Some diplomats view Turkey's reaction to criticism of its press freedom record under Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as excessively defensive. (Reuters/Joe Penney)
Some diplomats view Turkey's reaction to criticism of its press freedom record under Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as excessively defensive. (Reuters/Joe Penney)

Press freedom: Barometer of the Turkish model

With Turkey recently in the spotlight because of its press freedom record–including dishonorable distinction as the world’s worst jailer of journalists–many international observers wonder how Ankara will overcome its image crisis and whether it will choose to resolutely base its broad strategic ambitions on the respect of global standards of press freedom. A new report to be officially launched in Brussels tomorrow by Marc Pierini, a former EU ambassador to Ankara and senior Turkey scholar at Carnegie Europe and the Open Society Foundation, “Press freedom in Turkey,” underscores the importance of the issue. As Pierini recently told CPJ, “What kind of state and of society does Turkey want to be? To what league of nations does it want to belong?” 

Press freedom in Turkey depends on the national choreography of power. It is determined by the tug-of-war between hardliners and liberals, the standoff between strong state institutions and a fledging civil society, and by the relations between the government and groups–like the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), an organization listed as terrorist by the European Union and United States–that most directly challenge its authority. Two thirds of the jailed journalists are Kurdish, and their status is likely to be affected by the success or failure of current discussions between the government and PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan, who has been detained since 1999 in a maximum security prison on the Imrali Island in the Sea of Marmara.

Press freedom in Turkey also has a strong European dimension. The country is a founding member of the Strasbourg-based Council of Europe and is accountable to the European Court of Human Rights, which holds freedom of expression as a core value. Ankara also aspires to become a member of the EU, and although Turkey has been cold-shouldered by some EU countries and has feigned to lose interest in the Brussels connection, EU membership remains one of its foreign policy priorities.

In Brussels, press freedom is considered a yardstick of Turkey’s progress in meeting the EU’s standards of human rights and democracy. After the European Commission’s publication in October of a critical progress report, the European Parliament–under the leadership of its Turkey rapporteur, Dutch Christian Democratic MEP Ria Oomen-Ruijten–is gearing up for a discussion on Turkey’s human rights record that will determine Europe’s mood toward Ankara. The state of press freedom will loom large in its assessment.

In his report, written with Markus Mayr and published by Carnegie Europe, Pierini writes that deteriorating press freedom in Turkey “is a stain on Ankara’s democratic reputation, economic standing, and diplomatic position.” Besides criticizing digital censorship and highlighting the conflicts of interest stemming from the conglomerate nature of Turkish media ownership, the author focuses his attention on the legal basis for the imprisonment of journalists, in particular the Penal Code and the Anti-Terror Law, “that are open to prosecutorial and judicial abuse” and reflect an edgy and narrow concept of freedom of expression. “Most prosecutions are related to leading, creating propaganda for, or being a member of a terrorist organization or its press committee,” Pierini writes. At issue, he says, “is the degree to which the government has a duty to accept critical and differentiated journalism that reports both on terrorist activities and on government’s policies in response to them. The judicial system tends to blur the line between the intention to incite, praise, legitimize, or relativize terrorist violence and the expression of an alternative, critical, or even disturbing opinion.”

Brussels pundits and officials have regularly wondered whether the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has primarily used the EU reform process as a tactical instrument to undermine Turkey’s secular-military establishment and reinforce its own power. Therefore, they see the government’s response to the press freedom crisis as a test of Turkey’s commitment to adopt these reforms as a matter of principle and as part of a clear democratic and liberal agenda.

“Despite domestic and international criticism of the imprisonment and prosecution of journalists in Turkey and of the flawed Turkish legal system, the government has not responded decisively,” Pierini writes. In many EU circles, Turkey’s reaction to criticism of its press freedom record is considered excessively defensive. Recently, Ankara distributed to Turkish embassies a note that focuses on rebutting CPJ’s jailed journalists’ statistics without addressing the fundamental issues of the country’s flawed legal system.

Keen to revive the EU accession process as an impetus for reforms that he sees as beneficial to both Ankara and Brussels, Pierini acknowledges that “the country has begun substantive work to amend the three pieces of legislation or regulation that are considered the main reasons for restrictions on press freedom.” But he expects bolder and speedier reforms. His report provides a roadmap for improving Turkey’s record and for “moving the legal and regulatory environment of its media closer to EU standards.” The author advises Ankara to “put to rest the row over numbers” and swiftly adopt the fourth judicial reform package that has been prepared by the Ministry of Justice in consultation with the Council of Europe.

As Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan considers a run for the presidency in 2014, the hour of reckoning is approaching, raising substantive issues that will define the country’s democratic identity. The key question behind Turkey’s press freedom record is encapsulated in the title of Pierini’s forthcoming book, Où va la Turquie? (Where is Turkey heading?), to be published in early March.

The authorities’ attitude towards freedom of expression, dissent, pluralism, public criticism, civil society, has become the bellwether of the Turkish model. Press freedom, Pierini writes, “is one of the key subjects that will delineate the future nature of Turkey, including the country’s domestic cohesiveness and its relationship with the rest of the world. The tenets of press freedom are therefore of strategic interest not only to Turkish citizens but also for the European Union. The EU needs a prosperous, stable and democratic Turkey. More importantly it needs a Turkey that is at peace with itself and manages coexistence and tolerance between various strands of its society.”