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Turkey's Press Freedom Crisis

5. Test of Political Will

On March 25, 2012, the day before the Nuclear Security Summit got under way in Seoul, South Korea, U.S. President Barack Obama met with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to discuss a world of troubles. On the agenda were efforts to compel Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step aside, and attempts to contain Iran’s nuclear program. Immediately after the Seoul summit, Erdoğan traveled to Tehran for meetings with the Iranian leadership. And the next week, Istanbul hosted the “Friends of Syria,” attended by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and diplomats from 70 other nations.

The Seoul meeting highlighted Turkey’s immense strategic value not only to the United States but to the international community as a whole. Beyond the role it has played in the Syrian and Iranian questions, Turkey has become a crucial player in issues such as energy policy in the Eastern Mediterranean and missile defense in Europe. With its thriving economy and growing regional influence, Turkey has also been trumpeted by Obama as a model for the countries of the Middle East seeking to reconcile an Islamic outlook with democratic values. Indeed, through June 2012, Obama met with Erdoğan seven times and spoke with him by phone on 15 occasions. In the course of these meetings, Obama and Erdoğan have developed a personal relationship that they have highlighted in public appearances. In prepared remarks after the Seoul meeting, Obama said he and Erdoğan had spent time discussing their daughters. “I’m always interested in his perspective on raising girls,” he noted. Yet despite this close relationship, there is no evidence Obama has ever raised human rights or press concerns in any of their meetings.

The Obama relationship is an example of how Erdoğan has leveraged Turkey’s strategic importance to blunt international criticism of his country’s human rights and press freedom record. Thin-skinned and strong-willed, Erdoğan tends to view any criticism as a personal attack and has lashed out at critics in the media, fueling an atmosphere of fear and self-censorship. More troubling is his apparent view that any public expression of support for political goals that coincide with those of illegal armed groups is prima facie evidence of participation in a criminal conspiracy. In numerous cases, CPJ found, the evidence against indicted journalists centered on their published reports and newsgathering activities. “Our magazine’s archive, the books in the library, our news photos and news videos are the strongest evidence against us,” Kaan Ünsal, a correspondent for the leftist weekly Yürüyüş, wrote in a January 2012 letter published in several newspapers. Ünsal, who was jailed for 18 months on charges of aiding the outlawed Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party-Front, said authorities had conflated journalism that was sympathetic to a political cause with outright terrorism.

SIDEBAR: Online Censors Sharpen Tactics

While Turkish officials have at times engaged with critics of the country’s press freedom and human rights record, Erdoğan set a negative tone in February 2011 when he called U.S. Ambassador Frank Ricciardone a “rookie” after the veteran diplomat raised the issue of imprisoned journalists. With political opposition in disarray, Turkish institutions weak, and international pressure blunted, there are few checks on Erdoğan’s authority, allowing his personal intolerance of criticism and his deep suspicion of news media to effectively become state policy.


Erdoğan came to power in 2003 with two primary objectives: to break the stranglehold of Turkey’s political establishment and to push forward Turkey’s integration into the European Union. To a certain extent, he has achieved the former at the expense of the latter.

The traditional power centers in the secular, nationalist state founded by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk have been the military, the industrial elite, and the media conglomerates, which have faithfully defended the Kemalist order and sometimes conspired to preserve it. Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) have challenged this structure, forging ties to a new, more entrepreneurial business elite and opening the door for expressions of personal religious piety in public life. Erdoğan has used the prospect of European integration to push through reforms that benefit his political project, including those protecting certain religious expressions and liberalizing the economy. But his response to European calls for political and judicial reform has been uneven. After a period of initial reform, Erdoğan has retained the structures of the authoritarian state he inherited and has used them aggressively against his political enemies, real and perceived. 

Erdoğan’s assault on the media is guided by two frameworks, distinct but interrelated. The first is his perception that elite corporate media are deeply ingrained in the traditional power structures opposed to his reform project. The second is his belief that elements within the media have conspired against the government. These alleged media conspiracies span the political spectrum, from ultranationalists to Kurdish separatists.

The continuing crackdown on free expression and the slow pace of judicial reform are key concerns of European policy-makers and significant obstacles to Turkey’s EU accession bid. The European Parliament has repeatedly passed resolutions lamenting the slow pace of media reform and criticizing the arrests of individual journalists. In July 2011, Thomas Hammarberg, then the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights, issued a detailed report on freedom of expression in Turkey in which he raised deep concern about such issues as the dysfunction of the criminal justice system and the lack of constitutional safeguards. (The Turkish Constitution, ratified in the aftermath of the 1980 military coup, protects the integrity of the state rather than individual rights.)

