A view taken on August 9, 2019 from Ankara Castle (Ankara Kalesi) shows Kocatepe Mosque (C) and Atakule television tower (top…
A view taken on Aug. 9, 2019 from Ankara Castle shows Kocatepe Mosque and Atakule television tower, top second from left, in Ankara, Turkey.

WASHINGTON - Olay TV began broadcasting late last year with ambitions to become a mainstream national news channel in Turkey’s polarized media environment. But the channel lasted just 26 days before closing under what its editor said was government pressure.

The station was set up as a partnership between Cavit Caglar, who had an existing license for a local broadcasting venture, and Huseyin Koksal, a businessman with the capital to invest, a journalist familiar with the setup told VOA.

Less than a month into the broadcasts, Caglar, a former minister and businessman, pulled out of the deal, saying in a statement he was disturbed by the channel’s editorial line being too close to the pro-Kurdish opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP).

The station’s former editor-in-chief, however, alleged that government officials had advised Caglar to make changes. When Suleyman Sarilar announced on air in December that broadcasts would cease, he indicated Caglar was “under intense pressure from the government” to change its editorial stance by replacing the channel’s anchors and reporters with pro-government journalists.

VOA was unable to find contact details for Caglar, but in an interview with the Turkish daily Haberturk, he denied government pressure and said the decision to pull out was his alone.

Olay TV began broadcasting with the hopes to add plurality to the Turkish media scene and a plan to cover all the main parties without bias.

Turkey’s leadership has all but stamped out independent or opposition media through shuttering outlets, mounting legal cases, arrests, or replacing trustees.

Human Rights Watch Turkey director Emma Sinclair-Webb, center, talks to the press on Dec. 18, 2020 in Istanbul after a hearing in the trial of jailed Turkish philanthropist Osman Kavala, on charges connected with a failed coup in 2016.

TV or radio stations that report critically on the government face fines and sanctions from the independent media regulator Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTUK) , according to rights group Human Rights Watch, and Turkey remains one of the leading jailers of journalists. The country’s clampdown on free speech is widely criticized by rights groups and analysts, with the country ranking 154 out of 180 countries in the Reporters Without Borders' (RSF) 2020 World Press Freedom Index

RTUK, which issues licenses and oversees broadcasters, did not respond to VOA’s requests for comment.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said earlier this month that Turkey will never give up press freedom and his government has denied cracking down on media, saying it is trying to fight terrorist propaganda. But the country's antiterror laws that are often used to jail journalists are viewed by rights groups and analysts as a broad way for authorities to crack down on dissent.

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, right, speaks during an interview with private A Haber and ATV television channels, in Istanbul, Dec. 15, 2019.

Station relaunch

Caglar, Olay TV’s top shareholder, founded the station in 1994 as a local broadcaster in the northwestern province of Bursa. It ran until November 2019, when it closed due to economic difficulties.

Last September, Caglar announced that he would relaunch the station, but this time it would be based in Istanbul and would broadcast nationally.

Almost immediately the station was forced to defend itself from allegations that Ekrem Imamoglu, Istanbul’s mayor from the main opposition Republican People’s Party, was a shareholder. Imamoglu and Caglar both denied the allegations.

Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu speaks after being awarded with the German-Turkish Friendship Award 'Kybele 2019' in Berlin, Nov. 8, 2019.

According to Sarilar, one of the main problems for Olay TV was the difficulty of finding someone like Koksal who has the capital to invest and who also has access to a broadcast license from RTUK.

“There are two important things here. The first one is a broadcast license, and the second one is the financial capital to provide technical infrastructure,” Sarilar told VOA.

Sarilar said that Caglar and Koksal came to an agreement: Koksal would provide the logistical infrastructure, such as the building, technical equipment, and personnel, and the station would broadcast with Caglar’s license. The plan was to transfer Caglar’s shares to Koksal after the channel started broadcasting, Sarilar said.

But allegations soon surfaced the government was not happy with its coverage and that the station was allotting too much time to the opposition HDP.

