Turkish protesters ask for help to counter media censorship

BBG Watch Commentary

Image posted on Facebook page of Turkish actor and director Mujdat Gezen.

Image posted on Facebook page of Turkish actor and director Mujdat Gezen.

An appeal posted on Facebook by pro-democracy protesters in Turkey talks about local media censorship and calls on international media to pay more attention to the suppression of demonstrations in Turkey.

Local Turkish media, with business links with the government and international media outlets such as MSNBC and CNN, were slow in reporting on the protests, drawing anger from the demonstrators.

A statement from the Turkish protest group Demokrasi also points out that international media, especially in the U.S., is not paying enough attention to the protests.

URGENT–DEAR FRIENDS, PLEASE SHARE! Citizens of the world, the law-abiding, peaceful & democratic people of Turkey are crying out via social media for help against the current (right now!) brutal attack from police & lies from govt officials. Local media is not telling the truth & int’l media is by & large silent, esp. in the USA. Ordinary people, including women & children, are being hit with tear gas & water cannons … massive injuries, & police hindering rescue & care. Doctors & lawyers helping them are being arrested! All legal channels for advocacy within Turkey are closed! Bravely they are still standing & marching tonight. Please stand up with them for freedom & share! Contact your leaders & media outlets! YOU can make a difference! | Demokrasi.Org

Vandalized TV van on Taksim Square with an anti-NTV sign.

Al Jazeera and Russia Today have been reporting extensively on demonstrations in Turkey while U.S.-funded public broadcaster Voice of America (VOA) offered only limited coverage in English and Turkish. Unlike Al Jazeera and Russia Today, VOA does not have a 24/7 English-language satellite TV news channel.

The VOA Turkish Service has been working hard on the story, but the service has a very small staff and has been repeatedly targeted for reductions and eliminations by strategic planners and other officials of the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) which oversees day-to-day operations of U.S. international broadcasting.

It is believed that because of their previous attempts to close down the VOA Turkish Service, these officials who report to the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) have not issued any press releases on the coverage of the Turkish demonstrations.

IBB bureacrats put the following proposal in the FY 2013 BBG Budget Request sent to Congress.

“Reconfigure the Turkish Service [–$.543 M]

VOA’s Turkish Service will continue to redefine its media strategy, focusing TV and Internet content on subjects relevant to the interests of young people in Turkey. Turkey’s media market, though crowded and competitive, shows increasing anti-American bias and a growing appeal for Islamic audiences. VOA will focus on engagement with youth via social media – a rapidly increasing segment of the media market – and on Washington Bureau TV reports reflecting U.S. strategic interests in the region.

A reduction of four positions in the VOA Turkish Service is proposed. Emphasis added.”

The Congress did not pass the FY 2013 budget, but this was not the first attempt by IBB bureaucrats to cripple or kill the VOA Turkish Service which has outstanding journalists trying to overcome self-censorship within mainstream media in Turkey. The IBB bureacracy has been killing VOA language services for years, as well as restricting VOA English-language coverage, while expanding its bureacratic, non-programming jobs and activities.

Another serious problem for U.S. international broadcasting is that some former and possibly even future Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) members are executives of media conglomerates that have substantional business and financial interests in countries like Turkey, Russia and China. IBB bureaucrats know who butters their bread. Some recent former BBG members who were doing business in countries run by authoritarian governments may have been reluctant to take actions in support of media freedom that may not be in the best interest of their shareholders.

Perhaps it is no surprise that IBB executives have repeatedly proposed to eliminate or reduce programs to China, Tibet, and Russia. This may also help to explain the firing (now partially reversed) of dozens of Radio Liberty journalists in Russia and the unsuccessful attempt to eliminate Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) broadcasts to Chechnya, the ancestral homeland of the Boston bombings suspects. Russia’s President Putin strongly objects to these broadcasts.

Members of Congress strongly rejected the proposals put forward by IBB officials.

