Turkish authorities continue to treat the cancellation of subscriptions for the Qatari-based beIN Media Group’s Turkish pay-TV network as evidence of terrorism in jailing government critics and opponents, according to confidential documents obtained by Nordic Monitor.
Since 2016 beIN’s Turkish subsidiaries that offer pay-TV services have been releasing customer data and client communications to support criminal cases against government critics, a review of hundreds of documents and court cases has revealed.
Two Istanbul-based pay-TV and content provider companies, Digital Platform Teknoloji Hizmetleri A.Ş. and Krea İçerik Hizmetleri ve Prodüksiyon A.Ş., which operate under the Digiturk brand, are owned by the beIN Media Group.
Both Turkish firms are run by same Qatari nationals, and the composition of the board of directors is identical. According to trade registry data, the chairman of the board is Nasser Ghanim Al-Khelafi and his deputy is Yousif Mohammed H. Al-Obaidli, who is also general manager. The other board members are M. Adbulaziz A.T. Al-Subaie, Ziad Hage Hammoud and Tareq Darwish A.M. Zainal.
Trade registry data for Krea İçerik Hizmetleri ve Prodüksiyon A.Ş.:Krea_info
Trade registry data for Digital Platform Teknoloji Hizmetleri A.Ş.:digiturk_info
Digiturk turned into a political whip in the hands of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan when his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost the majority in the June 2015 elections for the first time after 13 years of rule as a single party government. Instead of entering into a coalition with opposition parties, Erdoğan called for a snap election, hoping to reverse his loss.
Desperate to dominate the media landscape and limit opposition parties’ access to voters through TV networks during the campaign, Erdoğan used Digiturk to undermine TV networks that carried opposition messages. That prompted a backlash from Digiturk subscribers.
The campaign to cancel subscriptions to Digiturk started when the the digital satellite platform unlawfully decided to stop broadcasting seven TV stations including the popular and government-critical news channels Bugün TV and Samanyolu Haber on October 8, 2015.
The digital platform’s controversial move, apparently under pressure from the government of then-Prime Minister Erdoğan, ahead of the critical November 1, 2015 snap general election, attracted criticism from various circles including politicians, consumer associations, press organizations and others, prompting many people to terminate their subscriptions with the company.
The platform had almost 3 million subscribers at the time, and the move was a blow to the political opposition in the midst of the election campaign. Days after the move, state-owned satellite operator Türksat dropped Bugün TV and Kanaltürk in a continuation of the crackdown on media critical of the government. The main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) joined the protest and called for the cancellation of Digiturk subscriptions for its party branches and members.
Before its controversial sale to the Qatari firm, 53 percent of Digiturk’s shares were owned by Turkey’s Çukurova Holding and 47 percent by US private equity group Providence Equity Partners. Çukurova had its Digiturk stake seized in 2013 by Turkey’s Savings Deposit Insurance Fund (TMSF) because of its debts to the state agency, and the Erdoğan government had effectively controlled Digiturk via TMSF.
Digitürk’s purchase by beIN became public knowledge when Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani visited Turkey on July 14, 2015, although the sale was not finalized for some time. President Erdoğan made sure Digiturk would be put under his control through his Islamist brothers in Qatar and used that as leverage to suppress TV networks critical of him.
The decision to hand Digiturk over to a Qatari firm without a tender being held was considered by many to be unorthodox, as several domestic companies were interested in owning shares, including Doğan Holding and the Ciner Group, raising concerns about the transparency of public transactions. At the time, Digiturk’s market value was said to be around $1.3 billion, but the TMSF did not reveal the details of the sale.
Four months after the sale, Digiturk stopped broadcasting government-critical TV networks. Digiturk’s censorship decisions came just before one of the seven banned channels, Bugün TV, was to host a party leader: the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party’s (HDP) co-chair, Selahattin Demirtaş, who helped the opposition bloc regain the majority in the June 2015 elections. Demirtaş was later jailed by the Erdoğan government, and his party is now facing possible closure.
The Federation of Consumers Unions (TBF) called on Digiturk subscribers to join the boycott on October 9. In reaction to Digiturk’s decision, main opposition CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu announced on October 8, 2015 that he too would unsubscribe and called for everyone to do the same in response to the network’s “undemocratic and repressive move.”
A lawsuit was filed against Digiturk, and Judge Mustafa Çolaker of the Mersin 1st Consumer Court issued an injunction against Digiturk halt to broadcasting critical TV networks. The government stepped in and orchestrated the judge’s immediate removal, and Çolaker was assigned to a court in Çorum province.
In his ruling judge Çolaker said the defendant Digitürk had broken its contract with those TV channels by removing them from its platform. In order to forestall any further material damages for the plaintiff TV channels and force the defendant to abide by its contract, he issued a temporary injunction, stressing that Digiturk’s decision was a breach of the people’s right to information.
In a bizarre move, the Erdoğan government considered the boycott and cancellation of subscriptions to be terrorist activity, and the prosecutors and judges controlled by the government launched criminal proceedings against people who cancelled their subscriptions at the time.
