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Erdogan tightens grip on media with circular on family values

A midnight circular from President Recep Tayyip Erdogan calls on media outlets and regulatory groups to take decisive steps to protect youth and children from Western-inspired programs and certain symbols.
BULENT KILIC/AFP via Getty Images

Tightening the noose around the neck of Turkey’s independent news media, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has urged media organs and regulators to take "decisive steps" against programs that undermine Turkey’s national and moral fabric.

The Jan. 28 presidential circular called on “all institutions and parties concerned” to prevent “harmful content” in print, audiovisual and social media and heralded new efforts to promote children’s programs that uphold national and family values. 

Evoking family values has been an Erdogan trademark ever since his Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002. His eulogies on national values and the family as the base of society are often peppered with pledges about protecting Turkey’s youth from harmful influences such as alcohol, tobacco, unrestricted internet access and in his latest circular, Western-inspired television programs.

Turkey’s iron-fisted president demanded “decisive steps” to weed out programs that harm young Turks, particularly programs that were inspired by Western models or contain “certain symbols to give a message.” The vague wording led some pundits to point a finger at the Turkish adaptation of the international show “The Masked Singer,” in which celebrities perform in costumes with colorful masks to hide their identities. Conservative newspapers compared the performances to pagan or Satanic rituals and the Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTUK), Turkey's broadcasting watchdog, opened an investigation into the show. Others said that the president meant symbols such as rainbows or androgynous cartoon characters, which some conservative pundits accuse of normalizing homosexuality.

RTUK head Ebubekir Sahin immediately expressed support for the president, tweeting, “The circular of our president is of utmost importance. As RTUK, we will always protect the values that are the base of our nation and encourage all broadcasters to act accordingly.” 

But some RTUK members said the emphasis on family values and youth was a smokescreen to quiet critical voices as the country heads for elections by mid-2023. Ilhan Tasci, the representative of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) on the nine-member RTUK executive board, said that the circular was a harbinger of tighter restrictions on independent media outlets.

“This is not a judicial text but political posturing,” agreed Veysel Ok, a human rights lawyer and the co-founder of Istanbul-based Media and Law Studies Association. 

“When you look at the greater picture in Turkey and take into account the recent attacks on the freedom of expression and efforts to polarize society between conservatives and liberals, this seems to be the last piece of the puzzle,” Ok told Al-Monitor. “The intention is to instill fear so that no one dares raise a critical voice.  This circular is unconstitutional because you cannot suppress the constitutional right of freedom of expression by decree. Still, I fear it is a harbinger of  more investigations, controls and closures toward the independent media.”

In Reporters Without Borders’ 2021 World Press Freedom Index, Turkey ranked153rd out of 180 countries.

Erdogan’s circular comes in the wake of two high-profile freedom of expression cases involving the president directly. Prominent journalist Sedef Kabas was arrested for insulting the president within hours of quoting a proverb about an ox in a palace during a televised debate on TELE1. RTUK slapped fines on TELE1 and FOX TV. “There are laws against insulting the president in every country,” he said of the case in a live interview with NTV.  

The other case involved pop star Sezen Aksu, who became the target of Islamist nationalist attacks because one of her songs called the biblical Adam and Eve “ignorant.” Erdogan blistered while leading Friday prayers, “The tongues that speak ill of Adam, the first prophet, and Eve, the mother of humanity, should be ripped out.” 

Aksu responded by sharing “Hunter,” a new song directly addressing Erdogan. “You cannot rip out my tongue/We’ll see who’ll stay/and who’ll go/ Because I am everyone,” wrote the musician. Within hours, fans and volunteers translated the lyrics into more than 40 languages. Renowned pianist Fazil Say announced that he would compose it. Several conservative intellectuals, including Erdogan’s adviser Yasin Aktay, said that Erdogan’s remarks had been heavy handed. Erdogan finally back off, saying that he had not targeted Aksu but the “attitude” of degrading religion.

“I think the government saw a ripe opportunity to issue such a circular with all the debates around Aksu and others,” said Lisel Hintz, author of  “Identity Politics Inside Out: National Identity Contestation and Foreign Policy in Turkey.”

Hintz pointed out that the circular came on the same day Erdogan replaced Justice Minister Abdulhamid Gul, a man who had been resistant to various efforts to sideline the judiciary, with loyalist Bekir Bozdag. He also removed the head of the state statistics agency days before closely watched inflation data was to be published.

“This is Erdogan tightening his grip on all sides. Yes, maybe there is an attempt to distract people from [the economic and political] agenda. Still, the AKP and some of its supporters genuinely believe that their own version of national and spiritual values are under threat,” she told Al-Monitor.

Some critics argue that a real threat to family values comes from the daytime TV reality shows broadcast by pro-government channels. “I am curious to see just what the RTUK chair will do on some of these shows after the president’s circular,” quipped Tasci from RTUK.

Tasci’s target was Esra Erol, a reality show host who has been widely criticized since Jan. 30 for the way she treated an 18-year-old who had run away from home with a married man of 40. 

After being approached by her family, who reported that their daughter was missing, Erol’s team found the 18-year-old and brought her to the studio. “What are you doing with a man old enough to be your father? How can you let him touch you?” shouted Erol as the young woman burst into tears, trying to hide her face from the cameras. Feminist groups protested her treatment.

“These programs contain the most hateful content in the whole region. They exploit and harass women to make money,” tweeted Eren Keskin, a prominent human rights lawyer, as the hashtag #ClosedownEsraErolsprogramme became a trending topic.

“It is the daytime TV shows on those pro-governmental channels that violate every rule of ethics and privacy just to increase their show ratings,” Okan Konuralp, another CHP nominee in RTUK, said in a Medyascope podcast. “Wasn’t it on one of those pro-government channels that a small child was dragged through DNA tests so they could determine who his father was? What sort of show is this which respects neither children’s rights nor laws of personal privacy?”

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