Turkey Orders VOA Turkish to Obtain License or Face Charges

Turkey’s media regulator has given Voice of America’s Turkish Service a three-day deadline to apply for a broadcast license or face potential criminal charges.

The Radio and Television Supreme Council, or RTUK, on Monday told VOA it needed to apply for an on-demand broadcasting license.

The on-demand license is more commonly acquired by entertainment streaming services such as Netflix.

Failure to comply with the request and pay a three-month license fee would result in the regulator applying to the Criminal Judgeships of Peace with a request to block access to VOA’s content.

The media regulator said it was acting under a Turkish law stating that broadcasting executives who air programs despite the cancellation of their licenses could face charges that carry sentences of up to two years in prison.

The directive comes more than a year after the regulator moved to block VOA’s Turkish language content over the broadcaster’s refusal to comply with the same new licensing regulation, over concerns of censorship.

The RTUK also targeted German news outlet Deutsche Welle, which like VOA, is a public, state-owned international broadcaster with an editorially independent newsroom.’

When RTUK blocked access to VOA’s Turkish service in June 2022, VOA moved to a different web address. The new directive could block access to that content.

VOA’s public relations department confirmed that the regulator had issued a new order requiring the broadcaster to obtain a license within 72 hours.

“As a public service broadcaster designed to provide accurate and objective news, VOA cannot comply with any directive intended to enable censorship,” VOA spokesperson Bridget Serchak said in an email.

“VOA will continue to object to any requirement by Turkish regulators — or regulators in any country where we provide news and information — that smacks of attempts to censor our news coverage,” VOA acting director Yolanda Lopez said in a statement Tuesday.

“The requirement to remain a reliable source of independent journalism for our audience is enshrined in our Charter,” Lopez said, adding, “We will take every step necessary to avoid any interference by anyone that threatens the VOA’s ability to deliver on its mission.”

The U.S. State Department said Tuesday it is closely following the situation and is “deeply concerned.”

A spokesperson, speaking on background, told VOA via email that the U.S. urges Turkey to “uphold its obligations and commitments to respect the fundamental freedom of expression.”

“The individual’s rights to freedom of expression includes freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers,” the spokesperson said.

“Respect for freedom of expression is enshrined in Turkey’s constitution and in its international commitments and obligations,” the spokesperson said.

VOA emailed the RTUK regulator late Tuesday and as of publication had not received a response.

The regulator’s deputy head last year had dismissed concerns raised by broadcasters and others over the new regulation, saying the decision “has nothing to do with censorship but is part of technical measures.”

RTUK had previously ordered VOA and two other international broadcasters in February 2022 to apply for a license.

A few months later, it blocked access to VOA’s Turkish-language content and that of Deutsche Welle when both declined to apply for licenses as requested by the regulator.

The February 2022 licensing decision was based on a regulation that had gone into effect in August 2019. At that time, several media freedom advocates raised concerns about possible censorship because the regulation granted RTUK the authority to control all online content.

Under the regulation, RTUK is authorized to request broadcast licenses from “media service providers” so that their radio, TV broadcasting and on-demand audiovisual media services can continue their online presence.

If the licensees do not follow RTUK’s principles, the regulation allows RTUK to impose fines, suspend broadcasting for three months or cancel broadcast licenses

In the past, the U.S. State Department has said that moves to block VOA and DW content in Turkey amounted to an expansion of “government control over freedom of expression and media freedom in Turkey. Free press is essential to a robust democracy.”

Turkey has a poor record for media freedom, with watchdog Reporters Without Borders noting that around 90% of media is government controlled, leaving few independent or critical news outlets.

The country, which has one of the worst records globally for jailing journalists, ranks 165 out of 180 on the press freedom Index, where 1 shows the best media environment. 

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