While noting some positive legislative and constitutional reforms, Hammarberg cited a variety of troubling statutes used to prosecute journalists. For example, it is illegal to praise a crime or criminal, incite the population to enmity or hatred, insult the Turkish nation or the state, or discourage people from doing military service. Making propaganda for the aims of a criminal organization can result in a prison term. These provisions are especially onerous given Turkey’s politicized and opaque criminal justice system, and the great latitude that has been given to prosecutors and judges in special authority courts. In numerous cases documented by CPJ, journalists have been held for months or years as they awaited trial or a court verdict. These issues are so acute that Hammarberg followed up with a second, highly critical report on the administration of justice in Turkey. Issued in January 2012, the report highlighted the excessive length of criminal proceedings and the broad definition of terrorism offenses, among other issues.

Erdoğan’s response to European pressure for reform has been largely tactical: He has made concessions on paper while retaining an array of legal tools to suppress critical speech. For example, in 2008, Turkey agreed to modify Article 301 of the Turkish penal code, which makes it a criminal offense to “denigrate Turkishness.” Hundreds of people had been prosecuted under the notorious provision, often by nationalist prosecutors operating with broad discretion. The 2008 requirement that each Article 301 prosecution be approved by the justice minister has reduced but not eliminated abuses.

In July 2012, parliament adopted legislation that reduces penalties for a handful of transgressions, such as “breaching the confidentiality of an investigation” and “influencing a fair trial” through news coverage. The measure also ends the use of the notorious special authority courts for new cases in which serious anti-state or terrorism crimes are alleged. But the legislation allowed the special courts to continue to handle all of their pending cases, and, for new cases, shifted much of their authority to regional courts. In a letter to CPJ, the full text of which is published in the appendix of this report, Justice Minister Sadullah Ergin said the measures would promote “effectiveness of judicial functioning in Turkey on one hand and more powerful guarantees in respect of fundamental rights and freedoms on the other.”

The reality is that Turkish judicial authorities have such an enormous arsenal of legal tools—including defamation statutes that punish criticism of the president, the memory of Atatürk, or any person, living or dead—that piecemeal reforms such as those passed in July 2012 offer little relief for critical journalists. The constitutional amendment proposed by the AKP that same month would not only erase any modest gains, it would also represent an enormous step backward—severely restricting coverage over broad areas of public life while enshrining repression in the nation’s governing document. Yet efforts to encourage real reform have suffered from a lack of domestic interest. Yigal Schleifer, an independent political analyst, blogger, and a former journalist in Turkey, said there is limited appetite for the issue among a citizenry that sees the government as an efficient manager of the economy, while perceiving the news media, at least historically, as a “blunt instrument of government policy.”

“I think what you’re seeing is reform fatigue,” Schleifer said. “The AK Party came in as the anti-statist alternative. Now that they have been in power they have adopted the perspective of the traditional Turkish state.” That means the leadership is deeply resistant to calls from European leaders to expand civil liberties or reduce the power of the central state, particularly in light of long-standing calls for Kurdish separatism. Indeed, as the prospect of EU integration has faded amid the European financial crisis, Erdoğan has responded with a go-it-alone approach. At one rally, as recounted by Dexter Filkins in The New Yorker in March, Erdoğan claimed Europe was “crumbling” with its currency in disarray, while “Turkey is on its feet, not thanks to them but to its own people.”

The sense that critics exaggerate Turkey’s flaws for political purposes was also raised in Justice Minister Ergin’s July 10 letter to CPJ in which he contended that authorities do not jail journalists for expressing ideas but for criminal activity. “Turkey is making an effort to strike the right balance between preventing the praising of violence and terrorist propaganda and the need to expand freedom of speech,” he wrote. But CPJ’s analysis found that the assault on press freedom in Turkey goes well beyond stamping out alleged terrorist propaganda. Erdoğan regularly lashes out at his critics, seeks to discredit the journalists who challenge his policies, and applies pressure to media outlets that he deems critical. After the daily Hürriyet and other media outlets owned by the Doğan Group started publishing stories in 2008 about a German investigation into a charity alleged to have channeled money to AKP leaders, Erdoğan fumed, telling his supporters, “Don’t buy newspapers that print lies!” The following year, the government opened a tax evasion case and fined the company $2.5 billion. Doğan leaders were eventually able to negotiate a reduction in the fine to $600 million after they replaced the editor of Hürriyet and sold off media properties that included the daily Milliyet.

“No one tells me not to criticize the government, but it’s in the air,” said a columnist for a leading daily who asked not to be identified for fear of losing his job. “The prime minister has assumed the role of Turkey’s press critic-in-chief.”


