No. 10, Spring/Summer 2003
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Divided and Confused: The reporting of the first two weeks of the war in Iraq on Turkish television channels

By Dilruba Catalbas

When the US and its allies first attacked Iraq in 1991, the Turkish electronic media field was on the brink of a major transformation. The first private television channel, Star, had already begun beaming its signals from Germany on 1 March 1990 thanks to transnational satellite broadcasting. It was said that beside its down-market, entertainment-oriented programming policy, its continuous retransmission of CNN during the Gulf War contributed greatly to the popularity of the newly launched private television.

Although it had significantly extended its global reach in the early 1990s, Turkey's public broadcaster, TRT, was hardly a genuine transnational broadcaster. Foreign news had never been one of TRT's strong points for it had always been dependent on international news agencies and Western media. Thus CNN proved to be the most important source of news about the Gulf War for both TRT and Star. This was not surprising given that so many other broadcasters in so many other countries also relied heavily on CNN and its exclusive coverage. It is worth mentioning, however, that very few among these countries have closer geographical, cultural and historical ties with the region than Turkey does.

Since the days of the Gulf War, the broadcasting scene in Turkey has changed beyond recognition. Three years after the launch of Star, broadcasting legislation was amended to acknowledge the growing competitive, multi-channel broadcasting system. By the year 2000, the number of national television channels was 16 while there were 15 regional and 229 local stations. In addition to general interest channels, there were 24-hour news channels, such as NTV and CNN TURK, and thematic channels, like CNBC-e. According to an audience survey conducted between 26 and 28 September 2002, the most widely watched channels were atv, Show TV, Kanal D, Star, and TRT. These channels also have a large following among the Turkish-speaking communities living in various European countries.

Ready for the 'The First War of the 21st Century'

In contrast to what had happened during the Gulf War, Turkish media was not caught unprepared by the war in Iraq. When the first American bombs started falling on Baghdad all the major television stations and newspapers had already stationed their own reporters in and around the country. They had reporters in Kuwait, Qatar and various towns along the Turkish border. AA (Anatolian Agency), the Turkish national news agency, and private news agencies CHA (Cihan News Agency) and IHA (Ihlas News Agency) were among the domestic news agencies that covered the war.

From the first day the two leading news broadcasters, NTV and CNN TURK and TRT2 (the second channel of the public broadcaster) devoted all their broadcast time to the reporting of the war. They kept commercial breaks and coverage of other news to a minimum. In addition to rolling news up-dates and continuous studio discussions with various experts, they frequently interrupted their programming to broadcast live pictures and press conferences from what they referred as the 'hot spots' of the war. Usually the screens were split to place more than one picture source at once. Graphics in and between news reports were used to explain maps, plans, weapons, and equipment. The choice of red as the background color was one of the common features of the presentation.

Although it did not have a nonstop coverage, TV 8 should be mentioned among those who spent substantial time and energy on the reporting of the war. Mainstream channels, Star, Show TV, Kanal D, TGRT, atv as well as Islamist channels Kanal 7 and STV largely limited their reporting of the war to their regular news bulletins and continued with their usual schedules. As a result, an average television viewer had a very peculiar array of programming at the touch of his or her remote button. On the one hand, some channels broadcast seriously distressing scenes and reports from the war while others went on with cheerful down-market entertainment and music shows. Some viewers perceived this rather postmodern collage of suffering and amusement as a major deficit of commonsense.

Behind the screens of the war in Iraq, the two major news channels, NTV and CNN TURK, were waging their own ratings war. All the major television channels discovered in war a chance for self-promotion and were trying to carve out a positive image for themselves. NTV's most frequently used slogan 'That Moment Is On NTV' was heard over the dramatic images of the war. CNN TURK, on the other hand, stressed its association with CNN International Networks (CNNI). "Latest on war in Iraq from 26 different spots and 57 reporters! Special reports and news footage of CNNI's front reporters, who never stop chasing American forces, are on CNN TURK only." Kanal D boasted that they were the ones which first broadcast the bombing of Iraq live on 20 March, 2003. CNN TURK and Kanal D, both of which belong to Dogan Media Group, the largest media corporation in Turkey, also had full-page advertisements published several times in the group's papers.

Although Turkish television channels had many news sources at their disposal, the rising star of the war in Iraq was undoubtedly the Al Jazeera television. Even CNN TURK was broadcasting pictures from Al Jazeera and the Abu Dhabi Space Channel. CNN TURK's reporters in Baghdad together with their colleagues from CNNI had been expelled from Iraq on 21 March, 2003. There were reports that since the beginning of the war Al Jazeera considerably increased its cable subscription in Europe and that Turkish viewers were making calls for Digiturk, the major digital platform in Turkey, to include Al Jazeera in its package.

