CNN Meets the Turkish High Council

by Laura Peterson IRP Fellow, Spring 2000
Reprinted with permission of The American Journalism Review

TURKEY — Getting banned from the airwaves was probably not how CNN executives would have chosen to celebrate the six-month anniversary of CNN Turk, its first free 24-hour news channel outside the U.S.

Yet last February, CNN executives received a statement from the Turkish High Council for Radio and Television announcing that the channel would be subject to a daylong blackout. The infraction: a question by the anchor of a January current affairs show about whether the execution of Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan would turn him into a symbol of political persecution a la Nelson Mandela, a comparison which the council called “insulting.”

Media muzzling is nothing new in Turkey, where some 20 journalists remain imprisoned for covering topics unfriendly to the government’s agenda. But CNN Turk is not your average Turkish tabloid-style news broadcast – it’s the progeny of the country’s reigning media monarch and the world’s most recognizable news brand. The blackout is only one of several obstacles CNN has faced on the road to establishing itself in Turkey, signaling the cultural speed bumps ahead for media companies anxious to spread their names over the globe and raising questions about the concessions involved in providing foreign news under foreign laws.

“If you bend too little you get shut down, and if you bend too much you don’t just destroy your local reputation, you risk tarnishing your worldwide operations,” observes David Anable, president of the International Center for Journalists. “As these media companies become more global, this is going to become part and parcel of what they’re going to confront.”

CNN Turk debuted last October as a joint venture between CNN and the Dogan Group, one of Turkey’s most powerful conglomerates and its largest private media holder. Dogan owns more than 50 enterprises, including banking, insurance, energy and tourism firms, and raised eyebrows earlier this year when it won the bidding for a state-owned petrol company for sale under Turkey’s privatization program.

Consultants from CNN’s Atlanta headquarters spent nearly a year developing CNN Turk’s format, selecting top Turkish journalists for its editorial team and putting reporters through a professional training program. Today, however, editorial decisions are the sole responsibility of CNN Turk’s Istanbul newsroom. Editor-in-Chief Ferhat Boratav says the newsroom’s relationship with Atlanta is “very loose. Really we don’t have any day-to-day contact with them at all.”

The result is some notable deviations from CNN International’s political line. For example, while CNN refers to Turkish-occupied Cyprus as the “breakaway” Turkish republic, CNN Turk reporters identify it as the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, and its leader, Rauf Denktash, as president. CNN Turk reporters also describe seeing an editorial memo circulated during the channel’s first weeks of operation instructing them to refer to Ocalan as a “terrorist leader,” and listing adjectives to be used for Islamic groups such as “fundamentalist” and “terrorist.”

CNN Turk Vice-President Efe Onbilgin firmly maintains that the only editorial document ever circulated to journalists was a list of ethical guidelines, which he claims surpass any direction the average Turkish journalist receives on the job. Indeed, it is not just CNN’s status and cash but its global image as an ethical standard-bearer which many Turkish journalists believe has the potential to raise the bar in a country where nightly news generally consists of celebrity gossip, political machine-gunning and salacious stories of the deviant and depraved.

“Journalists who are critical of the negative developments in the Turkish media are looking at CNN Turk as a hopeful sign in the right direction,” says Turkish Daily News columnist Fehmi Koru. “However, Turkish media is under the supervision of a supreme board, and channels are open to influences from the ‘powers that be.’ It will not be an easy task to operate a CNN-like medium in Turkey.”

CNN’s previous forays into foreign-language news consisted of NTV, a German news channel that the company manages, and CNN Plus, a Spanish-language channel based in Madrid that is only available to subscribers as part of a cable package. Since Dogan is Time Warner’s biggest customer in Turkey, purchasing Turner-owned movies for its Kanal D TV station and negotiating for rights to products such as HBO and the Cartoon Network, Onbilgin says it contacted CNN when it decided to pursue a 24-hour news channel.

Atlanta executives were enticed by the prospect of instantly reaching 7 million of Turkey’s 12 million households through the country’s system of terrestrial satellite transmitters. The plan is to eventually reach 100 million Turkish speakers throughout Europe and Central Asia, where Onbilgin says the channel hopes to establish a “sub-base” in the near future.

“Turkey is an expanding economy, expanding television market and expanding advertising market,” says Ken Tiven, CNN’s vice president of research and development and the steam behind CNN Turk. “And, we have come to realize that if there will be 24-hour news channels in different countries, we should be partners in those for the obvious reason that they help supply raw material up the food chain to CNN.”

First, however, there was Turkish law to contend with, which prohibits print media owners and foreign investors from owning more than 20 percent of the shares in a broadcast enterprise. Dogan owns nine daily newspapers, accounting for roughly 50 percent of the daily circulation in Turkey, in addition to some 35 magazines, three radio stations, printing and book publishing businesses, an internet portal and an advertising partnership with the country’s second largest media conglomerate. Though Dogan is also linked to two television channels, Onbilgin says the company only manages them and does not own shares.

Though both Onbilgin and Dogan spokesmen refused to comment on CNN Turk’s shareholder structure, government documents list Turner Broadcasting as a 20 percent shareholder in the venture, with the rest of the shares divided between 11 individuals and a Dogan-owned company.

“They circumvented the rules by giving names of employees as partial owners,” says Ersan Ilal, dean of the communications faculty at Maltepe University in Istanbul. “It’s a clear violation of Turkish law.”

Tiven sees such hurdles as par for the course. “We made a deal,” he says. “However the shareholding is structured, it meets all regulations. A joint venture does not say it’s an equal venture: it says the partners agree to set up board of directors that share responsibility.”

But how much responsibility does CNN assume for its offspring’s actions? It’s a question CNN will have to ask itself again and again if it continues to plant those familiar red letters in environments that Atlanta executives may have a hard time understanding, much less controlling. Though the blackout of CNN Turk has been temporarily postponed by a court appeal, conflict with governments will always be a part of producing news in another country – a fact Tiven says CNN is prepared for.

“It’s a problem for the CNN brand only if the CNN standards are waived on a country by country basis, and we won’t do that,” he says. “(The ban) is just a condition of working here. We knew exactly what we were getting into in Turkey, but we said, that’s the price to ride the train.”