A Broadcasting Thaw in Turkey
By Thomas Goltz
Thomas Goltz is a freelance writer based in Istanbul.
The general cleared his throat, preparing to make the solemn announcement: For the fourth time in as many decades, the Turkish military was evoking its right to intervene in the affairs of state.
"As of midnight to-night..," the general began, but then was interrupted by a deodorant commercial. "As of midnight tonight..," he repeated, but again was stopped short by another ad.
The general, by now recognizable as the comic Levent Kirca, tried a third and then a fourth time.
"Oh, I give up!" he snarled. "These damn private TVs have no respect! They won't even let me read the state of emergency!"
Though a parody, the sketch is emblematic of the rebellious undertone that has been creeping into Turkish broadcasts of late. The proliferation of private stations has provided an unpredictable twist in Turkish broadcasting etiquette.
At last count, there were 10 private national stations in Turkey, plus several regional and local channels. Together they represent a Wild West of broadcasting, and perhaps the truest mirror of this curious, contradictory country of 60 million people.
"The private stations have broken the..state monopoly," says Ufuk Guldemir, president of news at SHOW, the most popular of the new stations.
There has also been a fundamental change in how television news is gathered. Stringers equipped with video cameras now provide much of the material, and good taste is not their forte. One crew, for example, captured every horrible moment of a man dying of a heart attack while giving a speech to a women's club.
More newsworthy topics also get plenty of air time. While the government station was announcing that Turkish planes had razed a Kurdish terrorist base in Iraq, a private station slipped in a cameraman and showed that the government claim was inaccurate. In another incident, stringers covering a May Day parade filmed police beating marchers and even a member of Parliament. The government's spin on these events? "Disturbances" caused by fringe radicals.
Perhaps the story that best illustrates the small mutinies was a seemingly innocuous piece on a meeting of the National Association of Retired People. While the government camera panned a row of ministers nodding sagely as an announcer paraphrased the NARP chief's words of thanks to the ruling party, two private channels ran a similar story, but aired the chairman's own words lambasting the visibly embarrassed VIPs.
Late night programs à la CNN's "Firing Line" are popular with Turkish viewers. A favorite host is Engin Ardic, who often attacks the country's sacred cows. In one commentary he responded to a Youth Day celebration by accusing the government of brainwashing students "into being good little ultranationalist stooges...."
The government is trying to maintain its credibility in the face of charges that it is nothing but a mouthpiece. The government station's latest action is to give "equal time" to all parties in proportion to the number of parliamentary seats they hold. Thus, the news might lead with 10 minutes devoted to the president, eight minutes to the prime minister or her party, six minutes to the main opposition and then dollops to the smaller parties. After half an hour, the news begins.
For Turkey's print media, all of this is very worrisome. Sales of dailies peaked at around 1 million last year. They are now down to half that. Meanwhile, the government is trying to regain control of the airwaves with a new law that would establish a regulatory board financed by a 4 percent surcharge on station revenues.
"It is an attempt to re-monopolize television in Turkey," says Ahmed Ozal, owner of a private channel, "and it will no longer work because no one will go along with it."