From a swift victory to a prolonged conflict

Turkish media in general seemed to envisage a swift and easy victory for the US. CNN TURK reported on 21 March that a British spokesman claimed that they would enter Baghdad within 3 to 4 days. The flicking pictures from the cameras of the embedded reporters, showing the US army rolling unopposed through dessert were reinforcing this prediction. That kind of footage and information were also in accordance with the framework in which the approaching war had been presented to the public: the invincible super power sweeping across Iraq in a matter of days.

Therefore, the early reports about the escape of Tariq Aziz, the killing of Taha Yasin Ramadan, and the fall of Iraqi cities like Umm Qasr did not meet with much skepticism. It was announced that US intelligence had made a deal with Iraqi generals to surrender together with their men and Americans expected a coup against Saddam. Meanwhile scary scenarios about the possible evil deeds of Saddam Hussein were abundant. The Pentagon's claims that Saddam Hussein could destroy the damns on the Euphrates and Tigris, set fire to the oil fields and use his chemical weapons were reported repeatedly. However, it did not take long for journalists to discover that many of these reports were either exaggerated or simply false and that they were probably part of the propaganda war.

Before the end of the first week the pictures of the fearful faces of captured American soldiers, broadcast by Al Jazeera, seemed to undermine the confidence in a rapid victory. The US military high command and the Bush administration were quick to condemn Iraq for violating the Geneva Convention. But this was not found very convincing as pictures of Iraqi prisoners of war had been all over the media since the second day. Many commentators agreed it would be a double standard to evoke the international law when the legality of the war itself was questionable.

In addition to the continuous reports of what was going on in the front, Turkish television channels covered the war mostly in terms of its relevance to Turkey. A more global perspective regarding the unfolding of the events and debates in other countries was largely missing. Within this evidently ethnocentric approach the prime importance was assigned to US-Turkey relations, which had been strained since the Turkish Parliament rejected on 1 March, 2003, a government proposal to grant permission to the US military to deploy its troops on Turkish soil. The second motion to grant the US permission to use the airspace and allow Turkish Army to send military personnel into northern Iraq passed the vote on 20 March 2003 but following the vote it seemed that the Turkish and American sides could not reach a prompt agreement on overflight rights. There was speculation on televised debates that the delay was caused by the disagreement between Turkey and the US over northern Iraq. The US military and political spokesmen were sending open messages that they would not accept the Turkish military entering northern Iraq. Turkey, on the other hand, had declared that she would not accept an independent Kurdish state and said she would intervene if Kurdish Peshmerga groups entered Mosul and Kirkuk, causing a threat to the Turcoman population. Another significant aspect of the ethnocentric treatment of the war in Iraq was the emphasis placed on its impact on the already feeble Turkish economy and on the role of Turkey in the post-Saddam order.

View points and comments

Anti-war but pro-US Military experts, international relations and foreign policy analysts, ex-diplomats and politicians dominated much of the coverage in the first two weeks. Several retired generals of the Turkish military sat next to the presenters and anchors in the studio to offer their views and analysis on the military moves and strategy. The current war in Iraq was constantly compared with the last Gulf War and other wars in near and distant history in order to assess relative successes and failures. CNN TURK and NTV had their own military advisers while TRT frequently interviewed experts at ASAM (Eurasia Strategic Research Center). The military commentators did not doubt that the US forces would eventually defeat Saddam's army but they seemed to agree that it would be much harder for the US to control Iraq than to occupy it.

The coverage of military affairs on both NTV and CNN TURK were deepened by several special pieces, which meticulously explored American and Iraqi military units and weaponry. A viewer in a televised debate expressed his frustration, shared by many others, by saying, "I don't want to know the technical capacity of the B-52 bombers. The media should tell me about the Iraqi people."

The dominance of the so-called accredited sources on many television programs left little room for the views of the person on the street. Although the media knew that Turkish public opinion was decisively against the war and opposed involvement by Turkey in it, there were hardly any vox populi interviews. A few exceptional opportunities for ordinary viewers to explain their views were provided by atv's well known studio discussion program, Siyaset Meydani (The Political Arena) and by NTV's question and answer program, called 'Acik Hat' (Open Line).

Another group largely ignored by the media was the anti-war movement and peace initiatives. Their activities whether at home or abroad were covered almost entirely as street protests with no background information as to who these people were and what they wanted. The spokespersons of the peace initiatives were excluded from the distinguished chorus of experts and television intellectuals.

