The following report is an expanded report from MEMRI Executive Director Steven Stalinsky And Director of MEMRI's Turkish Media Project A. Smith that appeared in The Washington Post titled "This Turkish TV network is Erdogan’s propaganda arm. U.S. experts should stop appearing on it" on November 12, 2019.
During Turkey's invasion of northeast Syria, which began on October 9, 2019, the Turkish government has used its English-language television channel, TRT World, as one of its main vehicles by which it spreads its message in the U.S. and abroad. In the days before and after the invasion started, TRT World produced many short pieces presenting the Turkish government's case for it. Many of the clips featured translations of current and former high-level Turkish government officials advocating for the invasion, including President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan himself, Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, Vice President Fuat Oktay, presidential advisor Gülnür Aybet, and former minister for EU affairs Egemen Bağış.
Other TRT World segments showed minority groups in Turkey and Syria voicing their support for the invasion, including Syrian refugees in Turkey and Syrian Turkmens, as well as Armenian, Assyrian, Chaldean, and Turkish Jewish religious leaders. While some reports showcased Turks' patriotic feelings over the invasion and support for the invasion from politicians, celebrities, and associations, other reports generally sought to justify it.
As the reports cheering for the invasion were being published, Turkey's Directorate of Security announced on October 9 that legal action was being taken against 78 people for "black propaganda" related to the invasion that they had spread on social media and opposition news websites, and on October 11, Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu reported that 500 such people were being investigated and 121 had been arrested. Reports of these arrests continued almost daily in the following weeks.
The importance of TRT World to the Turkish government's public relations can be seen with the opening of its offices and expansion of its efforts in Washington, D.C. TRT World does for the Turkish government what Russia Today (RT) does for the Russian government, what Al-Jazeera TV does for the Qatari government, and what China Global Television Network (CGTN) does for the Chinese government.
Launched in June 2015, TRT World broadcasts 24 hours a day, seven days a week to 260 million homes in 190 countries, and deploying a massive social media presence, TRT World produces content aimed at swaying the opinions of an international English-speaking audience toward the domestic and foreign policy objectives of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's Islamist Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (AKP) government – a government referred to by prominent Turkish journalist Cengiz Çandar as "the Turkish arm of the Muslim Brotherhood." The channel can be watched in the U.S. via Comcast, Verizon, Cox, and RCN, as well as on Roku, Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV, Android TV. This is especially important as Turkey, formerly pro-U.S. and a close ally, has, since 2002, upon the rise to power of Erdoğan's AKP, moved away from the U.S. and toward becoming a totalitarian Islamist state, losing credibility in the West and in the U.S.
The Turkish state-owned TRT network's English-language TRT World has not been required to register as a foreign agent with the U.S. Department of Justice. RT America is registered, as is the D.C.-area WZHF-AM radio station, which broadcasts the Russian Radio Sputnik around the clock. The U.S. branch of CGTN and Al-Jazeera have also registered.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan at a TRT World "Introduction Night" in Ankara, November 15, 2016 (source: Tccb.gov.tr/haberler/410/61005/trt-world-kameralarinin-vizorunu-guce-ve-gucluye-degil-mazlumlara-ezilenlere-odaklamali.html).
Ertuğrul Özkök, a mainstream Turkish journalist who for 20 years was editor-in-chief of the major Turkish daily Hurriyet, called TRT World's "tone... a little aggressive" and added: "Rather than bringing true news about Turkey to the world, it seems [that the channel] has chosen to use a tone challenging the Western world. It will be helpful to adjust that; otherwise it will be perceived not as a credible news channel, but as a third-world propaganda channel."
The following report will review TRT World's history, connections to the Turkish government, and role as President Erdoğan's "pet project." It will also look at how it is seen from within the Turkish government, its terrorism connections, and the relationship between the TRT network and the Turkish government, which is systematically suppressing free speech, censoring media, and imprisoning journalists at home.
TRT World – Part Of TRT – "Erdoğan's Pet Project"
TRT World, which is run by the Turkish Radio and Television Corporation (Türkiye Radyo ve Televizyon Kurumu, TRT), a broadcasting network directed and funded by the Turkish government, has been called "Erdoğan's pet project" and "Erdoğan's mouth piece to woo the West." To shape its brand for an international audience, TRT World hired creative agency DixonBaxi, whose other clients include Netflix, Samsung, Capital One, and Sony. The TRT network has 14 television channels, 14 radio channels, five print magazines, and translates its broadcasts into 41 languages.
