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Turkey: Disney+ subscriptions cancelled following Ataturk controversy

Ankara considering severe fines after streaming service cancels series on Ataturk, following Armenian lobbying
Demonstrators rise their hands and hold a potrait picture of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of modern Turkey, as they gather at Taksim Square in Istanbul on July 24, 2016 (AFP)
People hold a portrait of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of modern Turkey, at a demonstration in Taksim Square in Istanbul, on 24 July 2016 (AFP)
By Ragip Soylu in Ankara

A campaign calling on people to cancel their Disney+ subscriptions has been launched in Turkey, after the streaming service decided not to release a television series about Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the republic's founding father.

According to reports in Turkish newspapers, Disney+ decided against releasing Ataturk after lobbying from groups including the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA), which has branded the programme an "intensely controversial TV series glorifying genocidal Turkish dictator Mustafa Kemal Ataturk".

Opposition to the series has garnered a lot of attention in Turkey, partly because while Ataturk was accused of carrying out massacres of Armenians during the Turkish War of Independence (1919-1923), there is a lack of publicly available evidence linking him to the mass deportation and killing of Armenians in 1915 during the Ottoman Empire, an event now largely recognised as genocide.

Last month, Disney+ Turkey announced that the Ataturk series would soon air, to mark the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Republic of Turkey. Ataturk is a revered figure in Turkey and his portrayal is a sensitive matter. The streaming platform has not responded to the latest reports. 

The chairman of Turkey's television watchdog RTUK, Ebubekir Sahin, announced an official probe in response to the controversy, stating that Ataturk holds significant importance as a social figure. 

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Politicians, including Omer Celik, spokesperson for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's ruling AK Party, condemned Disney's reported decision not to stream the series, deeming it "shameful" and "disrespectful".

In a statement on Wednesday, Walt Disney Turkey said that it had revised its content distribution strategy to reach a wider audience, stating that the Ataturk series will be aired as a special version of a documentary on the Fox television channel in Turkey, followed by two separate films to be shown in cinemas.

"As part of the centenary celebrations, we're proud to announce that we will be bringing Ataturk to even more people from October through free to air Fox. Followed then by a theatrical window where people can experience both Film One and Film Two on the big screen," Saner Ayar, the producer, was quoted as saying in the Walt Disney Turkey statement.

The decision not to stream the series on Disney's global platform sparked anger among Turkish Twitter users, leading to a campaign encouraging the cancellation of Disney+ subscriptions. Prominent figures, including politicians, artists and journalists, publicly announced their cancellations in solidarity.

Mustafa Sandal, a famous singer, tweeted: "I did the right thing and cancelled. Now it's your turn! If Ataturk does not exist, we do not exist! Go to another country Disney+ # CancelDisney."

Serdar Kilic, a Turkish ambassador in charge of his country's normalisation process with Armenia, shared a screenshot that showed he had cancelled his subscription.

In June, Disney removed numerous shows and movies from Disney+ to reduce ongoing residuals and its tax bill. This strategy also resulted in the removal of eight Turkish TV shows and movies produced exclusively for Disney's Turkish streaming platform, with the suspension of new Turkish content launches.

According to Flix Patrol, a site that tracks streaming service data, Disney+ had approximately 50,000 subscribers in Turkey in June, while its main competitor, Netflix, boasts at least 2.6 million subscribers.

Reacting to the controversy, Huseyin Yayman, chairman of the Turkish parliament's Digital Channels Commission, threatened severe sanctions against Disney.

"We will impose harsh fines, including licence cancellation for Disney+, bandwidth reduction, and advertising bans," he said on Thursday, claiming that Disney's decision may have political motives.

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