Attacks on the Press 2000: Turkey

In December 1999, the European Union (EU) finally agreed to accept Turkey’s application for membership. Yet questions remained about the government’s committment to the human-rights reforms needed to actually join the EU.

If press freedom is any indicator, Turkey has a long way to go. Government censorship, criminal prosecutions, physical attacks, and imprisonment were among the perennial challenges to local reporters and editors in 2000.

Although Turkey has one of the liveliest presses in the region, journalists who attempted to tackle the Kurdish question, political Islam, or the military’s controversial role in national politics did so at great personal risk. The authorities continued to use an arsenal of laws to silence dissident voices, mostly in pro-Kurdish, leftist, and Islamist media.

The threat of prosecution had a stultifying effect on Turkish journalism. At year’s end, at least 14 journalists were in prison, mainly because of their affiliation with leftist or pro-Kurdish publications. Still, fewer journalists were held in Turkish jails last year than at any time in the past decade. To some extent, authorities also eased off on pro-Kurdish publications-a result, many say, of Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Ocalan’s capture and the de-escalation of the Kurdish separatist rebellion in the southeast.

Even so, pro-Kurdish and leftist newspapers continued to be confiscated, suspended, or banned. In areas of southeastern Turkey that were still under emergency rule, the local governor blocked the distribution of more than a dozen such papers, following a pattern that has persisted for years.

Despite repeated promises, successive Turkish governments have failed to adopt substantive legal reforms, opting instead for temporary solutions such as the 1999 amnesty bill for writers and journalists. Like a similar 1997 bill, the legislation suspended the court cases or jail sentences of people convicted because of their published work. A journalist who committed any new offense within a three-year period would, however, be required to serve the previous sentence in addition to any new sentence handed down by the courts.

Turkey’s civilian leaders are not solely responsible for the failure to bring about comprehensive reform, however. The country’s powerful military continues to wield enormous influence over national politics, and is often outspoken about the need to crack down on dissent. In a highly publicized case, free-lance journalist Nadire Mater and her publisher, Semih Sokmen, stood trial last year for allegedly insulting the military in a book of interviews with former conscripts who had fought in the civil conflict in southeastern Turkey. Mater faced up to 12 years in prison for writing Mehmed’s Book: Soldiers Who Have Fought in the Southeast Speak Out. (The book itself had been banned by court order a year earlier.)

Although Mater and Sokmen were acquitted, state prosecutors appealed the decision and the ban on Mehmed’s Book remained in place. After the verdict, Mater was quick to point that the ruling did not make journalists any less vulnerable to prosecution.

CPJ sent two separate delegations to monitor the Mater trial. CPJ board member Peter Arnett and Middle East program coordinator Joel Campagna attended her August 24 defence hearing at the Beyoglu Criminal Court in Istanbul, while board member Kati Marton stood in the courtroom when Mater was acquitted on September 29.

There was some hope for change following the May election of a liberal judge, Ahmet Necdet Sezer, to the presidency. The previous year, Sezer had publicly criticized restrictions on freedom of expression and urged Turkey to bring its Constitution and laws in line with international standards. The presidency is a largely ceremonial position with few executive powers, but Sezer’s popularity was unquestionable and his moral authority, some said, should not be underestimated.

Police and security forces continued to assault reporters, cameramen, and photographers. Several journalists were briefly detained and interrogated while covering demonstrations. In January, 2000, an appeals court upheld seven-and-a-half-year prison sentences for five police officers involved in the brutal 1996 beating death of Evrensel journalist Metin Goktepe. A sixth officer’s sentence was reduced to three and a half years. After several trials, retrials, and appeals, the relatively light sentences were a bitter disappointment to Goktepe’s family and supporters, who vowed to take the case to the European Court of Human Rights.

On December 14, an Istanbul State Security Court banned news coverage of widespread hunger strikes in Turkish prisons. The court barred reporting on “the declarations of the outlawed organizations on death-fasts…and propaganda and incitement aimed at causing hatred and enmity among people, or encouraging people to commit crimes.” Two issues of the leftist daily Yeni Evrensel were reportedly confiscated in late December for violations of this ban. It appeared, however, that the restrictions were not consistently enforced.