Although the focus was overwhelmingly on "what is happening today," there was also extensive analysis of the background and probable consequences of the war. It was frequently expressed that the war was part of a larger American strategy not just for the region but for the entire world. The real motives behind the war, many commentators agreed, were to secure the control of oil reserves, to defeat the competition from the EU and to strengthen the security of Israel. Some commentators insisted that this war should be understood as an attempt to change the maps in the old Ottoman hinterland. It was pointed out that one of the most significant consequences of the war was that it caused a major division in the EU and brought questions about the long-term survival and viability of the UN.

Due to the ethnocentric perspective of the media toward the war, most commentaries and debate were about US-Turkey relations. The views seemed to be grouped into three major lines. The first line of argument was in favor of complete harmony with the USA and her global policies. Another group would argue that Turkey could support the war in return for some concessions beneficial to her national interests. A third line of argument insisted that whatever the costs, Turkey should follow an independent and consistent policy as desired by the majority of its citizens. (1)

In the first days of the war most of the commentaries seemed to adopt the first line of argument that Turkey could not afford to offend the US. Well known television journalists like Cengiz Candar and Mehmet Ali Birand as well as some ex-diplomats like Yalim Eralp voiced their concerns that the disagreement between the US and Turkey were taking relations to a dangerous crossroads. They alleged that the 50 year-old strategic partnership between the US and Turkey was over. Yalim Eralp claimed Americans felt deceived and there would be anger against Turkey. While some observers were concerned that the US would punish Turkey, some liberal journalists, like Mehmet Barlas argued that without the American economic aid Turkey could be worse than Argentina and could even have a regime problem.

These sorts of views had their echoes on CNN TURK in the words of some American commentators as well. One such commentator, Henry Barkey, told Mehmet Ali Birand that the US didn't need Turkey anymore. Barkey claimed the biggest trump card of Turkey was the existence of Saddam. Now that Saddam was out of the picture Turkey came out the loser. He also said the Turkish Parliament had made a big mistake and predicted that this would lead to problems. A similar perspective was voiced by others like Morton Abramowitz, the ex-US ambassador to Ankara and Helena Finn from New York International Relations Council. Abramowitz said that there was a big disappointment in the US and that relations were deeply harmed. He added that Turkey must meet the urgent demands on the use of airspace as soon as possible. Helena Finn said Turkey could not understand how serious the US was and it was a shame that she stayed out of the game. (2)

These kinds of remarks from some American commentators and apologetic responses of some Turkish journalists and commentators caused resentment among viewers and divided the journalistic community. Politicians like Onur Oymen, Kemal Dervis and Ismail Cem denied these kinds of gloomy conclusions and asserted that the US-Turkey relations were much stronger than these pessimist accounts assumed. Later the decision of the Bush administration to allocate one billion dollars in aid to Turkey and the unexpected visit of Colin Powell to Ankara were seen as indications of the improvements in the relations.

Even though journalists and television commentators were divided about Turkey's role in this war, one thing they had in common was their disillusionment with the government. During the first two weeks of the war, the AKP (Justice and Development Party) government had to face serious criticism from many different quarters for failing to manage the crisis. Of course, what these parties expected from this crisis management was completely different. While liberals seemed deeply disappointed with the present situation, commentators in the anti-war front such as Nuray Mert, Rusen Cakir, and Fehmi Koru claimed that the current position of Turkey was better than active involvement.

Although they took a very critical stance against the war, Islamist channels Kanal 7 and STV seemed not to adopt an overly heavy-handed approach towards the AKP government. Although their frame of reference in relation to the war was an emphasis on Islamic identity and solidarity, they seemed to downplay the AKP government's pro-American attitude. In this way, they differed from Star, which from the very beginning adopted a very populist strategy of reporting. Although news programs on Star criticized the war, their major target seemed to be the AKP government. The owner of Star, Cem Uzan had competed with AKP in the last elections on 3 November, 2002, and received around 7 percent of the votes cast with the help of his populist and nationalist election campaign.

Media War within the War

The war in Iraq divided the Turkish journalism community. There appeared to be two major groups independent of the ideological positions of their members. The first group of journalists and commentators opposed the war as they found it illegal and unfair and objected to Turkey's involvement in it. In opposition to that group there was a crowded group of pragmatists, who would say that the war was unfortunate but that Turkey must go along with the US in order to turn it into her advantage. Although much smaller in numbers, anti-war groups seemed to have greater public sympathy behind them. (3)

The way these two groups interpreted the media treatment of the war undoubtedly reflected their position. The anti-war camp accused some pragmatists like Ertugrul Ozkok, the editor in chief of Hurriyet and one of the top executives of the Dogan Media Group, of warmongering. Those in the pragmatist camp, on the other hand, accused writers, commentators, and everybody else on the anti-war front of ignorance, naivety, and even disloyalty. The head of the Turkish Parliament, Bulent Arinc, and President Ahmet Necdet Sezer also became the targets of these pragmatists because of their outspokenness against the war. In response Arinc said that some Turkish journalists were behaving like "the Pentagon's mouthpiece."