Senate Report 112-172 – DEPARTMENT OF STATE, FOREIGN OPERATIONS, AND RELATED PROGRAMS APPROPRIATIONS BILL, 2013

“Proposed Reductions- The Committee does not support the following reductions and terminations proposed by BBG and includes adequate funding to sustain current levels: reductions to staffing, broadcast hours, and original program hours of VOA and RFA East and Southeast Asia services, including Mandarin and Tibetan; discontinuation of VOA Cantonese broadcasts; closing of the BBG Poro medium wave transmitting station; the consolidation and reorganization of VOA Central News and English Division; realignment of BBG shortwave and medium wave transmissions; reductions to staffing and radio broadcasts of VOA Georgian, VOA Turkish (Emphasis added), and VOA Ashna; termination of radio broadcasts of RFE/RL Tartarstan, Bashkortostan, Avar, Chechen, and Circassian; and transition to Russian-language broadcasts to the North Caucasus. The Committee supports the proposed reduction in TV Marti operating costs, including the termination of the Aeromarti contract, as long as such action will not reduce its current broadcast schedule of 166 weekly hours.

Strategic Priorities- The Committee is concerned that BBG’s broadcast priorities do not fully align with U.S. foreign policy priorities. For example, the fiscal year 2013 budget request reduces broadcasting to Asia at the same time the Secretary of State has called for expanding engagement with Asia, particularly East Asia. The Committee directs BBG to submit, not later than 180 days after enactment of this act, a report on how BBG’s broadcast policy reflects input from the Department of State and other relevant agencies, and further directs BBG to include in its CBJ the linkage between broadcast and foreign policy priorities for any proposed language service changes.”

IBB bureacrats may have learned their lesson on Turkey after being chastised by members of Congress, but they do not give up easily. While the VOA Turkish Service is not included in the list of services to be eliminated or even reduced in the current FY 2014 BBG budget proposal, the trend of eliminating and reducing VOA language services continues despite growing restrictions on free media abroad.

When IBB bureacrats prepared their FY 2013 budget proposal, they knew very well that free media in Turkey was under severe threat from the government and private business interests.

Coward Media

Coward Media sign on Taksim Square in Istanbul.

Several months ago, Al Jazeera aired a discussion titled “The Turkish media muzzle.” In the introduction to the discussion, Al Jazeera pointed out that “as Turkey has jailed more journalists than any other country, we investigate the red lines that restrict journalism.”

During the initial phase of the anti-government protests, Turkish mainstream media ignored them. Protesters wrote “Coward Media” signs on Taksim Square and in other areas of Istanbul.

We received this report from one of our sources, a journalist who has reported on Turkey and Turkish-American relations for many years:

“The local mainstream media in Turkey, including NTV, CNN Turk and all other so called all news private TV channels, of course not to mention the state owned TRT, have failed miserably.

This is no surprise as it is a well-known fact that these networks are owned by businesses that have other, more important interests in areas such as banking and construction.  The government exerts enormous influence over their journalistic endeavors.  And, Turkey is a record holder in the number of jailed journalists. The Freedom House, CPJ, RSF, HRW as well as the State Deptment have talked about this in their reports and statements in recent years.

… RTUK, he government’s regulatory body sentenced several smaller TV stations such as  Halk TV, Ulusal TV and EM TV, which had become main sources of unfiltered information in he last couple of weeks, to pay monetary fines for ‘inciting viewers against government’.

Needless to say, in the current environment, VOA Turkish needs to be strong. With 5 full-timers, including the service chief, 4 POVs (contract employees) and 3 stringers, they produce a 5 days a week 15 minute live TV news show on TGRT TV, a 30-min. weekly magazine show on the same network and maintain a website as well as social media presence. Website is rich with updated news, video and audio.

It would be prudent if BBG/IBB/VOA helps the service by authorizing hiring of a a couple of multi-media savvy journalists and aggressively pursuing new, expanded affiliation opportunities.”

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