Private radio and television stations have flourished since the government opened up the airwaves in 1994, but they remain vulnerable to the country’s harsh laws restricting freedom of expression. The Supreme Radio and Television Board (RTUK), a regulatory body established in 1994 with broad powers to sanction broadcast outlets, continued to suspend broadcasters for such alleged offenses as violating morals, depicting violence, invading privacy, separatist propaganda, or reactionism, a code word for pro-Islamist political discourse. Some stations were shut down for airing political songs and poems, or for covering the prison strikes. Between January and August, RTUK had doled out a total of 4000 days in suspensions.

By far the most widely covered incident was the one-day ban that RTUK imposed on CNN-Turk in February. CNN-Turk is a joint venture of the U.S. network CNN and a Turkish media group. The station’s alleged infraction was a talk show during which the host asked a guest whether the jailed Abdullah Ocalan could be compared to South Africa’s Nelson Mandela.

In the mainstream media, news and editorial coverage continued to be hampered by self-censorship, editorial censorship, and ideological prejudice. Both print and broadcast media were dominated by two major holding companies, which tended to limit their scope. “On one side are the many self-designated guardians within the state apparatus determined to preserve red lines between what can enter the public realm and what cannot,” wrote one Western journalist. “On the other are the media organizations themselves, whose commitment to freedom of expression can best be described as fragile.”

In November, the mass-circulation daily Sabah discontinued the weekly column of popular journalist Cengiz Candar, asserting that Candar “broke the law by insulting the military.” The measure was apparently taken in response to a recent column in which Candar had urged that certain Turkish officers be punished for their alleged involvement in a 1998 smear campaign against journalists and intellectuals who were viewed as sympathetic to Kurdish separatists. In November, military officials acknowledged having drawn up such a plan, but denied carrying it out. However, press reports alleged that Mehmet Ali Birand, a liberal Sabah columnist and talk show host, was actually victimized under the plan. Birand was fired from Sabah in 1998, after the military allegedly leaked information that he was on the PKK payroll. The information was said to have come from the confession of captured PKK military commander Semdin Sakik. A similar allegation was later leveled against Candar.

Ali Karatas, Yeni Evrensel

An Istanbul State Security Court charged Karatas, an editor for the leftist daily Yeni Evrensel, with violating Article 6/1 of the Anti-Terror Law (propaganda on behalf of an illegal organization). The charge was based on a January 8 article by Karatas, titled “I Definitely Have to Cover It, Friends.” The piece recounted the brutal killing of Yeni Evrensel reporter Metin Goktepe, who was beaten to death by Turkish police in January 1996 (the title quotes Goktepe’s last words to his colleagues).

Karatas also published the names of two officers who allegedly gave the order to detain Goktepe. In its decision, the State Security Court ruled that this information made the officers targets.

On June 21, the court sentenced Karatas to pay a fine of 237,240,000 Turkish liras (US$400) and ordered the paper closed for seven days. Yeni Evrensel remained open pending an appeal. The sentence had not yet been executed at year’s end, according to CPJ sources in Turkey.


The Supreme Radio and Television Board (RTUK), a regulatory body established in 1994 with broad powers to sanction broadcast outlets, imposed a one-day suspension on CNN-Turk, a joint venture of the U.S.-based CNN network and a local Turkish media group. The station broadcasts news 24 hours a day in Turkish.

The stated reason for the suspension was a talk show broadcast on January 13, during which the host asked a guest whether or not jailed Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan could ever achieve the stature of South Africa’s Nelson Mandela.

The decision was subject to appeal. At year’s end it was unclear when, if ever, the penalty might be enforced.

Ali Teker, Yeni Safak
Fehmi Koru, Yeni Safak

Teker, an editor with the Islamist daily Yeni Safak, was charged in a criminal court under Article 159 of the Penal Code (insulting state institutions or the military).

The charge stemmed from a November 24, 1999 Yeni Safak article implying that Turkish military leaders had been involved in the recent murder of journalist Ahmet Taner Kislali. Kislali, an academic, former politician, and regular columnist for the daily Cumhuriyet, was killed in a bomb attack in front of his suburban Ankara home on October 21, 1999. The article was bylined “Taha Kivanc,” which authorities determined was Koru’s pen name.

Koru was also charged under Article 159, but the case was pending at year’s end. If convicted, both journalists face up to six years in jail.

Ali Teker, Yeni Safak

Teker, an editor with the Islamist daily Yeni Safak, was charged by an Istanbul State Security Court with violating Article 9 of the Anti-Terror Law. The charge was based on a February 22, Yeni Safak article about an army unit said to be under investigation for the alleged murder of 10 prisoners at Ulucanlar prison in August 1999. The prosecutor objected to the paper’s publication of the names of certain unit members, arguing that it made them vulnerable to attack.

