Turkey’s public broadcaster must regularly disclose financial information in U.S.

Turkish public broadcaster TRT has been forced to register as a foreign agent with the U.S. Department of Justice and disclose that it is supervised and financed by Turkish government-dominated public institutions.

The broadcaster’s English language channel, TRT World, was launched in 2015, raising questions about why the news outlet was not registered as a foreign agent until now. Other state-run news outlets like the once venerable Turkish news agency, Anadolu Agency (AA), however, still have not registered under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA).

One former TRT World journalist told Ahval that the channel “thought the U.S. would not force Turkey to register TRT, because Turkey is a member of NATO”. Although the United States and Turkey remain formal treaty allies, numerous recent ruptures in bilateral relations have led many U.S. politicians to question whether they should treat Ankara as an ally.

“TRT reportedly registered as a foreign agent following an order from the U.S. Department of Justice, and to avoid a potential court injunction compelling them to do so,” Aykan Erdemir, the senior director of the Turkey Program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), told Ahval.

The filing “follows the same pattern as Russia’s state-run outlet RT, which also received an order from the Justice Department to register as a foreign agent in 2017,” Erdemir said.

FARA, which TRT will now have to follow per its registration, is a public-disclosure statute designed to expose propaganda activities in the United States carried out by any individual or organisation at the behest of a foreign power.

Erdemir suggested that, “TRT’s hostile coverage of the United States and other NATO allies, and the anti-Semitic and anti-Christian conspiracies it peddles in its productions, such as the revisionist historical drama The Last Emperor, might have speeded up the process.”

Turkey has invested heavily in TRT World, but the channel has failed to garner much of an audience and lacks the sophistication of similar state outlets like Russia’s RT.

“It was not supposed to become a propaganda channel,” the former TRT World journalist said, but also noted that even at the beginning foreign journalists on the payroll experienced unprofessional working conditions.

A second former employee of the channel confirmed that there was a distinct increase in editorial direction from President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s administration following the failed coup attempt in 2016.

“Those of us who stayed, we stayed for fiscal reasons,” the first former TRT journalist said, while early career reporters said they were “there for the show-reels.” However, now that they are known to be propaganda-reels those younger reporters find it very difficult to find work elsewhere in the news industry. The second former employee said that those who had found employment elsewhere left TRT World off their resumés.

The current head of TRT’s international news channels, Serdar Karagöz, is a close ally of Erdoğan who often accompanies the Turkish president on official foreign visits. Former TRT World employees said many of their colleagues were related to family and friends of members of the administration.

The channel’s FARA disclosure denies close ties with the Turkish government, and only notes that it is supervised, like other Turkish media, by the state’s broadcast watchdog board RTÜK. The majority of board members, however, are members of Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP).

The disclosure simply states that RTÜK “is the regulatory body that governs the standards and practices of broadcasting in Turkey.” This is, however, misleading. A 2018 bylaw empowers the board to censor all internet broadcasting platforms and a 2019 law even allows it to censor streaming sites like Netflix and to demand personal information about their customers.

TRT’s registration further claims it does not receive funds from any foreign government, however, the majority of its budget is publicly funded by fees levied on the purchases of electronics, including televisions and radios, and fees levied on utility bills. Former employees allege that many paid positions and contracted services are vehicles used to distribute state patronage.

As the AKP has consolidated power and increased its control over both state and private media in Turkey, both TRT and AA were moulded into government mouthpieces. Two foreign editors who briefly worked for the agency in 2014 wrote: “The AA’s editorial line on domestic politics - and Syria - was so intently pro-government that we might as well have been writing press releases.”

AA may be avoiding registration when TRT could not, because, with the significant investment poured into TRT World as an international English language media outlet, a U.S. presence is more essential to TRT World than for AA, especially given it is mainly oriented towards online video news.

Now that TRT has registered under FARA, Erdemir said it must disclose financial information regarding its activities in the United States on a regular basis.

“Although TRT manages to escape financial scrutiny in Turkey by claiming that a significant portion of its budget involves trade secrets, it will now need to be financially transparent in the U.S. Ironically, TRT will now be more accountable to U.S. taxpayers than it has been to Turkish taxpayers,” he said.


© Ahval English

The views expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.