Media freedoms in Turkey: The case of Olay TV

Author: Melike Pala

Olay TV, which has been forced to shut down due to government pressure after 26-day live broadcast, is the latest example of Turkey's government's intolerance towards free and independent media. Olay TV started its live broadcasting with the claim that what it was doing wasn’t "critical reporting" but "reporting with keeping an equal distance to everyone" and presented a good example of a mainstream television channel to the audience for 26 days. 

However, this impartiality was not something the AKP in power could accept because, in the words of president and AKP's leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan, "those who haven't chosen their side are put aside." The media ownership relations in Turkey began to been converted quickly when the AKP came to power in 2002. It can be said that AKP has tended to create its own media from the first days of its rule and ultimately succeeded. 

The media industry created by AKP has become a place where censorship and self-censorship are abundant, freedom of expression is disregarded, headlines are made by a single editorial director, and a single opinion is advocated. Being impartial is been known as one of the universal principles of journalism but this principle means a threat to the government of Turkey as the society and the media are completely polarized. 


Economic crisis changed media industry in Turkey 

The economic devastation caused by the 2001 crisis has radically changed the media industry. Due to the bankruptcy of most banks, both the advertising revenues of the media organizations decreased significantly, and the media companies owned by those banks were seized by the government body (TMSF). Since 2007, AKP has created a media system that has been called "pro-government media". In this period, the direct relations and ties of the holdings that bought media companies through the TMSF with the government were remarkable. 

For example, Berat Albayrak, the manager of Çalık Group that bought ATV-Sabah group - one of the biggest media companies in Turkey, is the son-in-law of Recep Tayyip Erdogan and also an ex-minister. In addition, state-controlled banks gave loans to Çalık for this tender. Çalık Holding had to sell ATV-Sabah to the Kalyon Group in 2013, which is also known for its closeness to AKP. Of course, it is not a coincidence that Kalyon Construction has won all of the important tenders in Istanbul in the last ten years. 

This and many other examples show that a great number of the media is under the direct or indirect control of power in Turkey, about 90 percent. Impartial and critical journalism cannot be expected in a media sector owned by those who have strong bonds as well as political and economic interests with the government. Despite the government's pressure and censorship on the media, efforts to engage in independent and free journalism are generally considered possible in digital media. Shutdown of a mainstream channel which refused to be a part of any side and claimed impartiality, as a result of government pressure, was the latest example of the government's intolerance towards the free press. 


26 days of Olay TV

Olay TV was founded in 1994 as a media group and continued broadcasting until November 2019, when it was closed because of financial difficulties. After a while, it was announced that Olay TV was relaunched as a national broadcaster based in Istanbul. The channel's new staff included several successful and experienced journalists. Unlike other media groups in the media environment, Olay TV refused to establish political or economic ties and beneficial government engagements. The channel's motto, "to restore journalism to the factory settings" was explained to mean that every political actor, party, and social event would be the topic of the news in the channel from an equal distance. However, the call for independent and impartial journalism in the mainstream got unanswered. The channel announced that it would be closed because of the pressures from Ankara on 25th December 2020.

Cavit Çağlar, the owner of the channel, cited the broadcast of the 50-minute group meeting of the opposition party HDP, the third largest party in the parliament, claiming it the reason for the TV’s shutdown. Özlem Akarsu Çelik, who worked as Representative of Ankara Office in Olay TV, said this was an unacceptable excuse and explained: "He decided to shut it down because we broadcast this meeting as we broadcast group meetings of all other political parties." Moreover, she highlighted that the meeting was taken from the TV channel, which is the Grand National Assembly of Turkey's TV channel, and "the meeting was already live on state television before we shared it," she added.

Kenan Şener, who was the news director at the Ankara office in Olay TV, said that it started out with the claim of being a mainstream television, also independent of direct relations with the government. According to Şener, this was a big threat to the government, "The fact that television could broadcast for only 26 days proved how unsettling this claim is for the current political power," he said. As reported by Şener, although digitization has changed the people’s habits on receiving news, television is still the first choice for receiving news for the majority in Turkey. As an independent television broadcast in the mainstream media, Olay TV made the government uneasy and "they wanted to prevent this," he said. For him, to shut the channel down due to the government's pressure showed how weak and fragile democracy in Turkey is. 

180 employees lost their jobs 

After the channel’s closing, 180 channel employees, including Şener, became unemployed. He stated that "being unemployed causes sadness, of course." On the other hand, he said he was also happy that Olay TV showed that some things are still possible in the media sector in Turkey. “That is to say, there is a need for such a television and qualified journalists can come together for such a television, and can effectively broadcast. Olay TV showed us this. Olay TV brought excitement not only to me but also to the entire media industry," he stated.

Özlem Akarsu Çelik argued that the media bosses are allowed to enter into public tender, so in this way, the media can be guided by political power. “That’s why the relationship between the capital, the media, and politics is always problematic,” she added. The AKP government, which has become increasingly authoritarian and prefers monophony rather than polyphony in the media, keeps especially television channels under control, "because they can enter everyone's home" and the reason for their power is influencing the masses, due to both this censorship and financial reasons.

"It is very difficult to exist in this area for the capital groups that are not close to political power,” she said. Akarsu Çelik stated that there had been pressures from the government since the first day. "We applied to Digiturk, the satellite operator, to reach more people, but our request was rejected. Although Digiturk is a private company, the government's powers can also reach there. In other words, we were not allowed to broadcast via Digiturk and reach a larger audience even for 26 days," she explained.  


Impartial, fearless and independent 


Gökhan Bulut, PhD, and lecturer at the Faculty of Communication at Ankara University, thinks that the message was sent to three segments: capital owners, journalists, and the society, by not allowing Olay TV to broadcast. Those are “You cannot enter the media field without my permission” to the owners of the capital, “If you claim to be loyal to universal principles, I will not let you do your job” to the journalists, and “I do not want you to have the right to achieve various sources of information” to the society, he said. Bulut analyzed that Olay TV's claim of "impartiality" was unacceptable for AKP because it has developed an understanding over the years to divide the society and also the media with the idea that "those who haven't chosen their side are put aside" in Erdogan’s own words. He added "being on a side is not open to other options; it only means being on a side is being on his side".

Even though Olay TV was able to broadcast for a short time, it became one of the cornerstones of broadcast media in Turkey's modern press history. It proves that it is not impossible to establish an impartial, fearless and independent mainstream media in terms of the lack of tolerance of the government to the smallest free press initiative in the mainstream. Both Özlem Akarsu Çelik and Kenan Şener are not hopeless. They think that independent and impartial news channels in mainstream such as Olay TV will be opened again in the future.