched Halk TV for criticisms by the show’s host and a guest of the government’s military operations and…