The shortest-lived TV project in Turkish history: Olay TV saga

There were 180 people working for Olay TV. Now most of them, as always happens with those who want to pursue journalism in Turkey, are afraid for their future. Because on Dec. 25, only 26 days after their launch, the channel announced that it would be shutting down. Olay TV has become yet another example of how, within the realm of Turkey’s public discourse, accusations are accepted as evidence and, to put it in military terms, no plane survives first contact with the enemy.

Turkey’s media turbulence in recent years has prepared every independent journalist for the worst. Despite this, I never anticipated that I would be a part of possibly the shortest-lived television project in the country’s history.
 
I was invited to work on the daily prime-time news for Olay TV by Süleyman Sarılar, the newly appointed editor-in-chief of the novel project. Suleyman promised an independent TV channel, one which would not support any political party. The agreement was short and to the point: We would simply report the news, as it should be done. During my introductory period, I met the chief investor of the channel, Hüseyin Köksal, a young businessman from Trabzon. During our meeting, Köksal struck me as extremely enthusiastic, an attribute not common among people involved in projects of this sort in Turkey.
 
Based upon my previous experiences, I knew that no amount of good faith, enthusiasm, or hard work would be sufficient for us to break past the first main obstacle to setting up a new media outlet in Turkey. This obstacle is epitomized in Turkey’s High Council of Television and Radio, the infamous RTÜK.
 
Established in the late 90s, during a firmly secular grip on such institutions, RTÜK’s original mission was to prevent online media from spreading extremist religious propaganda. Set up as an accountability mechanism for the dominant ideology, RTÜK simply changed its ideological course, but never assumed the role of an independent regulator.
 
If a Turkish businessperson, not close to the ruling establishment, wants to buy or start a new television channel, the chances of getting the necessary licenses from the RTÜK are slim to none. As an example, one of the most prominent independent newspapers in Turkey, Sözcü, been trying to start its own TV channel. Sözcü’s investors bought the infrastructure of a local channel and applied to the RTÜK to change the channel’s old name. For almost a year the RTÜK has refused to even put Sözcü’s dossier on its consideration agenda.
 
The RTÜK consists of political party representatives. Each party appoints a number of representatives proportional to their seats in the parliament. So, it has representatives from the opposition parties; however, the decisions are made by a simple majority, which is dominated by the governing coalition.
 
So, if Hüseyin Köksal decided to start from zero, it would take years before he would even hear about the new channel’s license. For this reason, he partnered with a businessman who already owned a TV channel, Cavit Çağlar. Çağlar is an old figure in Turkish politics. Ideologically, he describes himself as being center-right. His last public appearance was in late 2015 around the time when Turkey shot down a Russian military, after which Çağlar reportedly arranged a dinner for Putin and Erdoğan to try and mend ties. It is rumored that the dinner helped Çağlar to ‘restructure’ some old financial debts to the state.
 
The idea behind setting up the new channel was to use the existing license of Olay TV, owned by Çağlar, and legally avoid RTÜK’s painful quasi-bureaucratic roller-coaster. Hüseyin Köksal would invest in the channel and Cavit Çağlar would be the symbolic owner. However, to put it in military terms, no plan survives first contact with the enemy.
 
Shortly following Olay TV’s initial on-air start, Çağlar became uneasy. He reportedly told Köksal that the president of the Presidency’s Communications Bureau is unhappy with Olay TV. Çağlar claimed he was told that Olay TV was “filled with journalists who supportive of PKK terrorists” and that he was advised to bring in a new cadre of openly pro-government journalists. Köksal refused this suggestion and insisted that the existing cadre was perfectly capable of building an objective outlet true to real journalism. This decision caused Çağlar to demand his TV license back. So, we aired our last prime-time news bulletin on Dec. 25, only 26 days after the launch. Editor-in-chief Süleyman Sarılar was the guest, and explained why the project was ending.
 
Shortly after the close, a couple of interviews with Cavit Çağlar were published by pro-government media outlets. During the interviews Çağlar denies being pressured by any state/government office or official to exit his partnership with Olay TV. He tried to shift the focus of his decision toward the supposed “pro-HDP stance,” which, according to him, overwhelmed the editorial policy. He tried to back these unfounded claims by pointing at an editorial decision to air an HDP parliamentary group meeting, just as all parliamentary group meetings were aired. Çağlar was not asked to further substantiate these claims, because in the realm of Turkey’s public discourse, accusations have become as acceptable as evidence. 
 
There were 180 people working for Olay TV. Now most of them, as always happens with those who want to pursue journalism, are afraid for their future. For some of us who have experience with Turkey’s oppressive treatment of journalists, developments like this no longer come as scandals. It is frightening how these deeply abnormal practices have become more-of-the-same for many of us. However, Olay TV employed many young, prospective journalists who, during possibly their first attempt at journalism, were slammed with the heavy dose of Turkey’s reality. Putting aside everything we know about Turkey’s politically controlled and dictated media world, at some point, someone will have to understand: journalism is not a plant you can neglect for years and still expect to pick the fruit whenever it is suitable for you.

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