HDP is often accused by the government of having links with the armed group PKK — an allegation that HDP denies. The PKK is designated a terrorist organization by Ankara and Washington. 

License to broadcast

Olay TV’s partnership meant the station didn’t need to apply for a new license to get set up. Some media analysts have accused Turkey’s regulator RTUK of bias when considering applications.

In theory, an independent outlet that meets RTUK’s requirements and files the appropriate documentation should be given a license. Broadly, applicants provide details on their administrative structure, type of broadcast, and financial capability to run a station.

Some media observers say, however, that RTUK fails to meet impartiality and independence because of political interference.

RTUK’s nine members are nominated by political parties in proportion to their representation in the parliament. Currently, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its political ally, Nationalist Movement Party, hold the majority.

“Any government in power in Turkey can control RTUK because its composition is problematic,” Emma Sinclair-Webb, senior Turkey researcher of the New York-based Human Rights Watch, told VOA.

Given that RTUK’s members reflect the power structure in the government, there is a strong likelihood of bias against independent TV channels that might be deemed pro-opposition, and this prevents these outlets from obtaining the license, said Faruk Bildirici, a former RTUK member and a media ombudsman.

In a video conference in May, RTUK’s chair Ebubekir Sahin, an AKP nominee, said that nobody, including President Erdogan, had given instructions for any of his rulings at RTUK.

Sahin said, though,he would “consider [Erdogan’s] instructions and suggestions as orders.”

Bildirici said that pro-government media appear to have a smoother path to receive a license while independent media outlets struggle to overcome RTUK’s arbitrary bureaucratic roadblocks.

To bypass these obstacles, some independent media investors buy local TV channels that already have frequencies from the national satellite operator TURKSAT and a broadcast license from RTUK.

“[Investors] can keep the previous owner on paper, but they change the newsroom,” Bildirici said.

The workaround doesn’t always guarantee swift access to a license.

Last February, the daily newspaper Sozcu, which has been critical of the government, bought Sivas SRT, a channel that broadcasts via TURKSAT satellite. The outlet then applied to RTUK to change the channel’s logo and launch its own TV channel, Sozcu TV

Eleven months later, its RTUK application is still pending.

Coverage criticized

In Olay TV’s case, Sarilar said, the license holder was under government pressure.

“I know that the government circles were troubled with our editorial policy, which aimed to be mainstream and to stay in an equal distance to everyone, and I know that these circles told Cavit Caglar ‘not to launch the channel with this team’,” Sarilar told VOA.

“When I was asked to part ways with some of my friends, I said I could not do such thing,” Sarilar said, adding that he refused to fire the staff.

Ahmet Sik, an independent Istanbul lawmaker and an investigative journalist, also alleged that the presidency had prepared a list of people who would be fired from the channel and a list of journalists from other channels who could replace them.

Turkey’s presidential communications directorate did not respond to VOA’s request for comment.

Caglar has dismissed claims he was under external pressure to pull the plug on Olay TV, saying in an interview that he was the one concerned by the coverage.

“[W]hen these friends broadcasted short segments from other parties’ parliamentary group meetings and broadcast the whole HDP’s group meeting, this disturbed me a lot. I viewed it as a challenge to the Republic of Turkey,” Caglar said.

Some media observers say that perceiving the broadcasts covering HDP’s group meeting as illegitimate signal that Olay TV was under some form of pressure.

“Talking about a party that's a democratically elected party with members of parliament, which has been under huge government pressure, clearly shouldn't be something that's out of bounds for any television channel,” Sinclair-Webb, from Human Rights Watch, said.

An HDP lawmaker, Dilsat Canbaz Kaya, submitted a parliamentary question to vice-president Fuat Oktay late last month asking about the allegations. Oktay did not respond.

Presidential communications director Fahrettin Altun did not directly respond to Kaya’s question either but said on Twitter that the HDP cannot speak without instructions from the PKK.

Olay TV’s ambitions to be a national broadcaster have been shelved. And for now, Caglar and Koksal have gone different ways, with Caglar using his license to plan a new local station, and Sarilar saying he and Koksal are looking at other options for breaking into TV news.