Attacks on the Press 2001: Turkey

In an effort to improve its chances to join the European Union, the Turkish Parliament in October approved more than 30 amendments to the country’s restrictive constitution, which was passed in 1982 after a military coup two years before.

Lawmakers are currently considering a proposal that would bring some of the nation’s repressive laws used to punish expression in line with the new constitution, but it was unclear at year’s end what these new laws would look like. However, critics warned that, despite the October changes, the state still has the constitutional power to censor, prosecute, and jail journalists and others for covering such controversial topics as the country’s Kurdish minority, political Islam, and the military’s role in national politics.

Kurdish-language broadcast media–thought permitted under the new amendments–can still be censored if it threatens “national security” or “unity.” And even with the modified language of other amendments, the government will still be able to prosecute journalists or suspend newspapers thought to conduct anti-state “activity.”

But there could be some short-term benefits. Some observers think that many journalists and critics currently jailed could be released if certain laws are revised or dropped. These legal changes could result in the suspension of dozens–possibly hundreds–of court cases against journalists or activists prosecuted for their statements or writing. It is also possible that some of the 13 Turkish journalists who continue to languish in jail could be freed.

Even as Parliament tried to make Turkey’s laws more palatable to the democracies of the EU, authorities continued to prosecute journalists and censor publications. While alternative pro-Kurdish, leftist, and Islamist media were primarily targeted, several prominent, mainstream journalists also faced legal harassment.

In February, free-lance journalist Metin Munir was charged with “insulting” the Turkish judiciary and faced a six-year prison sentence for an article he wrote criticizing the appointment of a state prosecutor with alleged links to organized crime. Two months later, Fehmi Koru, a columnist for the Islamist-leaning daily Yeni Safak and a well-known political commentator, was tried for allegedly inciting “enmity and hatred” after criticizing secular Turks for being intolerant of Islamist views during a 1999 television appearance. He faces up to four years in prison if convicted.

In another prominent prosecution, Nese Deuzel, a respected journalist with the daily Radikal, was indicted in three separate cases for articles and interviews she published about the Alevi religious minority and drug trafficking. Popular liberal columnist Ahmet Altan, meanwhile, endured at least three criminal cases during the year because he criticized the military’s involvement in politics.

One Turkish journalist was jailed in 2001: Fikret Baksaya was sentenced to 16 months in prison for a column he wrote in 1999 criticizing state policies toward the country’s Kurdish minority. Baksaya joined 12 other Turkish journalists who were in prison, mainly because of their affiliation with leftist or pro-Kurdish publications. While this number represents a dramatic decline from several years ago, dozens of Turkish journalists and writers are believed to be facing prosecution and the prospect of jail.

Authorities continued to ban or confiscate newspapers and books, especially leftist, pro-Kurdish, and pro-Islamist publications. In August 2001, a Turkish court banned the book Temple of Fear by journalist Celal Baslangic because it allegedly insulted the army by implicating Turkish security forces in human rights abuses. However, authorities took no action to censor the same articles when they were originally published in the daily Radikal.

Even prevailing in court does not always end journalists’ travails. Free-lancer Nadire Mater, the author of a previously banned book, was acquitted in 2000 on charges of insulting the military. Then, in the summer of 2001, Hurriyet columnist Emin Colaslan and Cumhuriyet columnist Deniz Som published a series of spurious columns attacking Mater and the fact that she had received a grant from the liberal John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, which they accused of being a CIA-backed organization. Some Turkish journalists privately speculated that the military was behind the smear campaign, although no conclusive evidence was found.

Journalists did not escape Turkey’s severe economic crisis, which erupted after a public feud between President Ahmet Nedcet Sezer and Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit over government efforts to combat official corruption triggered a run on the national currency in February. Between 3,000 and 5,000 media workers were laid off in two months, and media companies complained of lower advertising, circulation, and revenue. While the economic situation was indeed dire, many journalists charged that management exploited the crisis to fire enterprising journalists who frequently covered controversial topics.

The layoffs also highlighted Turkish journalists’ perennial complaint: the concentration of media ownership and the negative effect it has on the diversity of opinions and the coverage of sensitive issues. For years, two private holding companies, Dogan Medya and Sabah, have controlled much of the print and broadcast media. The Sabah group plunged into crisis in 2001 when its head, Dinc Bilgin, was jailed on embezzlement and corruption charges; the turmoil left the Dogan group in control of more than 60 percent of Turkey’s media.

The corporate-controlled, mainstream media continued to suffer from its usual vices, including self-censorship, editorial censorship, and ideological prejudice. The major papers often avoided criticizing the military and high-level corruption.