Teker’s case was pending at year’s end. If convicted, he faced a possible fine.

Ali Teker, Yeni Safak

An Istanbul criminal court charged Teker, an editor with the Islamist daily Yeni Safak, with violating Article 159 of the Penal Code (insulting state institutions or the military). The charge was based on a December 31, 1999, Yeni Safak article that quoted an Islamist member of Parliament criticizing the Turkish military as an undemocratic institution.

If convicted, Teker faces a lengthy prison term.

Mine Kirikanat, Radikal
Hasan Cakalkurt, Radikal

A Turkish criminal court charged Cakalkurt, managing editor of the daily Radikal, and Kirikanat, a columnist for the paper, under Article 159 of the Penal Code (insulting state institutions or the military). The charges stemmed from an article in the January 19 edition of Radikal, which authorities claimed insulted the police. The article criticized Turkish authorities for arresting student activists while failing to take action against organized crime.

“The distinguished mafia may sleep comfortably because the Turkish police are awake,” Radikal said. “The police manage to imprison student elements who threaten the serenity of the country. If necessary, the Court will even make a dead person confess and will submit evidence that the Court itself has gathered.”

The trial was still pending at year’s end. If convicted, both men face up to six years in prison.

Yeni Gundem

Turkish authorities imposed an indefinite ban on distribution of the pro-Kurdish daily Yeni Gundem, published in the country’s so-called state of emergency region (OHAL) in southeastern Turkey. Yeni Gundem is the latest incarnation of a series of similar newspapers put out by the same publisher in recent years. All have been successively banned by the Turkish government.

Dogan Satmis, Hurriyet
Semra Uncu, Sabah
Eren Guvener, Milliyet
Serdar Akbiyik, Star
Hasan Cakalkurt, Radikal, Posta

Five editors of five daily newspapers were charged by a state security court under a recent law designed to fight organized crime. All five editors were charged for publishing correspondence between jailed Turkish mafia leaders. The prosecution claimed that the publication of the letters went “beyond the [limits of] a news item and included elements of crime.”

All five cases were pending at year’s end. If convicted, the editors face possible prison terms of two to five years.

Yasmin Varlik, Sabah

Varlik, a reporter for the mass-circulation daily Sabah, was briefly detained by Turkish police while covering the funeral of a former political prisoner in Istanbul. She was released after a few hours in custody.

Nadire Mater, Inter Press Service

Mater, a free-lance reporter with Inter Press Service (IPS), was acquitted of charges of “insulting” the Turkish military in a book of interviews with former conscripts of the civil conflict in southeastern Turkey. Her publisher, Samih Sokmen, who had faced a possible fine, was also acquitted.

Mater had been charged in 1999 with two counts of “insulting” the Turkish military, a crime under Article 159 of Turkey’s Penal Code. The charges stemmed from her authorship of Mehmed’s Book: Soldiers Who Have Fought in the Southeast Speak Out, which consists of interviews with 42 retired Turkish soldiers who fought in the civil conflict in southeastern Turkey, where the government has been fighting a bloody war with Kurdish insurgents for much of the last 15 years. During 2000, CPJ board members Peter Arnett and Kati Marton, and Middle East program coordinator Joel Campagna, attended court hearings as a show of solidarity with Mater.

Despite the favorable trial outcome for Mater, the prosecution appealed the verdict, which means that the journalist could still face a conviction. It also meant that Mehmed’s Book, banned by court ordered on June 23, 1999, would remain barred from circulation.

Yeni Evrensel

A Turkish court imposed a 10-day suspension on the leftist daily Yeni Evrensel for allegedly violating Article 312 of the country’s Penal Code (inciting racial or religious hatred). The punishment stemmed from a 1999 article published in the newspaper that discussed the Kurdish issue.

Ali Teker, Yeni Safak

A Turkish State Security Court charged Teker, editor of the Islamist daily Yeni Safak, with violating Article 312 of the Penal Code (inciting religious or racial hatred). The case stemmed from an article titled “Savagery in the School” that appeared in Yeni Safak on October 6, 1999. The article discussed the issue of female students being barred from entering school because they wore Islamic head scarves

If convicted, Teker faces possible prison time, and Yeni Safak faces the prospect of closure.