Does He Who Pays Call the Shots?

The debate over Medyascope’s foreign funding continues to rage in Turkey, fueled by the rather twisted logic that a media organization receiving foreign funding must be a propaganda tool. The question of the benefits of outside funding for Turkish organizations, whether media or others, is of course valid, but answering it requires a little more nuance than simply saying ‘foreign equals bad’. The question is: How can Turkey engage in a globalized world and at the same time protect its national interests from foreign interference?

Adnan R. Khan: Can you first give us a sense of what the issues are in this specific Medyascope instance?

Ilter Turan: In this particular example, a media organization has received financial support from a number of foreign foundations. One particular grant of almost USD 500,000 came from an American foundation. Medyascope did not make a secret of the fact that it was receiving external support and wherefrom. Nonetheless, some people have chosen to attack the organization, accusing it of being an instrument of external forces.

We have to be somewhat more analytical than simply saying that foreign funding is in itself a bad thing. It may be bad, it may be good, it may be neither bad nor good. When we’re talking about receiving foreign funding, we must, first of all, look at who is providing the funding. There are, for instance, government-sponsored organizations that support Turkish associations and foundations. In particular, American and German political parties each have a government-supported foundation that conducts a number of activities in Turkey. These tend to be generally in the area of propagating democratic values, responsible government, discussion of foreign policy and security questions and similar topics.

Then there are a number of foundations established by corporations or by wealthy families or individuals that promote among others such goals as providing humanitarian assistance, fighting climate change or improving business practices. Modern business administration training, for example, was introduced to Turkey through the efforts of the Ford Foundation, which supported the development of a Department of Business Administration in the Faculty of Economics of Istanbul University. Was this some kind of nefarious foreign plot? No. The Ford Foundation was interested in the expansion of business administration education in other societies including Turkey because it probably believed that the expansion of such education would facilitate the expansion of market economies and render making investments in other countries easier. It is difficult to argue, however, that training in modern management inflicted harm on Turkey’s economic development.

Adnan R. Khan: As you said, Medyascope made no secret of its foreign funding. That kind of transparency is an important guardrail to protect against foreign influence over an organization’s activities. Are there oversight mechanisms in Turkey to ensure that organizations are disclosing their funding sources?

Ilter Turan: Let me first note that when we are talking about local actors in one country rendering financial support to those in others, we’re talking about a universal practice. Turkey itself does a lot of this in neighboring countries. To oppose such activities categorically is indeed incomprehensible although that this might be used for inappropriate purposes must be recognized and measures be taken to prevent such use.

In that respect, I think there are two or three different mechanisms in Turkey. On the government side, my understanding is that if a substantial sum is sent from abroad to a Turkish foundation or association, banks must report it to the authorities. There are also different inspection mechanisms at the bureaucratic level. Foundations are tied to the General Directorate of Foundations which monitors their activities. Associations are accountable to the Directorate of Relations with Civil Society Organizations. So, oversight is not lacking.

In addition, there is what we might call democratic monitoring, which you referred to in your question. Recipients of external funding make this information public so that people know or more accurately, those who are curious, may learn where the funding is coming from and for what purpose it is used.

Finally, an organization often receives support from multiple sources and avoids becoming dependent on a single source such that it will not feel obliged to yield, if made, to inappropriate requests.

Adnan R. Khan: Foreign entities, including governments, often hire lobbyists or other actors to promote their interests in other countries. How much of that happens in Turkey and are there mechanisms in place to monitor that?

Ilter Turan: You raise a very interesting question. In the U.S., if private actors receive money from a foreign government with the explicit purpose of promoting that government’s interests, they have to register themselves as agents of a foreign government. I really am not sure that this question has come up as a serious concern in other societies, including Turkey, but it is one that may need to be addressed. It is important that we set up some legal mechanism for transparency in order to be able to evaluate these sorts of relationships rationally. If we do so, we will discover that on the whole, they contribute to the well-being of our society. Again, making such support transparent, available to the public is the best defense against its misuse.

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