Broadcast revolution in the air for Turks

A boom in radio and television stations is shining light into Turkey's dark corners, writes Hugh Pope in Istanbul
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The Independent Online
If group therapy is a good way out of apparently insoluble problems, perhaps there is one hope for Turkey's intractable political and economic condition: an extraordinary new era in broadcasting.

Take the Kurdish question, the bloodiest and most expensive problem of all. Looking at the harsh Turkish repression of a 10-year Kurdish revolt and the jailing of Kurdish nationalist MPs, it only seems to get worse. But on the nation's television screens, the past year has brought a revolution. In a country where the very word Kurd was taboo until a few years ago, millions tuned in two weeks ago to a no-holds-barred debate about the Kurdish question between top Turkish officials, Kurdish nationalists and ordinary people that lasted nine hours until seven o'clock in the morning.

The passions aroused caused an elderly Kurdish participant to suffer a heart attack. But everybody had their say and shook hands at the end, as with myriad other topics that are tackled every week in what must be one of the most youthful and dynamic broadcasting sectors in the world.

It all began in 1989, when a loophole in the law and the indulgence of the late Turkish leader, Turgut Ozal, allowed a first satellite transmission to break the state monopoly. In 1993 other companies began to join the fray. Now I have to retune my television set almost weekly. I can choose from 22 Turkish channels in Istanbul, while an estimated 750 channels compete for provincial audiences among Turkey's 60 million people. A further 1,500 radio stations pack the FM bands.

State television's 8pm bulletin was once the dowager queen that set a strait-laced agenda for the nation. The show has been deposed and is now a weary litany of official comings and goings watched by just a tenth of viewers. Its rating is exceeded by four or five private stations that have few inhibitions about challenging the taboos about Kurds, the army and Islam.

"The genie is out of the bottle. There can be no cover-ups any more," said a former high-flying television executive, Nuri Colakoglu. He remembered how change and openness were stifled even when the state started to move on from what only 10 years ago was just a few dreary hours a day of black and white programming.

The light being shone into dark corners brings an awareness that things have to change. Turks, unaccustomed to taking the initiative, are not sure what to do with all the information.

The new openness has partly favoured the brightest political party to emerge in Turkey in years, the New Democracy Movement of the charismatic, young industrialist Cem Boyner. One small TV station, responding to popular demand, replayed his speech in their town 22 times. The Islamists have also set up conservative channels, but keep their attacks discreet on the secularist state set up 70 years ago by Kemal Ataturk.

But regulation is beginning to catch up. The army is threatening to jail a prominent Turkish journalist, Mehmet Ali Birand, and a colleague for interviewing conscripts reluctant to fight in the Kurdish war. Parliament has also set up a new body of regulators drawn mainly from the political party in power.

So far the board has not managed to do much more than try to count the stations and to rein in pornography, gory scenes and intrusive excesses. A return to the old taboos seems impossible, even if some of the bad old ways of the government's financial relationship with the printed press are emerging.

"The owner of my television station orders us to say nice things about the government whenever he gets a big state loan," said one reporter. "But it only ever lasts few weeks. Then we can go back to criticising whatever we want."