While Turkish soap operas have received much fanfare outside the country, much less noticed is the news media’s expansion to regions of strategic interest.
Turkish media has embarked on an ambitious agenda of projecting its reach in multiple languages throughout the Balkans and in regions where Turkey has strategic interests, as the country asserts itself on the international stage.
Through its media, Turkey is reinforcing a positive image, tapping into what Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has described as Turkey’s “strategic depth.”
Until recently the state-run Anatolia News Agency (AA) published in Turkish and English, but expanded in March to publish in Bosnian, Serbian and Croatian through a new bureau in Sarajevo.
An Arabic service that will be based in Egypt’s capital, Cairo, was launched this month. In co-operation with media in Arab countries, Turkish and Middle Eastern news will be provided to Turkish and Arab audiences.
An Azeri and Russian service will also begin within months, and by 2020, AA’s 100th anniversary, it plans to publish in 11 languages, including Kurdish, Chinese, French, Spanish and German.
Kemal Kaptaner, director of the corporate communications unit at AA, said the bureau in Sarajevo, for example, gives priority to news about the bilateral relations between Turkey and regional countries in order to emphasise the proximity between people in cultural and social terms.
“Before our services were launched, Turkey was newsworthy only when there was a terrorist attack. But now, thanks to AA’s services, people of the region can be much more aware about social, cultural and economic developments in Turkey,” he told SES Türkiye .
Turkey’s parliament passed a bill in March 2008 allowing the state-owned TRT to broadcast programmes in languages other than Turkish. The law paved the way for broadcasts in Turkey’s “near abroad,” where it has played a more prominent economic and political role. Broadcasts now cover the Middle East, Central Asia and the Caucuses, the Balkans and Turkish communities in Europe. TRT Arabic, for example, can reach an audience of 350 million people.
The decision to establish TRT-SES in Kurdish also attracted much attention. It was viewed as a positive step to expand Kurdish cultural and linguistic rights in Turkey and also reach Kurdish-speaking communities outside Turkey’s borders in the Middle East and Europe.
Voice of Turkey, a radio channel under the auspices of TRT, broadcasts in 35 languages and is the world’s fourth largest radio station in terms of the number of foreign languages broadcast.
Telling of its role in foreign policy, Voice of Turkey’s first broadcast was an Arabic transmission of former Prime Minister Ismet Inonu’s speech on the Hatay issue in 1937, before the ethnically mixed province was annexed by Turkey from Syria in 1939.
This expansion of media parallels the pro-active foreign policy role Turkey has played in its region over the past decade.
According to Mucahit Kucukyilmaz of the Ankara-based SETA Foundation, up until the early 2000s Turkish media didn’t grasp the scope of the country’s expanding foreign policy, leaving Turkey behind its Western peers.
“For example, we had been informed of the news from the Middle East through a translated language. So, whatever the Western news agencies viewpoint was, we adopted the same,” Kucukyilmaz told SES Türkiye .
The same point was raised by Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc in a series of Twitter posts May 15th when AA Arabic was launched.
“We have all been witness to grave manipulations that astonished us in the Middle Eastern geography, particularly during the Gulf War. Prestigious news agencies that we all know were the leaders of operations with their broadcasts. Not only in the Middle East; we witnessed the same thing in Bosnia. The media remained insensitive for a long time to the seriousness of events,” Arinc wrote.
In the past, Turkish media had difficulty keeping pace with global trends and regional events, something AA is working to overcome.
“There were a handful of journalists who knew Arabic, Russian, Persian and even Kurdish. Nobody really cared to open representation offices or hire journalists, even in our neighbouring regions,” Kucukyilmaz said.
But over the past decade TRT and AA assumed the lead in orienting the future of Turkish media by investing in multi-lingual staff, making field studies, and developing technical and intellectual capacity.
Hakan Copur, a media expert from the Turkish Presidency, says that inward-looking and unassertive countries need no multilingual journalism or broadcasting.
“However, for a country like Turkey, whose zone of influence goes beyond its national boundaries, such a trend is not a luxury but rather a necessity,” Copur told SES Türkiye .
He said elements of soft power are just as important as hard power in global politics. “Especially public diplomacy needs such tools to merge public communication and diplomacy,” he said. “In this regard, multilingual broadcasts will form a foundation for Turkey to utilise its soft power not only in the region, but in global politics as well.”
Plamen Ralchev, an assistant professor at the University of National and World Economy in Sofia, focusing on strategic communications, international public relations and public diplomacy, said that a keen understanding of local languages will bring Turkey closer to the foreign audience.
“The majority of Bulgarians have no clue about this language, so if TRT International launches a Bulgarian-language broadcast it will definitely improve communication channels delivering messages to a Bulgarian audience,” he said.
Paraphrasing the Turkish Airlines slogan “Globally Yours,” he says that with TRT and AA, Turkish media has become “globally public.”
“What is more significant is making Turkey’s voice heard internationally, Turkey’s views expressed and spread around, Turkey’s commitment to a global posture comprehended. Definitely, Turkey has a story to tell … and to sell, too,” Ralchev said.”