Then TRT General Manager Şenol Göka presents President Erdoğan with a "nostalgic radio" at TRT World's "Introduction Night" (source: Yenisafak.com/gundem/trt-world-referans-kaynagi-kabul-edildi-2564996, November 16, 2016).
In November 2016, İbrahim Eren, TRT general manager since July 2017 was in charge of TRT World until October 2018, when Serdar Karagöz was appointed the channel's director. Eren, a former classmate and friend of President Erdoğan's son Bilal, told the Turkey-based English-language newspaper Daily Sabah that the channel's most important five-year goal is "to be among the top three international news channels broadcasting in Europe, the Middle East, and near Asia."
Turkish Opposition MPs Criticize TRT's Terrorism Connections, Lavish Spending
On July 4, 2019, the Al-Qaeda-affiliate Hay'at Tahrir Al-Sham's (HTS) government in northern Syria announced that senior HTS officials had awarded three TRT World employees – producer Hasan Arber, reporter Ubeyde Hitto, and cameraman Mehmet Faruk – plaques lauding their "contributions in transmitting the events related to the Syrian revolution and their desire to explain the truth regarding this subject." To view a clip of HTS officials giving awards to TRT World staff, click here. HTS has been a U.S. Treasury Department-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) and as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT) since May 31, 2018.
Left to right: TRT World producer Hasan Arber, HTS Local Management And Public Services Minister Muayad Al-Hussain, HTS administration head Fawaz Hilal, TRT World reporter Obaida Hitto, and TRT World cameraman Mehmet Faruk Yüce.
Turkish MP Oya Ersoy of the Halkların Demokratik Partisi (HDP) brought the matter to parliament, asking: "In an environment where journalists can be sent to prison for a tweet, what is emboldening TRT and its employees to have this dialogue with jihadi terror organizations?" She put forward a motion to question Turkish Vice President Oktay on this matter, asking, for example, "What type of relations do employees of TRT, and TRT itself, which is publicly funded and broadcasts publicly and thus represents Turkey, have" with the Al-Qaeda affiliated HTS, and "Has a governmental criminal investigation of the TRT employees at this award ceremony been launched? Are these individuals still employed by TRT?"
As Erdoğan silences free media in Turkey, he puts no such limitations on Muslim Brotherhood media, which broadcasts from Turkey using jihadi and antisemitic rhetoric to promote the goal of restoring a Muslim Brotherhood regime in Egypt using several TV channels set up following the 2013 overthrow of the government of late former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi.
In March 2019, the TRT network had 5,303 employees, according to Turkish Vice President Fuat Oktay. Between 2007 and 2015, its budget was 93% or more state funded; the rest came from advertising revenue. There have been allegations of significant corruption at the network; Alpay Antmen, MP for the country's leading opposition party, Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi (CHP), has that its budget of TRT exceeded two billion Turkish lira, or approximately $333 million and asked VP Oktay about this. Oktay's said that "because the program's expenses are a trade secret, they cannot be provided." Antmen countered: "In 15 years, TRT has sent money to 9,527 entities. We asked how much was paid to foreign and domestic entities. The answer was that this was a 'trade secret.' This is unacceptable..." He continued: "TRT spends the [equivalent of the] wages of 3,743 minimum-wage workers every day, of 112,000 minimum-wage workers every month, and of 1,344,000 minimum-wage workers every year. The millions [of Turks] who earn minimum wage are asking, [and] the authorities say 'it's a secret.' Someone is being made rich." In September 2019, the Ekrem İmamoğlu, the recently elected mayor of Istanbul, announced that the outgoing government of Istanbul had, for unknown reasons, given TRT between 20 and 25 million Turkish lira.
As the Erdoğan government uses TRT World to promote its views internationally 24/7 into 260 million homes in 190 countries and to 2.1 million Facebook users 560,000 YouTube subscribers, 303,000 Twitter users, and 196,000 Instagram users, at the same time it is aggressively silencing journalists at home. There are no figures on how many have been imprisoned, but estimates range from 110 to 184. Reporters Without Borders ranked Turkey 157th out of 180 in its World Press Freedom Index – lower than Russia and even Afghanistan. Those imprisoned are often liberal and anti-AKP writers; Reporters Without Borders further reported that in 2018 more than 80 Turkish journalists had been given long prison sentences for crimes such as "terror propaganda," "humiliating the Turkish identity," and "insulting the president."
Photos of 81 Turkish journalists known to be imprisoned as of January 2018 (source: Bianet.org/bianet/medya/193271-isim-isim-hapis-gazeteciler, January 16, 2018.)