While private radio and television stations have proliferated in Turkey since the mid-1990s when the government began permitting private broadcasting, authorities applied tough laws and regulations to close or censor certain channels. In several cases, the Supreme Radio and Television Board (RTUK), a regulatory body established in 1994 with broad powers to sanction broadcast outlets, suspended television and radio stations for airing violent, sensational, or politically controversial programming. During 2001, Turkish-language broadcasts of the BBC and the German national station Deutsche Welle were banned because they harmed “national security.”

In June, President Sezer vetoed a worrisome RTUK law that would have increased fines for violating RTUK regulations, relaxed restrictions on media ownership, and subjected Internet publications to harsh restrictions and punishments, much like traditional media. Even though no specific legislation exists regulating the Internet, authorities did punish Web users whose content they deemed inappropriate. In March, Coskun Ak, who administered an online discussion forum for the Internet company Superonline, was sentenced to 40 months in prison for insulting the state in a harsh critique of government human rights abuses that was posted on the discussion forum by an unknown participant. Ak was held liable because he failed to remove the posting.

January 18

Nese Duzel, Radikal

Duzel, a reporter for the mainstream liberal daily Radikal, was charged with inciting sectarian hatred or religious conflict, a crime under Article 312/2 of the Penal Code.

The case stemmed from a January 8, 2001, interview that Duzel conducted with the leader of Turkey’s Alevi Muslim minority, Murteza Demir. In the interview, Demir complained about official discrimination against Alevis, claiming they are denied rights and a communal identity and are treated with contempt.

The interview was published shortly after prisoners staged jailhouse riots and hunger strikes in December. Many of those killed in the riots were Alevis.

Duzel’s trial in the State Security Court in Istanbul began on June 27, 2001, but was subsequently postponed until February 2002. If convicted, Duzel faces two to six years in prison.

On October 23, Duzel was again charged with inciting sectarian hatred or religious conflict. This time, the charge stemmed from her book, The Hidden Face of Turkey, a compilation of her articles and interviews published in several Turkish newspapers over the years.

In one interview, titled “Alevis Are Considered as Terrorists” and originally published in August 1996 in the now defunct daily Yeni Yuzyil, a minority Alevi leader discussed riots that had taken place in 1995 in an Alevi district in Istanbul.

Duzel was not charged when the article was originally published. This second trial was adjourned until March 6, 2002. If convicted, Duzel faces two to six years in prison.

January 23

Nese Duzel, Radikal

An Istanbul criminal court charged Duzel, a reporter for the liberal Turkish daily Radikal, with “insulting state institutions,” an offense under Article 159 of the Penal Code.

The charge stemmed from a June 19, 2000, Radikal interview with a university professor who discussed drug trafficking in Turkey.

If convicted, Duzel faces up to six years in prison. Her case was adjourned until April 2002.

February 6

Metin Munir, free-lancer

Munir, a free-lance journalist who writes for the Turkish daily Sabah and the London-based Financial Times, was charged with insulting the judiciary, a crime punishable by up to 6 years in prison.

The Ministry of Justice filed the charge over an article by Munir that appeared on May 10, 2000, in the now defunct daily Yeni Binyil. Munir’s article harshly criticized the appointment of Oktar Cakir as chief prosecutor of the State Security Court.

Cakir was ultimately forced to step down after a traffic accident exposed the prosecutor’s apparent relationship with a known criminal. But Munir suggested that Cakir’s initial appointment raised troubling questions about the administration of justice in Turkey.

The journalist questioned how the Supreme Council of Judges and Prosecutors, the body responsible for appointing the chief prosecutor, could have chosen Cakir for the post when the council had been notified by the Ministry of Interior of Cakir’s involvement in unspecified “malfeasance.”

In a February 26 letter to Turkish prime minister Bulent Ecevit, CPJ protested the prosecution of Munir and urged him to examine all possible legal remedies to ensure that the charges were dropped.

The case has been adjourned until April 2002.

March 21

Yeni Evrensel

The leftist daily Yeni Evrensel was suspended for seven days for violating Turkey’s Anti-Terror Law. The suspension stemmed from a January 8, 2000, article 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 while covering the funeral of two inmates who died in a prison riot. (The title quoted Goktepe’s last words to his colleagues.)

A State Security Court in Istanbul ordered the closure on June 21, 2000. The newspaper lost an appeal on February 28, 2001, and began the suspension almost a month later.

April 10

Zeynel Abidin Kizilyaprak, Ozgur Bakis

The Court of Appeals confirmed a 16-month sentence against Kizilyaprak, editor of a photo supplement for the now-defunct daily Ozgur Bakis. Kizilyaprak was supposed to go to jail on October 23, 2001, but apparently went underground instead.

On December 8, 2000, a State Security Court convicted Kizilyaprak of “separatist propaganda” under Article 8 of the Anti-Terror Law. The case stemmed from a book of photographs titled From 1900 to 2000, the Kurds. The book was confiscated on February 16, 2000, before it could be distributed.