Since then, tens of thousands of people have been investigated to determine if they cancelled their subscriptions to Digiturk and if they did, that was enough to convict them on terrorism charges in sham trials in Turkish courts.
Nordic Monitor reviewed hundreds of documents that showed how the documents released by beIN Media companies Digiturk and Krea helped prosecute, try and convict government critics en masse. beIN affiliates revealed customers’ data including tape recordings and client complaints to Turkish prosecutors and courts in support of criminal cases against government critics, opponents and dissidents.
A customer’s FAX terminating their subscription in protest of the censorship of TV stations critical of the government in 2015 was entered as criminal evidence against him in a 2018 case:Bilgin_Karaca_digiturk
In one example, a businessman named Bilgin Karaca was questioned by the police on October 17, 2018 as to why he cancelled his Digiturk subscription. The police presented a copy of Karaca’s FAX sent to Digiturk on October 13, 2015 in which he complained about Digiturk’s removal of critical TV networks from the platform and terminated his service.
It appears Digiturk provided data on all clients who cancelled their service in protest of Digiturk’s move to halt the broadcasting of TV networks critical of the government as part of bid to build sham criminal cases against critics.
In his message to Digiturk, Karaca said he had subscribed to the platform some 12 years ago to watch its free channels, and now that the channels he watched had been removed from the platform unlawfully and without legal justification, he wanted to unsubscribe on the grounds that freedom of expression, speech, thought and press had been violated. That message was entered as criminal evidence against him in a case in which he was accused of terrorism.
Not only the police but also prosecutors and judges also entertained the idea that the cancellation of Digiturk service somehow amounted to a criminal act and was deemed terrorist activity.
A case from Turkey’s Isparta province where the court treated a Digiturk service cancellation as an act of terrorism:Isparta_digiturk_judge_ruling
For example the Isparta 2nd High Criminal Court ordered Digiturk to provide detailed information about subscriptions for 130 defendents including Fethullah Gülen, who has been living in the US since 1999. In a ruling issued on January 18, 2017 Judge Hacı Mustafa Yazici asked whether the defendants had subscription packages that included government-critical TV networks and whether the defendants filed complaints or sent letters or emails to the company after their removal and ordered Digiturk to terminate their subscriptions unless the TV stations that were removed were put back on the platform.
Although the campaign to cancel Digiturk subscriptions in 2015 was widespread among opposition circles who were reacting to the government’s move to prevent them from obtaining information critical of it, it has been considered one of the main indicators by Turkish authorities in identifying critics affiliated with the Gülen movement, a civic group that is opposed to the Erdoğan government.
In another example the Kırıkkale High Criminal Court ordered Digiturk to release subscription information on dozens of defendants and their spouses on February 17, 2017 and asked the company when they cancelled their subscription if they had. Krea sent the detailed information on the subscriptions on May 16, 2017.
An example from Turkey’s Kırıkkale province, where a court asked Digiturk to provide subscription data on critics:krea_Kirikkale_digiturk_subscription
In an indictment filed on March 22, 2017, Turkish prosecutor Akın Çetin listed documents obtained from Digiturk as evidence of terrorism against academic Lokman Karakurt, who was working as a medical doctor at Fırat University Medical School. Karakurt was among thousands of academics including leading scientists and professors who have been purged by the Erdoğan government since 2016 on charges that they were involved in a failed coup bid on July 15, 2016 and that they were affiliated with government critic the Gülen group.
The case files included communications from the lawyers for beIN’s Turkish affiliates, who were providing information about the cancellation of subscriptions.
A medical doctor and academic was indicted based on evidence that he cancelled his Digiturk service:Elazig_indictment_digiturk_Redacted
Turkish prosecutor Cem Saklica wrote to Digiturk on October 21, 2016 asking for subscription and cancellation information for members of the judiciary working at the Gaziantep Courthouse as part of the government crackdown on judges, prosecutors and paralegals, who were not seen as supporters of the Erdoğan government. He even asked for the recordings of judges and prosecutors who called the Digiturk customer line to cancel their subscriptions.
Judges, prosecutors and court clerks in Gaziantep faced investigations based on their requests to terminate their Digiturk subscriptions:Gaziantep_digiturk_prosecutor_demand
Pubic prosecutor Talip Ergen in Antalya province sent a secret communication to Digiturk on November 23, 2016 asking for information about a client named Sertan Esen. The prosecutor asked Digiturk to review their records starting from January 1, 2013 and determine if Esen was a subscriber, when he became a subscriber if he was and when he cancelled. He also wanted to see the subscription contract and the way the client paid his subscription fee.
An example from Antalya province where a Digiturk subscription was part of criminal proceedings:Digiturk_Kokuteli_Redacted
The data about Digiturk subscriptions appeared in literally thousands of cases initiated against government critics in Turkey and still continues today as one of the key pieces of evidence the government presents to indict, try and convict opponents and dissidents.
Two examples of how beIN Media’s Turkish affiliates sent information and documents to Turkish authorities in order to help prosecute government critics and opponents: