The murder of an outspoken newspaper editor underlined a troubling year in which journalists continued to be the targets of criminal prosecution and government censorship.
Hrant Dink, the Turkish-Armenian editor of the bilingual weekly Agos, was gunned down outside his newspaper’s Istanbul office on January 19. Dink had received numerous death threats from nationalist Turks who viewed his iconoclastic journalism, particularly on the mass killings of Armenians in the early 20th century, as an act of treachery. In a January 10 article in Agos, Dink said he had passed along a particularly threatening letter to Istanbul’s Sisli district prosecutor, but no action had been taken. Dink’s murder rekindled memories of the not-too-distant past, when murders of journalists were common in Turkey. In the 1990s, 18 Turkish journalists were killed for their work, many of them murdered, making it the eighth-deadliest country in the world for the press. Few of the cases were solved.
The slaying of a well-known editor in broad daylight on the streets of Istanbul jolted both the news media and the public, drawing attention to the rising tensions between hard-line nationalists and the press. A headline in the daily Milliyet proclaimed “Hrant Dink is Turkey,” while the daily Hürriyet asserted, “The killer is a traitor to his nation.” Thousands thronged the streets for demonstrations honoring Dink and calling for justice.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan condemned Dink’s death as an attack on Turkey’s unity and promised to catch those responsible. A day later, police arrested the alleged triggerman, 17-year-old Ogün Samast, who confessed to the crime. Erhan Tuncel and Yasin Hayal, described as ultranationalist Turks opposed to Dink’s political views, were accused of conspiring with Samast to carry out the murder. In all, 19 people went on trial beginning in July.
As the case unfolded, though, suspicions arose of possible police complicity. Photos emerged before the trial showing Samast posing with police officers in the Black Sea city of Samsun. And a recorded phone call between Tuncel, who had been a police informant, and an officer indicated that police may have had prior knowledge of the murder plot, according to Turkish press reports. (In one exchange, the reports said, Tuncel seemed to suggest that the gunman had not followed plans to stay at the murder scene.) As the trial progressed in late year, police claimed the recording had been lost, according to news reports. Many independent journalists told CPJ that the full truth of the murder may never be known.
Dink’s death helped focus attention not only on the threats facing dissident journalists in Turkey, but also on the country’s restrictive press freedom climate, one buttressed by an arsenal of repressive laws that can be used to punish critical speech. Before his death, Dink himself faced a possible prison sentence in cases brought by nationalist Turks objecting to his writings about the Armenian killings, his criticism of lines in the Turkish national anthem that he considered discriminatory, and even his public comments on the court cases filed against him.
The Turkish press freedom group BIA documented dozens of criminal cases brought against print and broadcast journalists in 2007 under controversial penal code provisions that criminalize expressions deemed insulting to the Turkish identity, that represent pro-Kurdish political sentiments, or that criticize the military and state
institutions. Article 301 of the penal code, which prohibits insults to Turkish identity and sets penalties of up to three years in prison, was the most commonly used weapon against the press. Dink’s son, Arat, who took over the paper after his father’s death, was found guilty by a Turkish court in October under Article 301 and sentenced to a one-year suspended term. In effect, the son was prosecuted for the father’s supposed offense: The charge stemmed from an interview Hrant Dink gave to Reuters in July 2006 about the Armenian killings, which was later reprinted in Agos.
BIA said that at least 100 prosecutions were brought against journalists under Article 301 in the first six months of the year alone.
The European Union urged Turkey to reform its laws and eliminate such prosecutions. Turkey began accession talks with the EU in 2005, but concerns about the country’s human rights and press freedom record have lingered. In October, the EU again urged reform of Article 301 and other repressive laws. “We regret the lack of progress that has been made. … There have to be substantial changes to Article 301 and also to other articles worded in similarly vague terms,” Portugal’s European affairs minister, Manuel Lobo Antunes, said on behalf of the EU.
President Abdullah Gül, the former prime minister who took office in August, said he would seek reforms. “We know there are problems with regard to Article 301. There’s still room for improvement, and there are changes to be enacted in the period ahead,” he said in October. Gül and his governing AK Party, a moderate Islamist party, have overseen the start of constitutional and legal reforms to ease repressive free-expression laws.
Despite the rash of criminal prosecutions, few members of the press were imprisoned as they were during the 1990s, when Turkey was the world’s leading jailer of journalists. As a result of legal reforms to the country’s penal code in recent years, prison penalties were often dismissed, suspended, or converted to fines. However, the mere presence of repressive laws stifled debate. And jailings, while rare, were still in evidence in 2007.
In May, muckraking journalist Sinan Kara, formerly of the newspaper Datca Haber, served five months in prison for allegedly defaming local political officials, according to BIA. Short-term detentions of journalists were more common. In June, journalists Sait Bayram and Firat Avci of the newspaper Söz were arrested by security forces in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir and held for two days over a story alleging that a local judge took bribes.
Courts continued to suspend newspapers, mainly pro-Kurdish titles, over objectionable political content. Just before parliamentary elections in July, a court ordered the pro-Kurdish daily Gündem suspended for two weeks for allegedly disseminating “terrorist propaganda,” according to BIA. Officials had objected to an article describing popular sympathy for Kurdish guerrillas. When the paper attempted to republish under another name, Günceli, the court reissued the ban.
Police violence against journalists was a recurring problem. Sinan Tekpetek, who works for the newspapers Özgür Hayat and Yüzde 52 Öfke, said he was abducted in downtown Istanbul by police officers who dragged him into a waiting car, BIA reported. Tekpetek, who filed a complaint, alleged that police threatened him and broke his ribs in the July incident. BIA said the case could have been related to the journalist’s work or his scheduled appearance as a witness in a police brutality case.
Radio and television stations abound in Turkey, but the Supreme Radio and Television Board, the main regulatory body, continued to impose punitive sanctions against media outlets accused of violating any number of vague restrictions about morals and ethics. Several broadcast stations or their programs were temporarily ordered off the air for violating these proscriptions, especially election coverage deemed to be biased in favor of a political campaign.
While the Internet is mostly unregulated, in recent years the courts have ordered the censorship or banning of Web sites deemed in breach of Turkish law. In the year’s most publicized instance, a court ordered Internet providers to block the popular Web site YouTube because of postings deemed to offend the memory of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern-day Turkey. The order was reversed two days later.