April 12

Fehmi Koru, Yeni Safak

Koru, an Ankara-based columnist for the Turkish daily Yeni Safak and a well-known commentator on political affairs, appeared at the No. 2 State Security Court in Besiktas, Istanbul, to face charges of disseminating information that “incites people to enmity and hatred by pointing to class, racial, religious, confessional, or regional differences.” He was charged under Article 312 of the Turkish Penal Code.

The prosecution stemmed from comments that Koru made in 1999 during an appearance on Turkey’s Kanal 7 television station after the devastating August 1999 earthquake in northwestern Turkey. Certain religious Turks had described the quake as divine punishment against the country, a view that drew condemnation from secularist politicians and journalists. Koru, in turn, criticized the secularists for their intolerance.

“Everybody is entitled to their own beliefs,” Koru said during his appearance. “Certain circles in Turkey…believe they have the right to tell people what they should believe in.”

After an initial hearing, the trial was adjourned until June 2. In June, it was again postponed until March 5, 2002. If convicted, Koru faces up to four years in prison.

CPJ published an alert about the case on April 20.

June 20

Ahmet Altan, Aktuel

A Turkish criminal court charged Altan, a popular columnist for the weekly Aktuel, with violating Article 159 of the Penal Code, which prohibits “insulting” state institutions, including the military.

The charge stemmed from a November 2000 article in which Altan urged the prosecution of Turkish military officers involved in a state-sponsored 1998 smear campaign against journalists and intellectuals viewed as sympathetic to Kurdish separatists.

In November 2000, military officials acknowledged having formulated such a plan but denied carrying it out. However, Mehmet Ali Birand, a liberal columnist for the daily Sabah and a talk show host, was reportedly victimized under the plan.

Birand was fired from Sabah in 1998 after the military allegedly leaked information that he was on the payroll of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a separatist rebel group. The information was said to have come from the confession of captured PKK military commander Semdin Sakik. A similar allegation was later leveled against Cengiz Candar, another columnist for Sabah, and also resulted in a dismissal.

Altan’s trial was adjourned until February 15, 2002. If convicted, he faces up to six years in prison.

June 29

Fikret Baskaya, Ozgur Bakis

Baskaya, an academic and writer for the now defunct, pro-Kurdish daily Ozgur Bakis, was jailed after a State Security Court sentenced him to 16 months in prison for “separatist propaganda,” a violation of Article 8 of the Anti-Terror Law.

The case against Baskaya stemmed from a June 1, 1999, column he wrote in Ozgur Bakis titled “Is this a Historical Process?” The article decried Turkey’s policy toward the country’s Kurdish minority, saying: “Turkish leaders have always considered the Kurdish problem to be one of public order, when it is in fact a national problem, and have thought they could resolve the problem through a chauvinist, racist and nationalist political agenda.”

An Istanbul State Security Court convicted him on June 13, 2000. The sentence was confirmed by the Court of Appeals on January 15, 2001. He is jailed in Kalecik Prison near Ankara.

August 21

Celal Baslangic, Radikal

A Turkish criminal court banned the book Temple of Fear, written by journalist Celal Baslangic. The court claimed that the book insulted the Turkish army, a crime under Article 159 of the Penal Code. Police apparently seized copies of the book from shops in the country.

Temple of Fear, a collection of articles by Baslangic that originally appeared in the liberal Turkish daily Radikal, describes the violence of Turkey’s long-running conflict with Kurdish rebels in southeastern Turkey. Some of the essays accuse Turkish authorities of committing human rights abuses against civilians, including alleged massacres by Turkish military forces and the disappearance of a pro-Kurdish politician.

Turkish authorities did not object to any of Baslangic’s articles when they originally appeared in Radikal. The book, published in July 2000 by Iletisim Publishers, ran three editions before the ban.

Baslangic was expected to face criminal charges stemming from the book, but none had been filed at press time.

September 10

Erol Ozkoray, Idea Politika

Ozkoray, editor of the Istanbul-based quarterly magazine Idea Politika, was formally charged with two counts of “insulting” state institutions, a crime under Article 159 of the Penal Code.

The charges came after Ozkoray published an article in the March edition that strongly criticized the Turkish military’s controversial role in Turkish politics and society. Idea Politika frequently published such articles.

Ozkoray faces between four and 12 years in prison if convicted, but no further developments in his case had been reported at press time.

November 12

Burak Bekdil, Turkish Daily News

A criminal court in Ankara charged Bekdil, a columnist for the English-language Turkish Daily News, with “insulting” the judiciary, a crime under Article 159 of the Penal Code.

The charge relates to an August 28 column in which Bekdil criticized alleged judicial corruption. Bekdil faces from two to six years in prison if convicted of the charge. No further developments had been reported at press time.