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Big Turkish Media and the Iraq War – A Watershed?

Big Media and the War

When it comes to media choices for information about the war in Iraq, Turkey is luckier than a lot of other countries of equal size and equal level of economic development. At least 21 national daily newspapers circulate about four million copies, and a reported 3,500 local daily or weekly newspapers with circulations of between one and fifteen thousand supplement the national press. Added to that, more than 100 magazines are published, many of which are Turkish versions of international editions.

Broadcast options are also numerous. At least 14 privately owned channels that can be viewed nationally exist alongside five public channels run by the Turkish Radio and Television Corporation. Other pay-tv channels are distributed via several cable and satellite services. As many as 220 local channels have been documented (Colakoglu, http://www.lightmillennium.org/fall/nc_ntv2.html)

Turks are able to watch the hour-by-hour developments of the war on all-news channels too. NTV, in partnership with MSNBC, distributes news and public affairs information round the clock that can be received by about 70 percent of the population. CNN-Turk, a joint venture between CNN and the Dogan Media Group, is one of only two CNN channels that broadcasts in a language other than English. Haberturk-TV started out as only an Internet site that eventually added a news channel to its media operations. Manager Ufuk Guldemir along with other print journalist-owners of the station represent the first crossover from print to broadcast in news channels in Turkey. Guldemir started the web service when he was fired as editor of Sabah, one of the largest circulating newspapers in Turkey.

Yet for all those media, the range of different voices from mainstream media about the war heard by the Turkish people are limited. Concentration of ownership and issues related to media globalization are as serious in Turkey as anywhere else in the world.

Aydin Dogan is probably the most serious offender. By his own admission, he controls about 80 percent of all media in Turkey, yet does not accept that this constitutes a monopoly. And following the passage of a controversial communications bill in May 2002, he and other media barons are now free to bid on lucrative government contracts and to buy up shares of government organizations targeted for privatization-placing journalists in an increasingly serious conflict of interest position with government.

Media scholars are also concerned about the media oligarchies, and have commented on that problem as it plays itself out in war coverage on television. In the April 6 edition of Radikal, a national daily newspaper, several communication scholars were asked to evaluate this coverage in the context of the principles of global journalism. Prof. Cuneyt Akalin from the communication faculty of Marmara University believes that the television coverage in this war has revealed the true nature of the powerful media. "Those colorful members of the media who were born in the 1990s hid their relationship with the United States under the banner of 'contemporary journalism,' 'democracy,' and 'human rights.'. Neoliberal lies were served morning and night. Lives were indexed to the stock market." Akalin's comment about the media born in the 1990s refers to the privately owned television stations that first went on the air via satellite from Europe in violation of the constitution. Legally operating since 1994, the channels have taken many viewers away from public television (TRT). Now that these stations have shown their alliance with big business in the war coverage, "We should be searching for the answer to the question: how are we going to clean up this incredible filth caused by the media that are the tools of this unjust war?" Akalin asks.

Hifzi Topuz, author, media analyst and director of the Communication Research Foundation, said he believes that the "media generally support their owner's positions, but the people in the press room do not completely hew to their bosses' views." He added that the owners tolerate this deviation to show that they are neutral in matters of reporting. Topuz also praises the journalists who report the truth even in the face of the incorrect news that appears on other channels.(http://www.radikal.com.tr; accessed April 8, 2003).

Speaking at a conference on the media and war at Anadolu University in Eskisehir, Turkey, Orhan Erinc said the degeneration of journalism can be attributed to a triangle that includes the media, politics, and business and that the power of this triangle has led journalists to abandon facts and truth in their war coverage. Erinc, Turkish Journalists' Association (TGC) chairman, is cited as saying that coverage is now not as bad as early on in the war when the media were participating in warmongering (http://www.turkishdailynews.com/FrTDN/latest/dom.html; accessed April 10, 2003).

Coverage of the War and Public Trust

Other scholars have been critical of television coverage because of its bias, its sensationalizing, and its shallowness. Most television channels have made extensive use of foreign media in live and taped coverage of battles, street scenes, prisoners of war and wounded in hospitals. Fewer correspondents and camera people from any television channel are reporting from the field, leading to criticisms of the types of coverage . TGRT was an exception, in that it was able to receive live coverage from Ihlas Haber Ajansi (IHA, an independent pro-Islamic news agency) which had cameras and live satellite feeds from Baghdad to TGRT television. NTV, which gets the most praise for its balanced coverage, relies heavily on video and interviews from a variety of foreign sources. One minute they will be airing a Sky TV or Fox interview and the next moving to live coverage from Al Jazeera or Abu Dhabi television. Sometimes it is difficult to follow which source is being used (except for the credit given in the corner of the screen). All such footage is dubbed in Turkish or the video is used as background with voiceovers from the Turkish correspondent on the scene in Iraq.

When both Arab and Western sources are alternatively consulted, it may give the viewer a sense of balance in reporting. NTV also airs commentary by professors with expertise in Middle Eastern history or political science, or retired military leaders interpret the field-based interviews or video accordingly. There is reason to believe that some viewers like this approach to covering the war. The IV.Kuvvet Medya web site (Fourth Estate Media: Platform for Free Journalists) has been running an online poll asking which television channel provides the best news about the war in Iraq. By April 11, 1,553 people had registered their votes. About 28 percent of the votes went to NTV (the third highest number).