Commercial hostilities between media owners found their way into the coverage of the war. It was claimed on Show TV that the reason why some papers belonging to the Dogan Media Group supported the war was that Aydin Dogan, the owner of the group, expected large revenues from the sale of oil to American military forces through his petroleum company, POAS.

The coverage of the war by Turkish and Western media was subjected to scrutiny in some television programs and newspaper articles. While NTV received praise for its balanced and objective reporting the most unlikely winner seemed to be TRT. CNN TURK, on the other hand, received a lot of criticism for its handling of the war from the US perspective. Interviews conducted by Mehmet Ali Birand with some hardline American commentators, such as Harlan Ullman, the designer of the notorious "shock and awe" concept, contributed particularly to this criticism.

With regard to Western media treatment of the war a number of points seemed to be shared by different observers. First, the objectivity and impartiality of the so-called embedded reporters were found questionable. Second, it was argued that British and American television channels failed the test of objectivity and impartiality, the two main principles of Anglo-Saxon journalism, which they had taught the rest of the world. It was found noteworthy that the BBC, ITN, Sky and Fox News cast doubt on the credibility of all news items originating with Iraqi sources by saying that they could be black propaganda while they would pass on information from Pentagon as if it was indisputable. The collapse of the long-lived myth of the impartial BBC was particularly remarkable as it had been the prime role model for supporters of independent public service broadcasting in Turkey. Third it was found totally unethical that some Western journalists asked for and supported the bombing of Iraq TV.

In conclusion: Reality is larger than the media

Unlike the Gulf war, viewers in Turkey had the chance to receive news from many different sources. In addition to terrestrial channels, cable and satellite operators supply all the major Western channels. However, a large majority of viewers has not shown a great deal of interest in newscasts about the war. Rating reports showed that the main evening newscasts of the major channels were far behind those of the popular sit-coms and soap operas.

The lack of interest on the part of the viewers may well be due to a number of interrelated reasons. First, the so-called pre-emptive war doctrine of the Bush regime was not able to win the minds and hearts of people in Turkey. According to the findings of a recent public opinion survey, 77 percent of the respondents believed that the real reason for the war was to protect US interests in the region. Only 5.7 percent mentioned Iraq's disobedience to the UN resolution. (4) Thus, it could be said that ordinary people developed an inner resistance towards the war. This resistance turned into contempt with the help of the scenes like the notorious "shock and awe." The pictures of this massive bombing of Baghdad succeeded in horrifying viewers in Turkey. Second, public opinion in Turkey had long grown wary of the liberal mainstream media. The distrust of the audience was reinforced by the large amount of misinformation passed on to public, particularly in the first days of the war with little careful checking and double checking.

Many well-known television journalists and commentators failed to assess correctly public sentiment, which was decisively against the war and called for support for Iraqi civilians. This was hardly surprising, considering the growing inconsistency between the attitudes of large segments of the population and the core media in Turkey. AKP won the last elections despite the negative coverage that it received from the liberal mainstream media.

It can be argued that pro-US commentaries advanced by some liberal writers and broadcasters have also been largely counterproductive in terms of winning public consent for the war. Ragip Duran, an experienced journalist, explains this by the mismatch between media reality and the 'real' social reality of our times. He asserts that media loses its persuasive power to the extent that it distances itself from the public and approaches the rulers and thus coveys the media reality instead of the 'real' reality. However, it would be wrong to assume, as some liberal journalists do, mostly to silence their critics, that this will lead to some deep seated anti-Americanism in Turkish society. Although these commentators rarely make a distinction between the Bush administration and the USA, a great majority of the people on the street in Turkey do.

More than two weeks into the war, the media already gives some indications that it is tiring of it. Even the 24-hour broadcasters have relaxed their coverage and turned to different subjects. When this is over, very few details will be remembered. The most memorable moments will, no doubt, be the ones about human suffering. But how many of us will really remember what was the point of it all? TBS

Notes


Dilruba Çatalbas is Associate Professor of Journalism at the University of Galatasaray, in Istanbul. She received her PhD in Communication from the University of London, Goldsmith's College, her MA from Leeds University, and her BA from the University of Istanbul. She teaches and researches in areas concerning economic, political, international, and regulatory dimensions of public communication and journalism.
Copyright 2003 Transnational Broadcasting Studies
TBS is published by the Adham Center for Television Journalism, the American University in Cairo
E-mail: TBS@aucegypt.edu