RTÜK under fire for targeting streaming giants over LGBTQI+ content

RTÜK under fire for targeting streaming giants over LGBTQI+ content
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Turkey's media regulator fines Netflix and others for shows depicting “gender-based alternative worlds”

By Ogulcan Ozgenc

RTÜK's decision to fine Netflix for constructing "gender-based alternative worlds" and to summon similar digital platforms to a meeting in September brought the legal and institutional position of RTÜK back to the agenda.

RTÜK, established in 1994 and affiliated with the Ministry of Culture and Tourism by the president in 2018, consists of nine members. According to the constitution, RTÜK members are elected by the General Assembly of the Grand National Assembly of Turkey from among the names nominated by political parties for membership.

RTÜK imposed a total of 671 program suspensions between 2014-2021. Seventy-five percent of the suspension fines were issued between 2019 and 2021. In 2022, RTÜK fined Halk TV, Tele 1, KRT Tv, Fox Tv, and Flash Tv a total of 54 times; recently, RTÜK fined eight productions of six digital platforms operating in Turkey at the highest limit. The last time RTÜK fined digital media was four years ago.

We talked to independent researcher Dr. Savas Coban about the legal and institutional transformations RTÜK underwent, the function it assumed during the AKP rule, and its fines and interventions on digital platforms.

Stating that the government must democratize for RTÜK to have an autonomous structure, Coban said, "If the government does not comply with democratic principles and does not comply with the international agreements it has signed, RTÜK will continue to serve as the media commissariat of the government."

Established in 1994, what kind of legal transformation has the Radio and Television Supreme Council undergone since its establishment?

RTÜK was established when the abrogated Law No. 3984 on the Establishment and Broadcasting of Radio and Television Enterprises, which regulates private radio and television broadcasts, was adopted by the Grand National Assembly of Turkey on April 13, 1994, and entered into force on April 20, 1994, by being published in the Official Gazette No. 21911. In 2011, after the Constitutional Court annulled some articles and within the framework of harmonization with the EU acquis, a reorganization was made based on the provisions of the "EU Audiovisual Media Services Directive." Law No. 6112 on the Establishment and Broadcasting Services of Radio and Television Entered into force on March 3, 2011. With the "Regulation on the Presentation of Radio, Television and On-Demand Broadcasts on the Internet," which entered into force on August 1, 2019, RTÜK supervision on the Internet has officially started. RTÜK, whose duties and powers are determined per Law No. 6112 on Radio and Television Establishment and Broadcasting Services, is an impartial and public legal entity with administrative and financial autonomy. Article 1 of Law 6112 states that the objectives of this law include ensuring freedom of expression and freedom of information. Article 34 stipulates that RTÜK will "independently fulfill and use the duties and powers assigned to it by law and legislation under its responsibility."

How can we evaluate the quality of the institution today?

RTÜK, which had a genuinely democratic content for the EU harmonization process, has evolved to a very different point today, moving away from its founding principles and purpose. In a sense, RTÜK has become an ideological and political apparatus that silences voices that the government does not like. The experiences of Media Ombudsman Faruk Bildirici reveal the current situation very clearly. On October 31, 2019, the membership of Faruk Bildirici, a member of RTÜK elected from the CHP quota, was downgraded upon the request of the RTÜK Presidency and a vote of 6 to 2 by RTÜK members after Bildirici stated that it was against the law for RTÜK President Sahin to be a member of the Board of Directors of two public institutions other than RTÜK and demanded Şahin's resignation. In the decision, it was claimed that Bildirici had lost both her political impartiality and her impartiality towards media service providers, which RTÜK is obliged to regulate and supervise, violated the confidentiality of the Supreme Board meetings, opposed judicial decisions and targeted the Supreme Board, its members, and employees. "This is a first in the 25-year history of RTÜK, and a dangerous path has been opened for democracy," Bildirici had said.

I came across the following paragraph in an upper board decision published on RTÜK's website;

"Thinking is a concept unique to human beings, and as a result of this action, thought emerges as a product of the process. The ability of individuals to express their thoughts freely without being suppressed constitutes the concept of freedom of opinion. Freedom of expression encompasses the ability to express, disseminate and persuade others through various means, regardless of political, social, legal, commercial, etc. opinions. Because the most important element of the thoughts produced is the ability to express that thought freely. In the context of freedom of expression and public freedom of information, it is a requirement of the nature of a democratic society that different constructions of reality are shared with the public without exceeding the limits of criticism. However, as with all fundamental rights and freedoms, the limits of the exercise of freedom of expression are clearly defined by legal regulations. In this context, using derogatory, defamatory, slanderous, and insulting expressions while expressing one's thoughts exceeds the limits of criticism. Therefore, insulting and slandering individuals or organizations do not benefit from the protection of freedom of thought and expression."

This paragraph in the sentence's content for a program of the Ismailağa community is convincing enough to convince one that one lives in a democratic and secular republic. Still, it is impossible to take this paragraph seriously when the facts we have already stated are considered.

What function did RTÜK assume during the AKP rule?

RTÜK has a clear mandate and is not a censorship board, but unfortunately, it works as such. According to its statements, RTÜK is responsible for supervising all radio and television institutions, preventing the corruption of language and violations of the rights of individuals and institutions, contributing to the development of a free, transparent, and polyphonic media environment and the implementation of human rights and democracy in line with international standards. From this point of view, we can say that RTÜK contradicts itself and does the opposite of all its obligations by blocking the flow of news and information. Opposition channels are constantly subjected to fines. The pro-government media's broadcasts that contradict RTÜK's principles are especially ignored. In this context, RTÜK has lost its independence and become an extension of the government. In this context, its decisions cause controversy.

How do RTÜK's interventions affect the media? Can we say that these interventions lead to self-censorship in media organizations?

In the Susma Platform's Susma-January-Aralik-2022 report, all the facts and events are laid out in the following statements:

"As the country enters the election climate in the first months of 2023, it is easy to predict that the government's control over culture, art, and media will increase throughout the year. The year 2022 presents a series of violations by the government to consolidate its electorate and ensure its cultural/economic/political hegemony. These restrictions on freedom of expression and even hateful attitudes towards those who exercise freedom of expression are intimidation and an effective investment in the electorate. In this way, the government hopes to keep support for itself alive and kicking despite the country's economic crisis and anti-democratic environment. The censorships and bans become a tool of the government - almost at the request and with the support of the citizens."

RTÜK, as the government's pressure apparatus on the media, strives to realize the above objectives and makes its presence felt strongly through fines and sanctions. Usually, this pressure leads to various consequences, so much so that self-censorship has become normalized. We all see how moderators or programmers squirm at the words of their guests during live broadcasts.

Most recently, RTÜK summoned digital platforms to a meeting in September because they construct "gender-based alternative worlds." This development shows that RTÜK's interventionist attitude will continue in the coming period. How can we evaluate this intervention?

RTÜK is trying to prevent the free expression of gender identities and sexuality by claiming the purpose of "protecting the moral values of society and the family." This issue of "protecting the family" is not only a matter of RTÜK but also of politics, and in this sense, the government will keep its promises to consolidate its masses and enact a law against LGBTIQ+’s in the coming months because different gender identities are perceived as a significant threat to the family. It is also pointless to expect any other attitude from the government and its pressure apparatus on the media, which declared during the election period that they would be intolerant towards LGBTI+'s and marginalized those who defend their rights.