CPJ calls on Erdogan to embrace press freedom

September 16, 2013

His Excellency Recep Tayyip Erdoğan
Prime Minister of the Republic of Turkey
Vekaletler Caddesi Başbakanlık Merkez Bina
P.K. 06573; Kızılay, Ankara

Hand-delivered via the Turkish Ministry of Justice

Dear Prime Minister Erdoğan,

As an independent international press freedom advocacy organization, the Committee to Protect Journalists is concerned about the continued press freedom crisis in Turkey.  We believe the government’s failure to safeguard press freedom undermines the great strengths of your nation.

In October 2012, when CPJ published its special report on media freedom in Turkey, we highlighted the widespread criminal prosecution and imprisonment of journalists and the government’s use of various forms of pressure that promotes self-censorship.

Almost a year later, the media environment in Turkey remains extremely difficult. In fact, we return to Turkey with new concerns over the following issues:

  • The continued jailing of journalists in retaliation for their work, and the linkage of reporting that challenges government policies with terrorism;
  • The heated anti-press rhetoric coming from the top echelons of power that emboldens zealous prosecutors to go after critics, and causes jittery media owners to clear their newsrooms of independent voices in order to protect their businesses;
  • The attempted government-sanctioned censorship of sensitive topics and news events;
  • The official threats to restrict Turkey’s social media–a vibrant space for Turkey’s independent and opposition voices;
  • The use of social media by a public official to smear at least one independent reporter;
  • The crackdown on journalists and media outlets in retaliation for their independent or pro-opposition coverage of June’s anti-government rallies, commonly known as the Gezi Park protests.

Below, we elaborate on these points and make recommendations.

When CPJ published its annual global census of journalists imprisoned for their work on December 1, 2012, Turkey held 49 media workers behind bars, making it the world’s leading jailer of journalists. Most were kept in pre-trial detention, and many had not seen the indictments against them. We called on Turkey then to release the journalists and fundamentally reform its laws.

In January, Turkey arrested 11 more journalists on the charge of belonging to a banned terrorist organization. This charge–a part of Turkey’s anti-terror law–has been used in the past against journalists who cover sensitive issues. Even though officials did not disclose the evidence against the journalists, the lawyers of several of the defendants told CPJ it consisted of recorded phone conversations the contents of which the defense was not allowed to review, as well as of photographs and press clips. Five of the 11 journalists detained in January remain in prison today; several of the detained reported being beaten in police custody, CPJ research shows.  

As of June, when CPJ did an internal, mid-year update of the imprisoned roster in Turkey, we accounted for seven releases–all conditional, where journalists were let out of prison pending the outcome of their trials–and at least five new imprisonments.

In addition, an August court verdict in the Ergenekon case–an alleged broad anti-government conspiracy–declared at least 20 journalists guilty of involvement in the plot, and they were given lengthy prison sentences.

While the restrictive laws and prosecutions are central to the media crisis in Turkey, so too is the atmosphere fostered at the top levels of government. When top officials use the term “terrorists” to describe critical journalists they send a disturbing message that could cause others to take action.

In one widely reported example, in March, you excoriated the Turkish daily Milliyet after it published leaked minutes of a February meeting between Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), and deputies from the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP).  Hasan Cemal, one of Milliyet‘s leading columnists, criticized your actions in the case and was later fired as a result of government pressure, according to his own account.

With traditional media under pressure, the Internet, including social media, has become an important outlet for free expression in Turkey. But recent official comments, including threats to restrict the online flow of information, cause concern.

In early June, as police clashed with protesters in nationwide anti-government demonstrations stemming from the crackdown on activists rallying against the destruction of Istanbul’s Gezi Park, Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç noted that the government has the capacity to limit Internet access, according to news reports.

“We know the events are directed from some centers,” Arınç said. “We know fake news is being published. Actually, we can show what democrats we are. It is possible to shut down all of those. It is possible to prevent access.” He continued: “[Look at] the tweets; look at those who order around from the server at the center from the US; they are the actual perpetrators.”

Time and again, history has proven that, at times of unrest, a well-informed society has a better capacity to restore and heal itself. The government of Turkey ought to encourage a vibrant debate, a diversity of opinions, and independent reporting on news events crucial to the public.

Yet, regrettably, your government has attempted on several occasions to control the news flow. Less than a month before the Gezi Park events, when twin car bombs shook the district of Reyhanli in the southeastern province of Hatay near the Syrian border, killing at least 51 people and wounding dozens of others, a local court issued a gag order on all news coverage of the attack. The ban was unprecedented both in scope and in the way it was imposed.

