By now, many Americans are aware that the RT international television network is a propaganda arm of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime. They might be less familiar with TRT World, an English-language international television network that is a propaganda arm of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s regime.
In the weeks since Turkey’s invasion of northeastern Syria, called Operation Peace Spring, TRT World has provided a steady stream of enthusiastic coverage, including politicians and celebrities praising the military offensive, Turkish civilians showing their patriotism, Turkish minorities and Syrian refugees supporting the invasion and numerous government officials promoting the policy.
At the same time, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, the Turkish government has banned the domestic publication of critical news reports and commentary on the military operation. The interior minister announced in mid-October that the government had taken “necessary action” against 500 people, detaining 121, who had “insulted Operation Peace Spring” on social media by terming it an invasion. Two journalists, the ministry said, were arrested for their social media postings, released on probation and banned from international travel.
Turkey’s modus operandi of silencing domestic critics while spending millions on PR abroad is mightily aided by TRT World. Launched in 2015, the channel airs 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with headquarters in Istanbul and broadcast centers in London, Washington and Singapore. TRT World says its satellite, cable and digital operation reaches 260 million households in 190 countries. It is widely available in the United States, including on the cable services of Comcast, Cox and Verizon.
The content TRT World produces and disseminates, including to its 2.1 million Facebook followers, is largely aimed at swaying the perceptions of an international English-speaking audience in favor of the Erdogan government’s domestic and foreign policy objectives. Though TRT World’s budget isn’t disclosed, in 2016 the Financial Times said industry analysts estimated its annual running costs at $77 million to $155 million.
Authoritarian countries understand well the value of maintaining a strong messaging presence in Washington to try to influence elite opinion in Congress, at think tanks and in the media, whether that means Russia’s RT, Qatar’s Al Jazeera, the China Global Television Network, and increasingly the efforts of TRT World.
American policy experts, human rights activists, academics and journalists, possibly unaware of TRT World’s function as an Erdogan megaphone, regularly turn up on the channel’s broadcasts. The guests come from a broad range of organizations, including the Brookings Institution, the Atlantic Council, Amnesty International, Harvard and Stanford universities, Foreign Policy, Newsweek and the Wall Street Journal.
Even when the specific broadcast stories these guests participate in are not explicitly promoting the Erdogan regime, the guests are still in the peculiar position of contributing to a news channel that is owned and operated by a state that crushes press freedom at home. According to Reporters Without Borders’s 2019 World Press Freedom Index, Turkey ranks 157th out of 180 countries. In September, the Committee to Protect Journalists joined 12 other groups defending press freedom and freedom of expression in calling on the United Nations Human Rights Council to urge Turkey to “end its assault on media freedom and civic space,” noting that “at least 132 journalists and media workers are behind bars, and hundreds more have been prosecuted as terrorists, solely for their journalistic work.”
With Erdogan scheduled to meet with President Donald Trump in Washington on Wednesday, that might be a good moment for American experts and organizations to stop participating in TRT World’s broadcasts, just as they would decline to appear on Russia’s RT. That would send an unmistakable and timely message to the Erdogan regime: A government that capitalizes on free speech abroad while brutally suppressing it at home deserves to be shunned. Turkey’s imprisoned journalists must not be forgotten.
Steven Stalinsky is executive director of the Middle East Media Research Institute. This column was originally published by The Washington Post.