AJR  Drop Cap
From AJR,   July/August 2000

Difficulties Abroad   

CNN Meets the Turkish High Council

By Laura Peterson
Laura Peterson, a former Sarajevo correspondent for publications including the San Francisco Chronicle, traveled to Turkey as a Pew Fellow in International Journalism.     

G ETTING BANNED FROM the airwaves was probably not how CNN would have chosen to celebrate the six-month anniversary of CNN Türk, its first free 24-hour news channel outside the United States.
Yet in February, CNN Türk executives received a statement from the Turkish High Council for Radio and Television announcing that the channel would be subject to a daylong blackout. The infraction: a question by an anchor about whether the execution of Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan would turn him into a symbol of political persecution á la Nelson Mandela, a comparison the council called "insulting."
Media muzzling is nothing new in Turkey, where at least 18 journalists remain imprisoned for covering topics unfriendly to the government¹s agenda, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. But CNN Türk is not your average Turkish tabloid-style news broadcast--it¹s the progeny of the country's reigning media monarch and the world's most recognizable TV news brand. The blackout is only one of several obstacles CNN has faced on the road to establishing itself in Turkey, signaling the cultural speed bumps ahead for media companies anxious to go international and raising questions about the concessions involved in providing foreign news under foreign laws.
"If you bend too little you get shut down, and if you bend too much you don't just destroy your local reputation, you risk tarnishing your worldwide operations," observes David Anable, president of the International Center for Journalists in Washington, D.C. "As these media companies become more global, this is going to become part and parcel of what they're going to confront."
CNN Türk debuted last October as a joint venture between Turner International and the Dogan Media Group, a part of the Dogan Group, one of Turkey's most powerful conglomerates and its largest private media holder. Dogan owns more than 50 enterprises, including banking, insurance, energy and tourism firms.
Consultants from CNN's Atlanta headquarters spent nearly a year developing CNN Türk's format, selecting top Turkish journalists for its editorial team and putting reporters through a professional training program. Today, however, editorial decisions are the sole responsibility of CNN Türk's Istanbul newsroom. The newsroom's relationship with Atlanta is "very loose," says Editor in Chief Ferhat Boratav. "Really we don't have any day-to-day contact with them at all."
The result is some notable deviations from CNN's political line. For example, while CNN refers to Turkish-occupied Cyprus as the "breakaway" Turkish republic, CNN Türk reporters identify it as the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, and its leader, Rauf Denktash, as president. Two CNN Türk reporters, who asked not to be named, also recall a memo, circulated during the channel's first weeks of operation, instructing them to refer to Öcalan as a "terrorist leader" and listing adjectives to be used for Islamic groups such as "fundamentalist" and "terrorist."
Boratav says there was no such memo. "We do not instruct in advance our reporters to use certain terms and labels," he says. "However, it's true that we would refer to Öcalan as a 'terrorist leader.' " CNN Türk Vice President Efe Önbilgin says that the only editorial document ever circulated to journalists was a note on accuracy in news and a list of ethical guidelines, which, he says, are the most stringent in the country.
Indeed, many Turkish journalists believe CNN's image as an ethical standard-bearer has the potential to raise the bar in a country where nightly news generally consists of celebrity gossip, political machine-gunning and salacious stories of the deviant and depraved.
"Journalists who are critical of the negative developments in the Turkish media are looking at CNN Türk as a hopeful sign in the right direction," says former Turkish Daily News columnist Fehmi Koru, who now writes for a Turkish-language paper. "However, Turkish media is under the supervision of a supreme board, and channels are open to influences from the 'powers that be.' It will not be an easy task to operate a CNN-like medium in Turkey."
The High Council for Radio and Television has issued nearly 500 disciplinary decisions since its inception in 1994, though most of these are tied up in court. The nine-member board, chosen by the Parliament, is composed of government officials, lawyers and a couple of representatives from the state TV/radio station.
CNN's previous forays into foreign-language news consisted of n-tv, a German news channel that the company partly owns, and CNN+, a Spanish-language channel based in Madrid. Both are only available as part of a cable or satellite package.
Dogan is a big Time Warner customer in Turkey, purchasing Turner-owned movies for its Kanal-D TV station and negotiating for rights to products such as HBO and the Cartoon Network. The Turkish company and Turner together formed the idea for a 24-hour news channel, Önbilgin says. Atlanta executives were enticed by the prospect of instantly reaching about 7 million of Turkey's 12 million households. The plan is to eventually reach Turkish speakers throughout Europe and Central Asia.
"Turkey is an expanding economy, expanding television market and expanding advertising market," says Kenneth Tiven, CNN's vice president of research and development and the steam behind CNN Türk. "And we have come to realize that if there will be 24-hour news channels in different countries, we should be partners in those for the obvious reason that they help supply raw material up the food chain to CNN."
First, however, there was Turkish law with which to contend. It prohibits print media owners and foreign investors from owning more than 20 percent of the shares in a broadcast enterprise. Dogan owns nine daily newspapers, accounting for roughly 50 percent of the daily circulation in Turkey, in addition to some 35 magazines, three radio stations, printing and book publishing businesses, an Internet portal and an advertising partnership with the country's second-largest media conglomerate.
Önbilgin and Dogan spokesmen refused to comment on CNN Türk's shareholder structure, but government documents list Turner Broadcasting System International as a 20 percent shareholder in the venture, with the rest of the shares divided between 10 individuals and a Dogan-owned company.
Dogan and Turner "circumvented the rules by giving names of employees as partial owners," says Ersan Ilal, dean of the communications faculty at Maltepe University in Istanbul. "It's a clear violation of Turkish law."
"We made a deal," Tiven counters. "However the shareholding is structured, it meets all regulations."
But how much responsibility does CNN assume for its offspring's actions?
It's a question CNN will have to ask itself again and again if it continues to plant those familiar red letters in environments that Atlanta executives may have a hard time understanding, much less controlling. Though the blackout of CNN Türk was temporarily enjoined by the court, conflict with governments will always be a part of producing news in another country--a fact Tiven says CNN is prepared for.
"It's a problem for the CNN brand only if the CNN standards are waived on a country-by- country basis, and we won't do that," he says. The ban "is just a condition of working here. We knew exactly what we were getting into in Turkey, but we said, 'That's the price to ride the train.' "