Many journalists are given sentences ranging from seven to 18 years. The fate of certain prominent journalists, including Ahmet Altan, Mehmet Altan, and Nazlı Ilıcak, remains unclear as they have been alternatively sentenced to life in prison, then released after being held for two years, before a warrant was again issued on November 12 for Ahmet Altan's arrest. Ahmet Altan, a columnist for the leading Turkish dailies Hurriyet, Milliyet, and Radikal and was for five years editor in chief of the Taraf daily which was shut down following the 2016 coup attempt in Turkey, was arrested on charges of having delivered "subliminal messages" in TV appearances prior to the coup attempt. Ahmet's brother Mehmet, author of over 25 books, had, at the time of his arrest, been a professor at Istanbul University since 1993.
Turkish journalists sentenced to life in prison, left to right: Mehmet Altan, Ahmet Altan, and Nazlı Ilıcak (source: Sozcu.com.tr).
Other journalists have fled the country. Can Dündar, the award-winning Turkish journalist and former editor in chief of the leading opposition newspaper Cumhuriyet who now resides in Berlin, noted: "It's sad – if [Erdoğan] cares about journalists, what about ours [i.e. in Turkey]?" Erdoğan, for his part, has called Dündar a spy who has disclosed state secrets and was convicted by Turkish courts. Countering this accusation, Dündar said: "If Erdoğan can prove I am a spy, I will quit my profession – but Erdoğan will be crushed under this slander."
An International Press Institute reviewed 90 court sessions involving 82 hearings of 71 separate trials that took place in 10 Turkish provinces between June 1 and December 31, 2018; in 70 of the 90 sessions, the defendants were journalists or media employees. In the remaining sessions, 10 of the defendants were lawyers, five were academics, two were artists, two were students, and one was a human rights activist. In 34% of the sessions involving defendants in detention, the suspects did not physically appear in court, and in 36% of sessions involving defendants in detention, they appeared in court handcuffed – violating the principle of presumption of innocence that is protected by the Turkish Criminal Procedure Code (CMK) and the Turkish constitution. Additionally, in 77% of the trials reviewed, the evidence presented comprised their own published work.
Turkish government censorship is not limited to traditional media inside the country. In February 2019, Transparency International reported that in 2013, the government had shut down some 40,000 Turkey-based websites, and that by 2016 that figure had risen to 113,398. In April 2017, the government blocked Wikipedia, and it remains blocked to this day – apparently because Wikipedia had refused to edit or remove pages related to Turkish government support for the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria; Republic of Turkey founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk; and information from the hacked emails of Turkish Finance Minister Berat Albayrak, who is also former energy minister, a businessman, and Erdoğan's son-in-law. Restrictions in Turkey on access to social media, including Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, are so frequent that they are continually monitored and reported, by organizations such as Turkey Blocks.
Nor is the censorship limited to Turkish journalists, as many foreign journalists have been denied entry to the country, or been unable to renew their journalistic credentials once inside. Some foreign journalists attempting to enter are issued "inadmissible passenger notification" forms at the border, told that their presence in Turkey would be "objectionable," and turned away. Some believe that the Turkish government keeps a blacklist of banned foreign journalists. Journalists from the U.S., Germany, Russia, Norway, the Netherlands, and Greece, from media outlets including Atlantic, Foreign Affairs, and The New York Times have found their entry barred. Meanwhile Erdoğan has been given privileged access to leading U.S. media, including three opeds in The Washington Post in the past year, and two more in The New York Times.
The same Turkish government that prohibits entry to some foreign journalists also employs other foreign journalists, via TRT World, and pays them what in the Turkish economy are exorbitant salaries to echo Erdoğan's AKP internationally.
Turkish Government's Media Control – Extending Beyond State-Run Networks – Such As TRT – Into Privately Owned Holding Companies
According to the International Press Institute, over 95% of Turkey's media "is estimated to be under government influence," and "the mass, arbitrary incarceration of journalists and the criminal procedures brought against hundreds of others, as well as the complete control over the country's media landscape" not only cannot be justified by security concerns but also constitute "a serious breach of international standards that Turkey has ratified." Turkey's 40 largest media organizations are owned by holding companies that also own companies involved in construction, energy, mining, tourism, telecommunications, finance, and other areas that rely on government contracts for some of their revenue. This allows the government to reward or punish media organizations at will and has led to the largely homogenous media ecosystem that exists in Turkey today.
A 2018 Reuters Institute survey conducted in 37 countries said that when it came to Turks, 49% of respondents said that they had "come across 'stories that are completely made up for political or commercial reasons." It added that "the average across all 37 countries is 26%." Turkish journalist Şükrü Oktay Kılıç of Middle East Eye wrote: "Media outlets in Turkey have become the source of distorted and misleading, if not completely fabricated, news." Even Al-Jazeera stated that TRT was operating as if it were "state-run," not merely state-owned, and featured a "lack of objective analysis."
