A man holds a flag outside a Turkish jail, where hundreds of people, including journalists, await a verdict in the Ergenekon trial. (AP)
A man holds a flag outside a Turkish jail, where hundreds of people, including journalists, await a verdict in the Ergenekon trial. (AP)

Turkey–world’s top press jailer once more

For the second year in a row, our prison census shows, Turkey jailed more journalists than any other country. The number of journalists behind bars is 40; down from the 61 reporters in October 2012, and less than the 49 we recorded on December 1, 2012. Still, Turkey holds more journalists in custody than Iran, China, or Eritrea.

As a NATO member and a regional leader, Turkey should not belong in the list of top press jailers. But from the failure to reform its legislation in a meaningful way to the crackdown on its journalists in the aftermath of the Gezi Park protests, Turkey has grown increasingly repressive despite the modest decline in the number of media workers behind bars.

Many of the journalists released in the months since October 2012 are still on trial. Among them is Nedim Şener, the Turkish recipient of our 2013 International Press Freedom Award, who faces up to 15 years in prison if convicted on charges of supporting an alleged terrorist plot, Ergenekon.

CPJ has had the opportunity to discuss our concerns with Turkish officials. In September, the Justice Ministry received a CPJ delegation; CPJ Chairman Sandra Mims Rowe, board member John Carroll, and Executive Director Joel Simon met with Justice Ministry official Kenan Özdemir and delivered a detailed letter on press freedom issues. The two parties agreed to exchange information on jailed journalists.

At CPJ’s request, in November, the ministry sent CPJ a tabulated document–posted for public reference here–detailing the whereabouts, imprisonment dates, and charges levied against 54 jailed journalists. Among them were several recent cases of journalists jailed under the anti-terror legislation. Out of the 54 people listed, CPJ independently confirmed–through careful perusal of indictments, press reports, publicly available legal documents, and testimony by lawyers, colleagues, and the defendants–that 40 of the journalists were imprisoned for their work. In the 14 remaining cases, CPJ concluded there was not sufficient information to determine that the imprisonments were work-related. In those cases, CPJ continues to investigate.

Details about the 40 cases listed on our census can be accessed here.

In his International Press Freedom Award acceptance speech before a large media audience at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria hotel in November, Nedim Şener spoke critically of Turkey’s judicial system. Şener is the author of several books, including an investigation into the unresolved 2007 murder of Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, in which Şener alleged official involvement. He detailed his own experience–of being jailed without a verdict for an entire year, then released after an intense international outcry, but only temporarily. “I am still on trial and can be imprisoned for 15 more years,” he said. “This is how Turkish justice works–instead of bringing journalist killers to trial, journalists are tried as terrorists.”

In the past few years Turkey went from a country considered a regional hope to one of regional concern, characterized by an increasingly shrinking space for free expression. Turkey stands at a crossroads, and it is not yet too late for it to choose a path of democracy and tolerance over authoritarianism and censorship. It can start by releasing the 40 journalists in Turkish prisons as of December 1.