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The Role of the National Media in Turkey’s Middle Eastern Policy

The Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan claims that the AKP government has carried out a more effective foreign policy concept toward the Middle East than the previous governments. According to Erdogan, new regional conjuncture enables Turkey some strategic opportunities to dominate the tactical gaps in its near periphery and to contribute to the reconstruction of the Middle East after the American occupation of Iraq.

The concept comprises reviving historical and cultural ties between Turkey and Middle Eastern countries by using diplomacy. One kind of diplomacy is “Public Diplomacy” (also called cultural diplomacy, media diplomacy, public information) which has become popular in the United States over the last decades.

Even though the harmony between Turkey’s political, economical and military power capability, not to mention the new foreign policy idea, is a controversial subject the implementation of the model depends significantly on effective public diplomacy. Within this context, the relationship between Turkey’s assertive foreign policy concept and national media will be examined in this article.

Is Mass Communication a Weapon?
The rapid variation of mass communications and information technology has led to changing individual and social perceptions. In the global world, it is vital to conduct other countries’ public opinions, social value judgments and ideas by modern propaganda methods. A state reaches its foreign policy goals through the practice of effective public diplomacy. Public diplomacy provides a means of influencing foreign publics without the use of force. As a result, public diplomacy and foreign policy should be integrated into the new world order.

The American administration has spent millions of dollars and employed thousands of professional personnel to organize its public diplomacy. Each year hundreds of journalists from Third-world countries have been invited regularly to America by governmental and non-governmental organisations such as The Open Society Foundation. These journalists form a part of the mediated public diplomacy. Its objective is clear: to built the structure of pro-American media all over the world. America’s public diplomacy efforts toward the Middle East improved after the American occupation of Iraq. Meanwhile, we can say that the circulation of information and news is under the control of American and European big media groups, arguably with Al-Jazeera being the exception.

The Qatar-based Al-Jazeera satellite TV channel otherwise known as “Arab CNN”, provides the most striking example in the Eastern World of what professional television broadcasting of news can achieve. Al-Jazeera was founded with a $140 million grant from Qatari Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa in 1996, but it gained worldwide attention following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, when it broadcasted video statements by Osama bin Laden the leader of Al-Qaeda. The Chairman of Al-Jazeera is Sheikh Hamad bin Thamer al-Thani who is a cousin of Qatari Emir Sheikh Khalifa. (1)

Nowadays, Al-Jazeera is watched by over 40 million Arabs and is the most effective news channel in the Middle East. Therefore it appears as an alternative media and a big rival against the regional press together with Western media. In 2003, Al-Arabiya was founded with an investment of $300 million by the Saudi-controlled pan-Arab satellite TV pioneer MBC, Lebanon’s Hariri Group, and other investors from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the Gulf states. It was set up as an all-news channel to compete directly with Al-Jazeera.(2) In the following year, American policy makers decided to found an Arabic-language satellite TV station which called Al-Hurra (Middle East Television Network or The Free One) in Iraq. In January 2004, Al-Hurra started up at a cost of about $102 million. An Arabic-language satellite TV could struggle with Al-Jazeera as a public diplomacy tool.(3) Having launched Al-Jazeera in English it began to compete with BBC World and CNN International. The BBC has launched a new Arabic language TV channel in North Africa, the Middle East and the Persian Gulf on March 13, 2008.(4) It seems that the political polarization in the region reflects the competition of media.

Al-Jazeera has been criticised by the US for encourageing armed Islamist groups in Iraq and Afghanistan. The TV network is banned from reporting in Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Al-Jazeera’s offices in Baghdad and in Kabul was hit by US bombs.(5) Although the Bush administration tends to see it as a pro-Islamic propaganda tool, Al-Jazeera has ushered in the much needed change in Middle Eastern media. One of the most important achievements of Al-Jazeera is also of breaking the monopoly of state media which was controlled by the ruling class.

Turkish Media and The Middle East
Until a few years ago, Turkish public opinion tended to see the Middle East (particularly the Arab World) more as a sphere of risk and crisis than as a sphere of opportunity and stability. Even though Turkey and Middle Eastern countries have close historical and geographical ties, psychological prejudices and security concerns has long kept them apart in terms of politics and economics in the Cold War era. Turkish foreign policy has always been designed so as to give priority to relations with the West rather than the Middle East without exceptions.

However, since 2003, the political and economical potentials have been revived by the Turkish new foreign policy concept, which emphasized good intention, cooperation and friendship. On the one hand, the Turkish government has built a strategic bilateral relationship with all its Middle Eastern neighbours. Moreover, they have tried to contribute to peace talks in the region as a facilitator actor. In brief, Turkey has displayed its susceptibility and willingness towards the region on all occasions. This attention from Turkey may lead to a big strategic springboard for Turkish foreign policy in the region.

The question remains: what did Turkish media do to support the new foreign policy concept and why didn’t the government use it as a public diplomacy tool? Generally speaking Turkish media has many structural difficulties. First of all, the current and former governments have predominantly used media organs to influence its political rivals in internal policy: the AKP government also made the same mistake. They have made serious efforts to create a pro-government media. For instance, Turkey’s second-biggest media conglomerate, Sabah ATV, which has been in government hands ever since its owners went bust, was sold to Ahmet Calik, who is a close associate of the Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan. It has been stuffed with pro-government hacks. Mr. Calık shelled out $1.1 billion for the group. He raised two-thirds of the money for the purchase ($750m) from two state-owned banks. (6)

The Turkish media has always been used as a power struggle tool by political and capital groups, consequently the external events are less important than the internal disagreements. Recently the media in Turkey had separated into three parts such as central media, pro-government media and the nationalist media. The central media has been serving the interests of the big capital groups which control various sectors of the economy. Although the central media seems to support a secular republic, its political bias is variable. The Pro-government media is composed of Islamic and conservative religious congregations and companies. They diligently abstain from criticising and always tolerate the existing government. Lastly, the government is systematically accused of changing the regime by the nationalist media. No matter what the government does, the nationalists do not trust it. They have a security-first approach and would prefer ignoring a new foreign policy concept. In the modern democratic countries, the media has some ethical responsibility to the public, but not for a political group or an interest group. Unfortunately, it can be argued that most media associations in Turkey have lost their ethical concerns.

Meanwhile there is not an anti-cartel law for the media in Turkey. A businessman or a company can have a great number of TV channels, newspapers and magazines at the same time. They mostly use these to defend their personal interests and to interfere in the political decision-making process. As it is, we cannot be certain of fair competition nor the freedom of the press in Turkish media.

As a matter of fact Turkish media have no concern with the Middle East. Most Turkish media bosses, journalists, editors and other staff have psychological prejudices about the Arabs in their subconscious. Their prejudices reflect their activities. How many permanent correspondents of Turkish news channels are there in the Middle Eastern countries? The Turkish population is kept informed about a sphere of crises (in Palestine, Lebanon and Iraq) via Western news agencies, TV channels and newspapers; the majority of Turkish newspapers would prefer publishing translated news from English. Western sources of information forces the Turkish public opinion to change its perception. This is also a crucial strategic weakness for a state that has an assertive foreign policy concept.

The potential for claiming a large share of Middle Eastern reporting is immense. There are over 200 TV channels and over 1000 radio stations in Turkey at the moment. The broadcasting and press is mostly domestic and local. However, some Turkish private broadcasting companies have a professional organizational structure, high technology, an immense budget and experience. Turkish satellite TV channels have been watched in the Middle Eastern countries, especially in Iraq and Syria for the last decade. Despite difficulties of language, when Middle Eastern people watch Turkish TV channels, they admire the balance between religious identity and secular republicanism in Turkey. The political regime of Turkey is a role model for them.