Yasemin Çongar, deputy editor-in-chief of the daily Taraf, receives visitors in a cramped office with mismatched chairs and a battered sofa. The décor reinforces Taraf’s image as a scrappy upstart and a counterweight to the perceived compromises of the Turkish institutional media. The newspaper was started in 2007 by Başar Arslan, whose family owns the bustling bookstore above which Taraf is housed. The paper made a name for itself when it broke the story of the so-called Sledgehammer plot, an alleged 2003 military conspiracy to topple Erdoğan. The story, while winning plaudits, was also controversial—some critics pointed to inconsistencies in the evidence against the conspirators that suggested some sort of convoluted government frame-up intended to neutralize the military. Çongar takes the criticism in stride.

“There’s an extreme amount of money in Turkish journalism,” said Çongar, arguing that the money has fueled a culture of complacency among elite journalists who have “chauffeurs and personal assistants” but lack the stomach for a fight. Çongar, who is facing dozens of legal complaints because of her critical reporting, said, “I don’t agree with my colleagues who say it has never been worse. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a very serious problem. But a journalist in Turkey needs to be brave.”

Çongar says that some of the journalists who have complained about government pressure and self-censorship have deluded themselves into thinking that Turkey has crossed some sort of democratic threshold and become a country in which the right to dissent is respected in law. Her framework: Turkey is an authoritarian state that has begun to soften around the edges. For Çongar, the underlying issue is that “the culture of tolerance is undeveloped in Turkey. There are legal cases for simple criticism.”

The political pressure and criminal prosecutions serve a broader media strategy for Erdoğan, one in which leading journalists and media organizations are expected to help him achieve his policy objectives, particularly in the area of national security. The prime minister’s attitude was reflected in a recent meeting he hosted with Turkey’s top editors. According to media accounts confirmed by a participant at the meeting, Erdoğan called on editors not to interview or cite “PKK terrorists” in their publications and programs. Many editors readily agreed, with one asking the prime minister for advice on how to implement the policy.

The systematic effort to subvert the media’s watchdog function—and to obstruct dissident groups using media to express their political views—may provide short-term political benefit to Erdoğan and the AKP. But it could also make it more difficult for Turkey to achieve its longer-term strategic goals. As Erdoğan has acknowledged, Turkey’s economic future is linked to European integration. Though there are many reasons that the process has stalled—from Europe’s deep financial crisis to questions about the divided island of Cyprus—Turkey’s press freedom record remains a key concern among European policy-makers. EU integration is unlikely to move ahead until the issue is addressed.

And while Turkey’s repressive policies may have little impact on certain aspects of its strategic relationship with the United States—notably Turkey’s role as an interlocutor with Iran—the partnership is also built on Ankara’s image as a regional model for democracy and freedom. It’s a role Turkey has embraced. As Namık Tan, Turkish ambassador to the United States, wrote in a June 2012 letter to CPJ: “We firmly believe that guaranteeing fundamental freedoms is vital for our democracy. This is even more important now as Turkey is setting a significant example for many other countries in our region, especially those undergoing major popular upheaval and transformation.”

This goal is deeply compromised by Turkey’s mass imprisonment of journalists, which places it squarely among the world’s outliers, countries such as Iran, Eritrea, and Burma, which have detained large numbers of journalists on vague charges and without due process. Within the Middle East, Turkey ranks among the worst on major press freedom indicators such as imprisonments, criminal prosecutions, and other forms of legal harassment.

Turkey’s broader strategic ambitions—including its exercise of soft power—are directly linked to the country’s ability to consolidate democratic institutions and build a more tolerant political culture. While Turkey’s national security threats are real, they do not justify creating an environment in which dissent is equated with terrorism and criminalized. Turkey cannot address its deep-seated press freedom crisis by modifying individual laws and making incremental reforms. It will require considerable political will to systematically dismantle the complex system of media repression.

Turkey’s leadership, working with civil society, must address the crisis. The first and crucial step is ensuring the release of the dozens of journalists imprisoned for their work, a situation that gives Turkey the disreputable distinction of being the world’s worst jailer of the press. Turkey’s international partners in the European Union and the United States can help by maintaining a principled, consistent position, and making clear that Turkey’s long-term value as a strategic partner depends on its ability to uphold global standards for freedom of expression.

After 10 years in power, the AKP has achieved many of the changes essential to its political project, including reining in the military, opening the economy, and challenging Turkey’s secular orthodoxy. Now, insulated from international pressure and enjoying domestic support, the party’s leaders seem to have lost their appetite for democratic reform. “They are the state. They are the bureaucracy,” the analyst Schleifer said. “They are becoming what they’ve fought against.”

(Photo by Reuters)


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