Several tallies, one conclusion on Turkish press freedom

Press freedom in Turkey is under assault. Thousands of criminal cases have been filed against reporters, the Criminal Code and Anti-Terrorism Act are used routinely to silence critical news coverage, and Kurdish journalists face constant persecution.

Today CPJ released its annual prison census, which tracks cases of journalists jailed for their work globally. (The list counts those who were incarcerated at midnight on December 1, 2011, but does not include the many journalists imprisoned and released throughout the year.) Since 1990, when we first began compiling this census, Turkey has appeared regularly on the list; in the mid-1990s, it was the world’s leading jailer of journalists. Some Turkish journalists have written us to inquire why CPJ’s 2011 census lists eight imprisoned journalists in Turkey, while other organizations list as many as 64.

We recognize that governments–in Turkey and elsewhere–often resort to charging journalists with crimes that are seemingly unrelated to their work but are actually intended to silence critical voices. In fact, CPJ’s global census found that antistate charges were the most common allegation used to jail journalists in 2011. In conducting our research, we traveled to Turkey on a fact-finding mission, interviewed journalists and press freedom defenders, and enlisted the help of a Turkish-speaking researcher. In those cases where we conclude from our research that a government is using fabricated or retaliatory charges to silence critical reporters, we include those journalists in our tally. If we cannot determine that a journalist’s work is the basis for his or her imprisonment, we do not include the journalist on the list, but continue to consider new information as it becomes available. Our research is ongoing, including into cases that have been flagged to us again today.

There are many groups, both internationally and in Turkey, interested in promoting free expression. Applying different methodology, and struggling to navigate the thicket of the murky judiciary, we arrive at divergent results in our quest to document infringements on the press. Reporters Without Borders, for instance, lists seven journalists as imprisoned in Turkey. The prominent local press freedom Organization BIA, in its latest quarterly tally, noted that “a total of 68 journalists were in prison, of which 11 are because of news stories, writing [and] speaking.” Other groups have much higher numbers.

Yet all press freedom defenders following developments in Turkey have reached the same conclusion: The situation is alarming and is getting worse. After concluding a fact-finding mission to Turkey this year, CPJ Deputy Director Robert Mahoney wrote that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party “have resorted to nationalist tactics by using vague defamation laws and sweeping anti-terrorism statutes to rein in not only traditional targets such as leftist and Kurdish journalists but also government critics in the mainstream media.”