Not only is the TRT World channel funded by the Turkish government, its current director Serdar Karagöz has frequently travelled with Erdoğan himself. Between September 2014 and May 2017, Karagöz, who in October 2018 would be appointed the channel director, flew with Erdoğan in the latter's private plane at least 14 times during that period – one of only two journalists who did so this frequently. In February 2019, he was one of only two journalists granted an extensive two-hour interview with Erdoğan for the Turkish-language TRT Haber television channel. Earlier, in 2015, he attended secret media leaders' meetings with then-prime minister Ahmet Davutoğlu at Dolmabahçe Palace, and before that, in 2014, with Erdoğan in Istanbul at the Beylerbeyi Palace; both these meetings were closed to the press. Media commented on these meetings of media leaders that were closed to the media; some had speculated, following earlier such meetings, that instructions were issued at them.
TRT World director Serdar Karagöz, center rear, aboard Erdoğan's private plane (source: Dailysabah.com).
Following an incident on CNN's Turkish-language channel CNN Türk, in the run-up to the March 31, 2019 municipal elections in Turkey, when oppositionist Istanbul mayoral candidate and eventual winner Ekrem İmamoğlu was cut off mid-sentence to switch to a live broadcast of Erdoğan giving a speech, Turks reacted across social media. CHP American representative Yurter Özcan wrote to CNN: "I request that you launch an investigation into CNN Türk; I am sure that during it, as you find that the basic principles of journalism have been violated and that false news has been broadcast with the aim of supporting the AKP regime, this channel will no longer be allowed to use the CNN name." One of the few remaining Turkish opposition newspapers reported that CNN executives told Özcan that an investigation had been launched and that CNN would issue a formal reply.
In October 2018, Chico Harlan, writing in The Washington Post, quoted an unnamed Turkish journalist as saying: "Journalism is in a deep coma in Turkey... There are taboos. I can't write anything. It's like the Twilight Zone." Howard Eissenstat, a Turkey expert at St. Lawrence University and a nonresident senior fellow at the Project on Middle East Democracy, said that on major issues, Turkish TV "channels are in lockstep... This would be the equivalent of being in a country in which you had seven MSNBCs or seven Fox television [channels], where you had news that was clearly supportive of the government on all the channels."
Arrests Following July 2016 Attempted Coup And The Resignation Of TRT World's Foreign Journalists
Following the July 2016 attempted coup, a state of emergency was declared in the country, and was lifted only in July 2018. By that time, the Turkish government had used it as a way to shut down 70 newspapers, 20 magazines, 34 radio stations, 30 publishing houses, and 33 television channels. Between September 2016 and July 2018, 6,081 academics at 122 universities were dismissed, as were 33,000 schoolteachers. From 2014 to 2017, the Turkish government launched investigations into over 68,000 people in connection with insulting the president – a crime punishable by up to four years in prison.
Amnesty International Turkey Strategy and Research Manager Andrew Gardner said in November 2018: "This latest wave of detentions of academics and activists, on the basis of absurd allegations, shows that the authorities are intent on continuing their brutal crackdown o[n] independent civil society, and shatters any illusion that Turkey is normalizing following the lifting of the state of emergency. The prosecution of scores of journalists and other media workers is an ongoing affront to press freedom and to justice. By using the courts to increase their stranglehold on the media, the authorities have once again displayed the ugly side of Turkey's broken judicial system. This should ring alarm bells for anyone who cares about freedom of expression."
In the month following the coup attempt, seven foreigners on TRT World's 220-person staff resigned. Employees said that criticism of the government's crackdown following the attempted coup was muted, that reporting favored the government, and that reporters used talking points provided by Erdoğan's office. Rose Asani, writing in the Spectator, quoted a TRT World employee as saying: "Every time I cover something in Turkey, I wait for the inevitable call... They won't have liked the way I described the PKK, the YPG, the Gülen Movement, and I'm told I have to record it again stating that they are terror groups. I try to ignore these requests, but when I do the calls become more frequent and agitated." Another journalist mentioned "constantly receiving calls from the government" dictating how to cover a story or criticizing for not taking the "right line," and that senior managers would take content off the air without explanation. On the channel's coverage of the attempted coup, another employee said: "I felt physically sick at the coverage... It just hit me to the core and I realized that no matter how hard we tried to make the channel fair and balanced, this would always be countered with orders from above."