However, if the votes from this self-selected sample means anything, it illustrates that many viewers may see things somewhat differently than the media critics. Kanal 7, the pro-Islamist channel, captured 37 percent of the votes, and TGRT-also a religiously conservative channel-received the most votes (46 percent). TGRT's popularity, however, might be based on the live Turkish video feed from Baghdad. Though Prof. Unsal Oskay of Beykent University has said that Kanal 7 does provide an Islamic view on the events of the war that is not provided by other channels, he noted in the column he wrote for Radikal newspaper that of all the television broadcasters, only TRT and NTV could be considered neutral.

It should be noted that those viewers who had access to digital cable or other master antenna systems were able to compare coverage by a range of Turkish stations with that of BBC, Fox, and CNNI.

Agenda Setting and War Coverage

In communications research, many scholars have repeatedly found empirical support for the agenda-setting function of the media. This concept measures the relationship between the level of importance the media place on the daily events in the news and the corresponding levels of significance the consumers of the media attribute to those same topics. It is said that the media may not tell the people what to think, but certainly tell them what to think about. If agenda setting is operative in Turkish media, there should be some relationship between the kind of news and public affairs perspectives television has offered to Turkish viewers and the salience to viewers. And of course the war has taken the highest priority for all Turks. But the way the war has been framed by some of the media does not match with public opinion in the country. In the week before the war, between March 10 and 17, the Pew Research Center conducted a face-to-face survey among more than 500 Turks throughout the nation. The survey addressed a variety of questions related to possibility of war. In that survey, 86 percent of respondents opposed the war. And the favorable image of Americans held by 52 percent of Turks in a survey taken in 1999-2000 by the US Department of State had dropped to a mere 12 percent. Pew's survey was a panel study that asked similar questions of the national sample in November 2002 and again in March of this year. In November Pew's survey found that 30 percent of the respondents had a favorable view of the United States. When asked about US motives for going to war with Iraq, only 34 percent in November and 22 percent in March said that they believed that the threat posed by Saddam Hussein was the motive. Many more people (53 percent in November and 60 percent in March) said that the purpose was to wage war on Muslim nations (http://people-press.org/reports/display.php3?ReportID=175). Other surveys taken before the war began have reported opposition to the war as high as 94 percent.

Clearly there seems to be a disconnect between the views of the public and the views of some of the televised media, which would suggest that the views of the media that express pro-war commentary or coverage are not publicly accepted. But most of the criticism of the television channels that hype the war has been confined to several of the popular privately owned channels (and also to the print press owned by the same media barons) as well as to CNN-Turk. The public TRT channels have been described in more positive terms. Words like balanced, neutral, objective, and cautious have been used to describe the points of view aired on these channels. Nurcay Turkoglu, professor at Marmara University, had special praise for one of the public channels. "TRT2 also has eminently watchable broadcasts with its carefully balanced distribution of various news sources, many guests, and background information that includes historical and cultural dimensions," she said (http://www.radikal.com.tr; accessed April 8, 2002).

The public channels have also made extensive use of retired generals to provide analyses of military strategy. U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney recently described those people as the retired military officers "embedded in TV studios" in a reference to a similar phenomenon in the United States. Nonetheless, these individuals provide an experienced perspective on the progress of the conflict, though as Haluk Sahin has pointed out, they "share the 'fog of war' that blinds the American public, perhaps because they were educated and trained in the United States." (http://www.radikal.com.tr; accessed April 8, 2003). According to Sahin, though the generals may have been pleased with the role they played, they were criticized for not having sufficient understanding of Tommy Franks-style modern warfare.

Kurds and War Coverage

The Kurdish minority in Turkey, constituting about 10 to 12 million in number, has special concerns about the outcome of the war in Iraq. And the Turkish government has great fears concerning the possibility of an autonomous Kurdistan in northern Iraq. Though assured by the US government that this will not happen, Turkish military and government officials are wary and have amassed about 40,000 troops along the Iraqi border in the event that the Kurds take over the region. When the Kurds took Kirkuk, the Los Angeles Times reported that Turkish television broadcast scenes showing jubilant Kurds and fearful Turcoman (numbering about 200,000 and whom Turkey has pledged to defend) in the city. The reports expressed fear that because Kurds entered the court house and destroyed land records, they would want to expel the Turcoman from Kirkuk (The Los Angeles Times, April 11, 2003, p. 10). The Turcoman people are ethnically related to the Turks.

The Kurdish population watches the same televised coverage of the battles in northern Iraq with their own sets of fears. But they also have access to other media, principally the satellite channel, Medya TV, based in Paris. Some sources have estimated that as many as 80-90 percent of Kurdish households in Turkey have access to Medya TV. Other Kurdish language stations are based in northern Iraq and are likely available to, at least, those Kurds who live in the southeastern part of Turkey. Though television broadcasting in Kurdish has been legal in Turkey since November 2002, the structure for getting programs on the air has not yet been specified.

Hope for the Future On balance, Turkish broadcasters got less than high marks for their war coverage, with the exception of one all-news channel and the publicly-owned channel (TRT). However, there was likely more diversity of coverage than in the United States, as viewers could choose among Islamic viewpoints, the U.S.-based channels and opinions, coverage by Turkish reporters in the field, and also get the European perspective. In the conference on media and war that was held at Anadolu University, speakers discussed ways to make the media more responsible and more reflective in their coverage. Perhaps the best recommendation for the future was made at this conference by those who suggested that the country needs a much stronger alternative press and an independent regional press to show the established press the way journalism should be practiced. The Internet-based news sites begin to offer that kind of information. Financing independent broadcast media will be a challenge, but it may be the best hope for Turkey's media.

My thanks for assistance on this article go to Mehmet Ozturk, Haluk Sahin, Ulke Aren, and Erkan Yuksel. Any errors in content, however, are strictly my own. 

About Christine Ogan

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