A voice for everyone in an era of uncertainty

TAREK CHERKAOUI
Published 26.10.2017 00:41
Updated 26.10.2017 01:05
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan(R) speaks at the TRT World Forum and answers questions from Fatih Er(L), the TRT World News Coordinator.
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan(R) speaks at the TRT World Forum and answers questions from Fatih Er(L), the TRT World News Coordinator.

TRT World, Turkey's first English-language news channel, hosted its first international forum last week and it seems that it is here to change perceptions, provide leadership and participate in setting the global news agenda

TRT World organized its first international forum titled, "Inspiring Change in the Age of Uncertainty," attended by world-renowned journalists, academics, politicians and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and tackling a series of important topics and emerging challenges in the event that was held Oct. 18-19.

It is not without symbolism that the opening keynote speech was delivered by Prime Minister Binali Yıldrım and ended with a closing ceremony attended by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who spoke at length about recent events affecting the entire region. Going beyond the importance of the forum's proceedings themselves, in my opinion the event signals the rise of a new, important player that could soon become a predominant source of global information.

In terms of the scope of the forum, three types of international broadcasting have been traditionally distinguished: multi-territory, pan-regional, and global. Multi-territory channels cover usually less than nine territories (e.g. the Franco-German channel Arte), whereas pan-regional (also called transnational) channels cover usually more than 30 territories, while global television channels cover all continents. However, it is the global range that has been in vogue over the last two decades, attracting a cohort of international players that joined the select club of the more established and primarily Western news organizations. Networks from countries such as China, Russia, Brazil, Qatar, Iran and others also started broadcasting via satellite in English, amid aims to reach viewers worldwide.

Arguably, a good number of these efforts aim to address an ever-lasting predicament in international communication, whereby Western media outlets tend to offer the world a distorted view of the South. Such predicament was echoed in the MacBride Report, which was published in 1980 following the establishment by UNESCO in 1977 of the international commission for the study of communication problems. The report provided intellectual justification for the evolution of a new global communication order, conclusively saying that international communication was a one-way flow and stating that the flow of information must be two-way if it is to be truly free.

Moreover, the geopolitical conflicts taking place in many regions around the world, as well as the global news coverage of these conflicts that ensues, is certainly not absent from the considerations of decision makers as they venture into international broadcasting. Many still remember how CNN performed the role of witness, diplomatic messenger and psychological warfare platform during the first Gulf War in 1991. In the lead-up to the conflict, CNN was watched and used by American politicians, Iraqi officials, U.N. leaders, Soviet intermediaries, and other world leaders. Veteran French journalist Claude Moisy asserted that it was indeed the first time in history that "a television network became an active participant in the development of a major international crisis."

The term CNN effect was subsequently coined as it highlighted the seeming impact of real-time, 24-hour news coverage on the highest echelon of U.S. decision-making. The term implied that CNN was a driving force in setting the agenda of American foreign policy during the 1990s. Fast forward to a decade later, and Al Jazeera followed suit with daring reporting during the Intifada in 2000, the 2001 war in Afghanistan, and the 2003 war in Iraq, constituting what was deemed a "decolonization of the airwaves." In the light of Al Jazeera's bold editorial line, media scholar Philip Seib wrote a book titled, "The Al Jazeera Effect." According to Seib, "The battle for hearts and minds in the Middle East is being fought not on the streets of Baghdad but on the newscasts and talk shows of Al-Jazeera."

Since the start of the new millennium, Turkey has been working hard to promote socio-economic development. The country has subsequently attained admirable economic growth rates, even in spite of the heavy toll from the wars in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere, particularly in terms of the high numbers of refugees in Turkey. What is even more remarkable is that Turkey has contributed nearly $6 billion dollars in humanitarian aid internationally, coming only second after the U.S., despite the fact that it is not the richest country in the world.

Turkey's socio-economic progress, mediation efforts, humanitarian aid, open-door policy towards Syrian refugees, popularity as a tourist destination and cultural reach through popular media mediums such as Turkish films and TV soap operas, have undeniably boosted the international image of the country; most particularly in the global South. In fact, as conceived by Joseph Nye (2004), a country's soft power rests primarily on three resources: Culture, values and foreign policies. Regarding these three aspects, Turkey has been doing well. Therefore, it seems only logical to complement these actions with a more proactive international communication endeavor, especially when such effort is vital in attaining a certain number of goals, such as promoting international goodwill, spreading awareness about key areas of interest, and clarifying certain policy positions.

TRT World has what it takes to be in the same league as some of the pioneers of global news. For this reason, the network must constantly work on its goals and strategies, continue to expand its capabilities and ensure its sustainability for the future. This can only be achieved by reaching large audiences, strategically allocating resources to focus on high-priority broadcast markets, and meeting the expectations of audiences both in terms of content and in terms of engagement, entertainment, providing information and offering a trustworthy experience.

More importantly, the network has to position itself as an authentic voice for the global South, avoiding not only some of the stereotypical political and cultural representations disseminated by corporate mainstream news media but also by challenging them. Countries in the South, which include numerous developing nations in Asia, Africa and Latin America, are highly dissatisfied with the existing international economic and political order, and the widening gaps between North and South. TRT World is well placed to champion the causes of the South, but it has to walk the talk. This can be reflected within the structures of its news programs in terms of running order for stories from the south, the time allocated to them, and the number of stories not carried on other networks. In doing so, TRT World will not only represent a genuine contra-flow of information but also change perceptions, provide leadership, and participate in setting the global news agenda.

* Ph.D., Strategic communications expert, and author of "The News Media at War"

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