Turkey must stop using state advertising allocation to penalise critical media

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls on the Turkish agency in charge of allocating state advertising to adopt objective and democratic criteria so that its allocation ceases to be used to deprive critical media outlets of advertising revenue.

An updated version of the 1994 press ethics code, setting new conditions on access to state advertising for media outlets, their websites and social media, was published by the Press Advertisement Agency (BIK) in Turkey’s Official Gazette on 6 July, after being published online on 27 June.

“We are concerned about the new ethical principles set out by this agency,” RSF Turkey representative Erol Onderoglu said. “The use of advertising as a way to put pressure on media outlets will clearly be stepped up and critical media will be directly targeted, especially in connection with coverage favourable to the struggle of women, LGBT people and minorities. The Turkish authorities are pursuing a policy that denies the critical press any form of recognition and income.”

RSF has joined 11 Turkish journalists’ organisations – including the Turkish Journalists’ Association (TGC), the Turkish Journalists’ Syndicate (TGS), the Contemporary Journalists’ Association and the Association of Parliamentary Journalists – in condemning the revised ethics code’s vague terminology and loose wording, which are liable to give rise to arbitrary practices that deprive outspoken media outlets of advertising revenue.

“National and moral values”

Provisions liable to threaten press freedom include a ban on “information and images of terrorist organisations, their members and facts concerning them in a way that makes them legitimate.” Journalists see that the ban’s impact will depend on how the BIK chooses to interpret it.

But they are even more worried about references to “Turkish family values” and to “national and moral values.” From now on it will be forbidden to publish information that would “undermine the formation of the family, which represents the basis of society, and the protection of the family,” and even information that would “undermine the common national and moral values of Turkish society.”

The journalists’ organisations realise that such vague terms, lacking legal precision, can be interpreted by different people in different ways. And they therefore fear that they could be manipulated in order to sideline and penalise media that disagree with the government.

Hyper-presidency’s repressive tools

Ever since President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan established his “hyper-presidency” in 2018, such so-called “self-regulatory” agencies as the High Council for Broadcasting (RTÜK), the Press Card Commission (CIK) and the BIK have played a key role in the presidential regime’s harassment of the media.

During a visit to Istanbul and Ankara in February 2020, an international delegation of press freedom NGOs (including RSF, IPI, EFJ and CPJ) met with BIK representatives and voiced their concerns. Nonetheless, the handful of leading critical media outlets, including Cumhuriyet (Republic), BirGün (Day), Evrensel (Universal) and Yeni Asya (New Asia) continued to be the targets of more than 90% of the BIK’s sanctions.

In 2020, these critical media outlets were deprived of state advertising for a total of 276 days.

Founded in 1961, the BIK has a 36-member general council of whom 12 members are appointed by the president’s office, 12 by the “media sector” and 12 are “independent.” It was criticised in 2021 for allowing members to remain in office after their two-year terms expired.

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