Nearly a decade after it was shut down, Turkey’s arts and documentary channel TRT 2 has returned to the airwaves. But critics fear that its content will be a far cry from the Western-style highbrow programming it was once famous for.
As one of the state-run Turkish Radio Television (TRT) channels, TRT 2 began broadcasting in 1986 and focused mainly on culture and arts, as well as airing popular American and British TV series and sitcoms.
However, in 2010 it was shut down by the conservative government led by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) who claimed that TRT 2 was too westernised and lacked content promoting national cultural values.
The relaunched version features regular programmes such as Philosophy Talks, a show hosted by the conservative academic Teoman Durali who opposes the theory of evolution, and many producers and presenters are either from pro-government media outlets or celebrities known for supporting the ruling party.
Goksel Aymaz, a communications and media professor at Marmara University in Istanbul, said that TRT 2 was shut down because “it clashed with the government’s conservative agenda”.
He is among those who fear that TRT 2’s sudden relaunch in February this year was an indication that the government wants to fuel a culture war between progressive and secular Turks on the one hand, and conservative and religious citizens on the other.
Aymaz said that he fully expected the new TRT2 programme to focus on conservative artists and subjects. He said that he did not find the presence of a number of familiar faces from secular artistic circles – such as pianist Gulsin Onay, director Nuri Bilge Ceylan and prominent art critics Dogan Hizlan and Fuat Guner – reassuring.
“Such content choice should be viewed as the government’s effort to please the non-conservative audience to some extent, since it failed to establish a complete control over the field of arts and culture,” he said.
Indeed, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has repeatedly said that the conservatives managed to gain political power in Turkey, but failed to establish cultural hegemony.
According to Turkish pro-government newspaper Daily Sabah, “cultural life in Turkey lacks conservative and nationalist figures, references, values
Art critic Senay Aydemir agreed that the relaunch was an attempt to extend the conservative government’s agenda to the cultural sphere. For instance, the TRT 2 website hosts a
“We know that the reason behind the relaunch of TRT 2 as a culture and arts broadcaster wasn’t to satisfy the public’s need for such content. It’s quite obvious that the government will try to use it as a tool for achieving cultural hegemony – something that they were not successful at before,” he said.
Retired sports writer Mehmet Ozyazanlar said that TRT2 now hosted more shows dedicated to traditional arts, such as Islamic calligraphy and religious music.
“Public broadcasters are under the heavy influence of the conservative government. Although TRT 2 seems more autonomous than others, censorship on content featuring alcohol, cigarettes or sexual scenes is extremely annoying,” he said.
An award-winning 2018 Korean movie, Burning, was aired in a shortened version, with viewers complaining that sexually suggestive scenes were cut.
Ademir said that people were increasingly watching online content because “it’s easily available, modern, and not so susceptible to censorship” meaning that one could argue that channels such as TRT 2 were obsolete.
However, Aymaz emphasised that state broadcasters had an essential role to play in promoting arts and culture.
“Entertainment-focused private broadcasters would never give a chance to art and culture programmes because they are not profitable,” he said. “But public broadcasters have a duty to air such programmes and make them available to a wider audience.”