ISTANBUL - Hürriyet Daily News
The word 'açılım,' which can be translated as 'move' or 'opening,' is one of the most commonly used words in Turkey these days. With society making noise about Kurdish cultural rights, the Alevi community has quietly moved forward in television and advertising
As debate continues over the cutlrual rights of Kurds, members of the Alevi community, who belong to a liberal sect of Islam, have already carved out spaced for themselves in the worlds of television and advertising.
According to a recent report by magazine Marketing Turkey, there are currently six private TV channels in the country that identify themselves with Alevism. “But one should not see our TV channel as just doing Alevi promotion,” said Şükrü Yıldız, director of Kanal 12. “Instead, we try to look at the world from an Alevi perspective. At every TV station I worked at, I always tried to own the values of the left, of Alevism or Kurdishness.”
When Kanal 12 first started broadcasting, Yıldız said, it only ran programs with Alevi content and those geared toward Alevi people. “But our direction has changed,” he said. “For example, last Ramadan, we started doing a program for Sunni people. We got a lot of criticism for that.”
Another station, Cem TV, also defines itself as “Alevi conscious” instead of simply an Alevi channel. “We started with the aim of rebuilding Alevi culture, but then became a professional institution. Now, not only Alevi people, but also others who think they are unheard, such as leftists, socialists or workers, find themselves at these stations,” said journalist and Cem TV editorial consultant Enver Aysever. “Even some Sunni groups who think they are marginalized get a chance to express themselves on our screens.”
For a long time, there was only one TV station – that of the state – recalled journalist Haluk Şahin, who noted that private channels began to emerge in the 1990s. “I believe it is only natural for different religious sects to have their own media outlets, just like in the whole world. In some countries, even some churches have their own TV stations,” said Şahin, who writes for daily Radikal. “It is only normal to have Alevi TV stations, just as there are TV channels for Sunni sects like the Nakshibendi or Nurcular.”
In the totally deregulated American media scene, the bizarre phenomenon of televangelism uses TV to influence vulnerable people, associate professor Aslı Tunç told the Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review. The U.K., in contrast, adopted strict rules governing the broadcasting of religious content since it is forbidden to try to convert audiences or solicit donations, added Tunç, who is the chair of the Media and Communication Systems Department at Istanbul Bilgi University. In 2001, the British government decided to relax the ban that had prevented religious organizations from owning broadcast licenses. However, Tunç added: “We should not confuse those examples with Alevi satellite TV channels. The Alevi communities’ use of media is not new. Alevis had a presence in the public scene with various national, regional and local radio stations and Web sites and blogs on the Internet.”
As Alevis have been searching for years for ways to disseminate their way of life, their values and their rituals, it was inevitable they would start using television, the most effective means of communication in Turkey, to construct a collective identity, Tunç said.
“In that sense, the mushrooming of Alevi TV channels is not surprising to me. Although Alevism is an Islamic sect and part of Islam, the effort is mostly to gain recognition against the Sunni-dominated education and media scene in Turkey,” she said. “With the broadcasting being affordable, they seem to follow the market rules with a survival instinct.”
Political scientist Baskın Oran placed the presence of Alevi channels within the concept of freedom of expression and said there can be no restriction on freedom of expression so long as there is no preaching of violence.
Journalist Şükrü Küçükşahin, on the other hand, expressed some doubts about the idea. “In a society where you have an established democratic culture and tolerance, I would not see any problem in different religious sects having their own TV stations. But I have some question marks in my mind in a country like ours, where there are very deep polarizations,” he said. “Yet as long as there are restrictions in the ways minorities or communities express themselves, I feel we do leave them any other choice but to establish their own media outlets.”
Although he admitted that it is nearly impossible to keep any person or group from setting up a TV station, Küçükşahin said he did not find it right to polarize the society on ethnic or religious lines. “I find it only natural that, after all the prejudices deeply rooted in society about Alevi culture, the members of this community want to express themselves. But this won’t be harmful so long as we endorse a democratic culture,” Küçükşahin told the Daily News.
Advertising revenues on the rise
The Marketing Turkey report also focused on the rising advertising revenues of Alevi channels, noting that when they were first established five years ago, the stations got all their advertisements from small-scale Alevi businesses, but as their markets have grown, they have set up their own advertising departments and become more corporate.
The report describes Cem TV as the most corporate among all Alevi channels. “As we strengthen our place among other mass-media stations, we also progressed in the ad business,” said Enver Aysever. “The quality of our programs makes it easier to convince the businesses.”
Cem TV advertising director Ebru Alper talked about the diversity of their advertisers. “Advertisers first hesitate about talking to us as they think we are Alevi stations,” she said. “But when we tell them that we are a mass-communication station, they lead us to their agencies.”
Vedat Kara, the director of another Alevi channel, Yol TV, said the operators had learned how to be their own bosses and act professionally. “To date we have operated with what our community has given us. But now we have learned how to do what we want to do,” he said. “We will start live broadcasting soon and then we will also start working with an advertising agency.”
Alevi businessmen hesitate
While big corporations have started advertising on Alevi channels, some say Alevi businessmen have been reluctant to follow suit. “Affluent Alevis are hesitant about advertising their brands through these stations,” says Fevzi Gümüş, the chair of the Pir Sultan Abdal Culture Association. “And sometimes they are right to do so, because if they give away their identity, they might lose a contract they got from the state, or their brand might come under suspicion.”
Still, these stations seem to have opened the door to the representation of members of different minority communities in Turkish mass media. “If mass media had represented us, why would I have started such a business?” asked Şükrü Yıldız of Kanal 12. “Last year, all TV channels did a program about Alevism and that happened because of us. If we hadn’t started doing our own broadcast, they wouldn’t have needed to do that.”
Kanal 12’s founders started the business knowing that one day they would not be needed, Yıldız said, adding, “Once Alevis are represented in mass media just like everyone else, there will be no need for Alevi channels.”
“It seems like there is no consensus on the presentation of Alevis in the public sphere within the community itself and this clash of ideas will definitely be reflected in the diverse content of the programs,” said academic Tunç. “In the final analysis, the Alevi channels have to follow certain rules of mainstream programming to attract advertisers. Personally, I have no problem with the proliferation of satellite television channels if it helps create more understanding and tolerance toward sects other than the Sunni way of Islam.”