Turkish media watchdog agency fines TV news channels for broadcasting "disturbing" news in child murder case. What does this mean for press freedom in Turkey?
In Turkey the ministry in charge of overseeing broadcasting, RTÜK, recently issued fines on two TV channels totalling 500,000 Turkish Liras - or around 175,815 Euros or $241,000. At issue, according to the watchdog agency, was the manner in which news of child abuse/ murder case was covered.
Kanal D was fined 342,000 liras while Show TV was fined 157,000 by the Supreme Board of Radio and Television (RTÜK) for their coverage of the murder of a 9-year-old boy in Kars last month.
In that incident, a 9-year-old boy was found dead in the northeastern province of Kars last month. Police arrested a suspect in the case, a man acquainted to the family.
The story explains the rationale behind the imposition of fines for the coverage.
Ali Öztunç, a RTÜK member from the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), said news stories about child abuse created public pressure on the possible criminals but may also encourage criminals to commit similar acts. He said the news channels must be very careful and act appropriately while delivering such stories on TV.
While he offered no evidence that reporting news actually encourages criminals to commit similar crimes, the official added.
“Such incidents must definitely be on the news. They create public pressure. But it has another dimension too. The families may get disturbed [due to the news]. This news might increase the number of such incidents."
That explanation, it's important to note, comes not from one of the ruling party but from a member of the leading opposition. The AKP- the party in power- would certainly not argue with this rationalization.
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It's true that TV news oscillates between the numbingly trivial- like the regular celebrity scandal- to the wildly sensational. Journalism standards and sensitivities are pretty vague ideas.
On top of this there is also a political dimension. During last year's demonstrations throughout Turkey, news channels were caught in the crossfire. Protesters claimed that owners of the channels with ties to the government and were conspicuously lax in reporting of the scale of the events- or deceptive in their coverage.
The government had threatened to close down one channel- one of the few that did not support the official line- for its coverage- on the grounds it was provocative, and not for any factual inaccuracies.
This recent decision to fine news channels about their coverage of a specific case raises the question of the appropriate limits to government interference in journalism. It will undoubtedly have a chilling effect in how tragic and "disturbing" news is reported.
In addition to the fines the agency will pass along guidelines for how to cover abuse cases in the future. Said Öztunç:
This has to be examined scientifically. We will prepare a workshop where the television channel will be informed over how to deliver these incidents.
The implications to that remark, are a little disconcerting. Normally a workshop is defined as "a meeting at which a group of people engage in intensive discussion and activity on a particular subject or project." From the quote, however, it appears that government workshops will, from now on, used to "educate" channel executives about how it wishes the news to be reported. No discussion, it seems, will be expected or requested.
In many other countries around the world like Turkey, no news is always good news. Penalizing TV channels for reporting disturbing or provocative news is perhaps one way to guarantee a free flow of only good news.
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In related news, another Turkish source, Zaman, reports on how the prime minister has "gradually taken possession of a good percentage of the Turkish media." According to the article,
Erdoğan actually controls the eight biggest TV stations, which is approximately 65 percent of the entire TV industry in Turkey.
Nevertheless according to one source, when faced with international criticism about the lack of an independent press, Erdogan dismissed the allegations in a speech to parliament,
“Those who say that there is no press freedom in Turkey should take a look at the headlines of the daily newspapers in Turkey. A significant number of them systematically insult the government..."The article gives us more quotes from his speech:
“When you criticise these immoral headlines, they call you a dictator. But in other countries, they call it democracy,” he said. “Let’s see what happens when one of these headlines is published in the countries deemed freer than Turkey. I can’t imagine what would happen to the journalists and the newspapers of those countries.”
In that speech the Turkish Prime Minister pointed out the violations of press freedom in the United States, Israel and Germany, and claimed that Turkey had a better record than any of them.
We will not bow to these monuments of arrogance.”
However, back in 2013, The New York Times reported that for the second consecutive year, Turkey has been imprisoning more journalists than any other country. That's according to a report from the Committee to Protect Journalists.