‘Until the lion learns how to write, every story will glorify the hunter,’ bellowed Turkey’s President Erdogan as he officially launched the country’s first and only global English language public broadcaster this week. Thousands gathered for the booze-free spectacular to welcome TRT World onto their screens.
But elsewhere in Turkey, the media has been punished. In 2016 more than a hundred media outlets have been closed. Thousands of journalists have been left unemployed and many have been jailed, all for simply being a potential thorn in the side of Erdogan. So when I heard the President saying TRT World was needed to tell Turkey’s story, because other channels are ‘partial’, I almost choked.
Over the last 18 months I have watched this fledgling channel with some interest. It was described in the initial days as being Erdogan’s pet project. And it’s certainly lived up to that. Like many public broadcasters it focuses on telling the story from the local perspective, except this is a rather one-dimensional perspective, taken directly from Erdogan’s dictum.
‘Every time I cover something in Turkey, I wait for the inevitable call,’ one of the channel’s journalists recently told me over a coffee. ‘They won’t have liked the way I described the PKK, the YPG, the Gulen Movement and I’m told I have to record it again stating that they are terror groups,’ she continued. ‘I try to ignore these requests, but when I do the calls become more frequent and agitated.'
Another member of staff whispered to me at a party that the channel ‘was constantly receiving calls from the government’ telling them how they should cover a story or berating them if the ‘right line’ hadn’t been taken from the start. Senior Turkish managers would often come in and take content off air with no explanation.
This included an entire episode of the station’s slick and thought-provoking flagship current affairs programme, ‘The Newsmakers’. The show is normally re-run every few hours over a 24-hour cycle, but one particular episode managed fewer than three runs after a guest criticised the Erdogan administration. When staff questioned the decision, they were told ‘it had had a fair outing’.
The channel as a whole looks professional and that’s a credit to the hundreds of foreign staff who have worked hard to shape the station. Many are internationally respected journalists who had been promised there would be editorial impartiality. After arriving it wasn’t long before the cracks began to show. There was huge resistance, I’m told, but in the wake of Turkey’s failed July 15 coup, those cracks became chasms.
‘I felt physically sick at the coverage,’ said another TRT World recruit when I asked about the coverage of the coup. ‘It just hit me to the core and I realised that no matter how hard we tried to make the channel fair and balanced, this would always be countered with orders from above’. They soon resigned, as did a trickle of others including very senior staff. Within two months of the failed coup, the station lost its director of news, two executive producers, a news editor and several members of its on-screen talent. The station also began its own cull of staff, often using the guise that they were ‘incompetent’. Several staff members were forced to sign documents saying they were ‘resigning on medical grounds’. Within hours of doing so their phones were cut off and they were left hanging in a foreign country with a severe distaste for journalists.
But those who have stayed are perhaps no better off. ‘Security of staff isn’t a major concern,’ I was told. ‘Teams sent to Afghanistan and Mosul in Iraq to cover the fight against Isis didn’t get a security detail,’ they said. When I asked why, the reply was simply ‘cost’. There also seems to be widespread concern from all those I have encountered about the ‘monitoring’ of phones and laptops. ‘You just have to be smart about what you write,’ one said. ‘I keep a personal phone with an international number for anything which I want to be kept private’. Another told me they believed their flat had been ‘bugged’.
While it’s easy to dismiss these concerns as unproven conspiracy theories, there is probably some grain of truth. Turkey’s government and its president are over-sensitive to the way the country and their actions are covered by the international media. There is also a huge mistrust of journalists. And Erdogan himself sees conspiracy in every direction, from other governments to the military, including Turkey’s, to those who are not card-carrying members of his AKP Party. Threat is, it seems to him, all around.
TRT World launched under the sparkle of bright lights in Ankara. Deals with networks like BSkyB are already on the table and soon Turkey hopes its influence will seep into people's homes or their tablets across the globe. It's invested hugely in talented journalists, many with a sound international reputation. But to be taken seriously it must show it can be more than just the mouth-piece of a president who views the West with suspicion, otherwise those bright lights will soon dim.