Furthermore, the Turkish Parliament passed a bill on the 29th May 2008 allowing the state-owned television Turkish Radio and Television Corporation (TRT) to broadcast programs in languages other than Turkish, paving the way for broadcasts in Kurdish, Arabic and Farsi. Therefore TRT will now be able to allocate one of its channels to 24-hour broadcasts in Kurdish. TRT General Director Ibrahim Sahin has said they plan to broadcast in Kurdish, Arabic and Farsi in the initial stages of their non-Turkish programming. (7) This is a significant decision for not only democracy and freedom of expression but also Turkish public diplomacy. The preferential target audience of Kurdish broadcasting will be Kurdish citizens of Turkey. Thus, the government targets to restrict the influence of Roj TV, which is the TV channel of the PKK terrorist group, over the Kurds. The opposition groups in Turkey mostly tend to see this decision as a dangerous activity. They say Kurdish broadcasting will provoke the feelings of micro-nationalism and incite the sectarian violence of PKK.

In my opinion, if the Turkish government wants to use new broadcasting as a public diplomacy tool in its foreign policy and to create a sphere of influence in the Middle East, it ought to make a more point of Arabic broadcasting than Kurdish broadcasting. Approximately 350 million people who speak Arabic and 30 million people who speak Kurdish live in the Middle East. Arabic is the most widespread language which is spoken throughout the Middle Eastern region.

As for the broadcasting capability of TRT, in the short term, it is not possible that TRT could join the international competition and compete directly with Al-Jazeera, Al Arabiya and the BBC in the Middle East. State broadcaster TRT hasn’t got a competitive and independent organizational structure. Unless the state control loosened or abandoned all together, TRT is not able to turn its experience and knowledge into action in the regional or international area. However, the Turkish government ought to encourage experienced Turkish and Arab private broadcasting companies to establish a partnership with TRT. Currently one of the main problems of international broadcasting is the difficulties of professional recruitment, especially as language credentials, in many cases, come before journalistic experience. How many personnel from TRT can speak Arabic or Kurdish fluently now?

The Turkish government has to concede the deficiency of Turkey, and as a result the institutional structure should be built for public diplomacy. It must be stated that public diplomacy is difficult and results may take years to realise. Even when large sums of money are allocated to the task and skilled personnel recruited, as in the United States, positive achievements may be inadequate. Changing ingrained attitudes takes sustained effort over an extremely long time.(8)

Last April, the Turkish government declared that it plans to establish a Public Diplomacy Agency (PDA) to undertake public relations operations parallel to Turkish foreign policy. Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan described the PDA’s duty as advocating Turkey’s foreign policy views, theses and targets not through classical diplomatic means, but through a wide variety of instruments including publications, seminars, television programs, movie production and think tanks.(9) This will be a significant attempt, if it doesn’t restrict dealing with the European Union membership process. The Turkish government still needs a strategy and priorities to tie together various public diplomacy activities.

As a result, the Turkish media must learn to move with ethical concerns and common public interests, particularly in foreign policy. The less Turkish media associations argue about ideological conflicts and reach a rapprochement, the better it will be for the future of a new Turkish foreign policy concept. A coordinated and effective national media in the foreign policy could help to increase the political impact and trade volume of Turkey in the region.

Author: Yasin Atlıoğlu

(1) Nicolas Eliades, “The Rise of Al Jazeera”, Peace & Conflict Monitor; June 6, 2006
(2) Peter Feuilherade, “Profile: Al-Arabiya TV”, BBC News, November 23, 2003
(3) Stephen C. Johnson, “Improving U.S. Public Diplomacy Toward the Middle East”, The Heritage Foundation, May 24, 2004
(4) “BBC launches Arabic TV channel”, BBC News, March 11, 2008
(5) Lawrence Smallman, “Rumsfeld blames Aljazeera over Iraq”, Al-Jazeera, June 5, 2005
(6) “Circulation wars”, The Economist, May 8, 2008
(7) State broadcaster TRT began airing weekly 30-minute programs in Kurdish and several other minority languages in 2004 as part of Turkey’s bid to join the European Union. Bkz. “TRT to launch broadcasting in Kurdish”, Todays Zaman, May 31, 2008
(8) Steven Collins, “Mind games”, NATO Review, Summer 2003,
(9) Kerim Balcı, “Gov’t goes on public diplomacy offensive”, Todays Zaman, April 28, 2008

Source: Bilgesam,

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