Antisemitism On TRT
The TRT network's other channels have been known to broadcast antisemitic content, including a 2017 fictional drama series on TRT Turkish TV called "Sultan Abdülhamid" focusing on the last Ottoman ruler and his efforts to thwart a seemingly endless line of plots and schemes depicted as masterminded by Zionist leader Theodor Herzl and a group of multinational co-conspirators. The series is based on themes from the notorious historical book The Protocols Of The Elders Of Zion. To view clips of the series that aired on TRT, click here.
The TRT network aired an antisemitic historical drama.
More recently, TRT Turkish aired an interview with Turkish actor Bahadır Yenişehirlioğlu, who plays a main role in "Sultan Abdülhamid." In the interview, Yenişehirlioğlu claimed that Israel is irradiating Palestinian children to sterilize them, that Israelis do to the Palestinians what the Nazis did to the Jews, and that Jewish rabbis have turned the Torah into a pro-Zionist ideological doctrine according to which the Jews are the Chosen People and other nations exist to be enslaved by them.
TRT World Features Interviews With Prominent Figures From The U.S., Abroad
Amid this reality of the suppression of free speech, Erdoğan boasted, in January 2018, that "today Turkey is among the countries in the world that are taking the lead" in press freedom. In May 2018, at a joint press conference with British Prime Minister Theresa May, he said in response to a question about journalists arrested in Turkey: "Separate the terrorists from the journalists... a terrorist cannot be a journalist."
TRT World is not the only Turkish government effort undertaken inside the U.S. One Turkish government document suggests that the Turkish government is gathering intelligence on Americans on U.S. soil. The document, obtained by the Investigative Project on Terrorism, refers to "information obtained from open sources as well as from our citizens in the city where the association [the Federation of Balkan American Associations in Lincoln Park, NJ], which is located in the duty-region of the [Turkish] New York Consulate, is based..." Documents from Turkey's Ministry Of Religious Affairs have indicated that after the July 2016 attempted coup in Turkey, the Ministry Of Religious Affairs prepared intelligence reports using ministry employees working in religious capacities in 38 countries. Critics have said that the Diyanet Center of America, a $110 million mosque complex that Turkey's Ministry Of Religious Affairs built in 2016 in Lanham, Maryland, which is a half-hour drive from downtown Washington, is gathering information on Turks, including American citizens, living in the U.S.
Despite the Erdoğan government's treatment of Turkish journalists, the following people have agreed to appear on TRT World: World Economic Forum President Borge Brende; U.S. Gen. (ret.) David Petraeus, who is a former CIA director; former Afghanistan president Hamid Karzai; NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg; and many other notable figures such as U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) and Hamas cofounder Mahmoud Al-Zahar.
Professors from world-class universities, including Harvard, Oxford, Stanford, Columbia, and Tufts, have also appeared on TRT World, as have many journalists from major publications including the Wall Street Journal, Foreign Policy, and Newsweek. Its guests have included experts from leading think tanks and human rights organizations in the United States and abroad, including those focusing on issues relating to press freedom and authoritarian government, such as: Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, RAND Corporation, Heritage Foundation, Middle East Institute, Hudson Institute, Brookings Institute, National Endowment for Democracy, Washington Institute For Near East Policy, Atlantic Council, Institute For Policy Studies, Save The Children, Doctors Without Borders, Carnegie Middle East Center, and Chatham House.
It is unclear whether those who agree to these interviews know little about TRT World, or simply want media attention. They should bear in mind the numbers of Turkish journalists in Turkish prison cells today, and refrain from allowing themselves to be used to lend legitimacy to the international media arm of a government that crushes free speech at home.
*Steven Stalinsky is the executive director of MEMRI. A. Smith is director of the Turkish Media Project at MEMRI.
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 The Council of Europe reported that of 130 journalists in prison in all of Europe as of December 31, 2018, 110, or nearly 85 percent, were imprisoned in Turkey. A January 2019 report by Erol Önderoğlu, Turkey representative for Reporters Without Borders, said, among other things, that 123 journalists were in prison in Turkey at the time. It was announced on February 27, 2019, that Önderoğlu himself now faces over 14 years in prison for "terror propaganda." On July 16, 2019, the Turkish Journalists' Union reported that there 134 journalists and media workers in prison in Turkey. The International Press Institute reported that as of December 5, 2018, 162 journalists were imprisoned in Turkey, primarily on unsubstantiated terror charges. The Platform For Independent Journalism put this number at 184. Based on these sources the number of journalists imprisoned in Turkey is between 110 and 184.
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