Within hours of the bombing, police in Hatay, Istanbul, and Ankara visited newsrooms and presented the court order to media managers to ensure they complied. The order banned “every type of voice and visual recording, feeds, print and visual media [records], and data on the Internet” about the Reyhanli incident. The order also banned sharing of information about “the event scene, the dead and the wounded at the event scene, and the contents of the event.”

Justice Minister Sadullah Ergin told a press conference that censorship was necessary to safeguard the investigation into the bombing and to shield the public “from being negatively influenced” psychologically. To further ensure that the order was widely disseminated, the state broadcasting regulator RTÜK also announced it.

Few media outlets complied with the Reyhanli gag order and a court in Hatay lifted it on appeal. But the very fact that it was imposed–and high-ranking officials supported it in public statements–deepens concerns over the state of free expression and the public’s right to know in Turkey.

CPJ also documented numerous cases of attacks on and the obstruction and detention of journalists during the clashes between police and anti-government protesters in Istanbul, Ankara, and elsewhere in Turkey. They include instances in which journalists were targeted deliberately by police in retaliation for photographing the clashes. Both local and international reporters were affected.

Even more worrisome was the decision of the Turkish state media regulator, RTÜK, to penalize four television stations in connection with their coverage of the Gezi Park demonstrations. The regulator levied fines against the pro-opposition TV stations Ulusal Kanal, Halk TV, Cem TV, and EM TV, in the amount of 12,000 Turkish lira (US$6,460) each, for allegedly “inciting violence” and “violating broadcasting principles,” according to local news reports. RTÜK said the stations’ live coverage of clashes between riot police and protesters “could harm the physical, moral, and mental development of children and young people,” the reports said.

In mid-June, with tensions running high, you publicly accused the international media of biased coverage of the Gezi Park events, singling out CNN International, the BBC, and Reuters. Before a supporters’ rally, you said the foreign media “fabricated news,” The New York Times reported. “You portrayed Turkey differently to the world,” you reportedly said, referring to international media. “You are left alone with your lies.” We find your suggestion that international coverage was part of a plot to subvert your government highly disturbing.

In late June, Ankara Mayor Melih Gökçek launched a spurious and inflammatory campaign on Twitter against local BBC reporter Selin Girit, labeling her a traitor and a spy in apparent disagreement with the BBC’s coverage of the protests.

Gökçek created a critical hashtag “#ingiltereadınaajanlıkyapmaselingirit,” which in English means “Don’t be a spy in the name of England, Selin Girit” and urged his followers to popularize it on Twitter. Girit received “a large number of threatening messages” in response to the mayor’s actions, the BBC said in a statement.

CPJ is also alarmed by reports of numerous firings and forced resignations of critical columnists, editors, and reporters, and in apparent retaliation for their coverage of the Gezi Park protests. According to our colleagues at the Turkish Union of Journalists, an independent media association that documents attacks on the press, at least 22 journalists were fired and another 37 were forced to quit their jobs over their coverage of the anti-government protests. As a result of direct or indirect government pressure, media owners have dismissed many popular journalists and the absence of their voices has been conspicuous.

We call on relevant authorities to take the following steps to ensure that the press is able to operate freely and without fear of harassment and persecution during this critical time in Turkey’s history:

  • Release all journalists held in pre-trial detention without delay.
  • Review the cases of journalists behind bars, including ones who have already been convicted under broad anti-terror law and penal code charges.
  • Halt the criminal prosecution of journalists in connection with their reporting and commentary; cease using journalism as evidence of criminal activity.
  • Stop equating reporting that challenges government’s policies with terrorism.
  • Stop the pressure being applied to the Turkish media to tone down their coverage or get rid of critics.
  • Review the actions of Turkey’s law enforcement against journalists covering the Gezi Park protests, and prosecute any responsible for attacking, detaining, obstructing, or otherwise targeting journalists on the job.
  • Reform all laws routinely used against the media, including provisions of the penal code and anti-terror law that criminalize news gathering and dissemination of critical, sensitive, or opposing views. Narrow down and clearly define the meaning of the term “terrorist.” In abolishing or drafting amendments to those laws, work closely with Turkey’s media, press freedom organizations and international institutions experienced in advising countries on adopting national legislation that meets international standards of human rights and press freedom.

Thank you very much for your attention. We plan to release this letter on Tuesday, September 17. We look forward to your government’s response to the concerns raised and to continuing engagement in public dialogue around these critical issues.


Joel Simon,
CPJ Executive Director

President Abdullah Gül
Justice Minister Sadullah Ergin
Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu