Media professionals warn censorship risks hampering production in Turkey


The Kurdish-Turkish conflict, opposition to President Erdogan’s administration, and now trade relations with the US, have provided abundant content for the international media. The country is also a corridor between Europe and the Middle East, and a vantage point for reporting on Syria’s unrest, the rise of IS, and Saudi Arabia’s socio-political shifts. Meanwhile, its physical landscape, cultural history and budget air travel draw production outlets from across the globe.

However, media has been heavily restricted by government legislation. Fines, forced closure and even prosecution face outlets publishing antagonistic content. Human Rights Watch, Freedom House, and Amnesty International have all decried Turkey’s “ruthless assault” on press freedom, calling for an end to strict censorship.

This poses significant concerns for Turkish and international journalists, media producers and fixers. While the Turkish government appears to be relaxing restrictions, the extent to which this will benefit film makers and journalists is heavily contested.

Restrictions and censorship under state-of-emergency laws

Last month Turkey’s state-of-emergency laws came to an end. The regulations, which had been in place since an attempted coup in 2016, imposed weighty restrictions on Turkey’s media outlets. Censorship rules and financial levies eroded press freedoms, proving highly problematic for fixers, producers and journalists operating in the country.

Turkey has a vibrant media landscape, with 40 national and 2,000 local newspapers, dozens of news magazines, at least 10 national news channels and hundreds of online news platforms. However, pluralism and diversity has been eroded by state interference.

Over 200 media outlets were closed, online news and networking sites including Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp periodically blocked, and more than 2,500 journalists suspended. Expansion of state regulatory institutions, such as the Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK) facilitated restrictions without judicial approval, legitimised as anti-terror measures.

filming in Turkey

Galata Tower and the street in the Old Town of Istanbul, Turkey

The trial of 17 journalists from Cumhuriyet, a newspaper which has been vocal in its opposition to Erdogan and his AKP party, is one of the most high profile cases. Authorities accused staff of supporting the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party-Front, groups the AKP brands terror organisations.

Financial instruments have also been used to curb press freedom. Confiscation of assets and hefty fines pressured outlets into curtailing hostile content.

One leading newspaper, Zaman, which had repeatedly criticised the Turkish government, had assets seized before being shut down completely. Simultaneously, the Supreme Council of Radio and Television withdrew operating licenses from over 20 outlets.

Concerns were voiced again this year when the daily newspaper Hurriyet was purchased by a company with close ties to Erdogan’s administration.

“With this huge takeover, including Hürriyet, Turkish mass media industry comes under the direct political control of President Erdoğan,” tweeted journalist Kadri Gürsel.

According to the Platform for Solidarity with Jailed Journalists, there are over 200 journalists imprisoned in the country, several facing life sentences. Today Turkey ranks 157th/ 180 countries in press freedom rankings from World Press Freedom Index of the Reporters Without Borders.

“We had to act extremely carefully when reporting from one of Erdogan’s election rallies earlier this year,” said one Turkish journalist who did not wish to be named. “It was a tense environment to operate in.”

International crews are able to film in Turkey, providing they have authorisation from the authorities. However, access is dependent on the content being filmed, and many have reported government hostility toward western producers and journalists.

“I have had some trouble in the past while working with international crews,” said our anonymous journalist. “Western producers are frequently viewed with suspicion.”

Filming in Turkey

The film industry has also been affected by Erdogan’s sweeping new powers. Producers failing to comply with content regulations risk having funding or screening licenses retracted. This has caused concerned amongst producers, particularly since Turkey’s withdrawal from the EU’s Creative Europe programme left filmmakers heavily dependent on ministry subsidies.

It is essential for international crews to apply for a permit,” warned a fixer we spoke to. “The police will rigorously inspect the nature of the filming, especially if it is in the South-East of the country.

“I have been followed several times by authorities who wanted to ensure we were not filming unsuitable content.” 

Content regulations also extended to online streaming. With Turkey’s internet users increasing by 13% to 51 million from the past year, online streaming has presented huge opportunity for profit. New laws gave RTÜK authority to ban online shows which had not secured approval from the Turkish Intelligence Agency and General Directorate of Security. It is a move which has attracted criticism from Turkish producers and directors.

Will repeal of state-of-emergency make any difference?

Erdogan’s recent easing of press restrictions suggests the government is beginning to afford the media more freedom.

However, many suggest legislative changes are merely cosmetic. “Repeal of the state of emergence laws does not change journalism here”, our journalist said. “They have merely been replaced with equally restrictive regulations.”

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“Restrictions existed far before 2016. The state-of-emergency laws meant we have had to be more careful when reporting, but we needed to be cautious before the coup,” Another Turkish journalist stated.

Indeed, Turkey’s media industry faced repressive censorship prior to the state of emergency laws. Restrictions started to increase in 2010, with a marked increase in police presence; then in 2015 when conflict broke out between Turkish and Kurdish groups, media restrictions heightened even further.

In 2011, Reports Without Borders were already reporting a climate of intimidation with, ‘unprecedented arrests, massive phone taps and escalating judicial harassment of journalists’.

Before 2016 the film industry faced limitations too. In 2014, Kurdish Film director, Kazim Oz, had his film certificate removed after featuring scenes portraying a historical massacre of ethnic Kurds by government forces in his film Zer.

A year later, The Istanbul Film Festival was ordered to pull the documentary “Bakur,” a sympathetic film about the rebels of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, hours before its first screening. This prompted indignation from the festival director and jury, who resigned in outrage.

“There are less political movies than before,” said current Istanbul Festival director Kerem Ayan.

Opportunities are still abundant

Despite restrictive measures, Turkey remains a popular location for media production. Numerous Turkish and international media professionals work in the country, documenting the Syrian refugee crisis, shooting commercials, broadcasting sports events and much more.

There is undoubtedly a lot of uncertainty. “The situation is changing continually, it is utterly unpredictable, we do not know what will happen six months down the line,” Said our fixer.

Nevertheless, the journalists and fixers we spoke to remained positive production would continue to prosper, regardless of government regulation.

“Filming shoots and broadcasts I have worked on have not encountered serious hostility from government authorities,” Said one journalist. “In fact Turkey has entered a period of calm since the July elections.”

The film industry appears to share this optimism. “Cinema is very creative,” reflects Ayan. “Everybody finds a different way to express what they want,” he said.

This article was written with help from World Fixer’s network of media professionals in Turkey. To find fixers, crew, producers and journalists in Turkey see the World Fixer Turkey community page.

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