Ankara, October 3, 2014–In unprecedented meetings with a joint delegation from the Committee to Protect Journalists and the International Press Institute, senior Turkish government officials defended their country’s press freedom record while agreeing to take steps to improve conditions for journalists. The meetings, which included President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, and Minister of Justice Bekir Bozdağ, took place as the parliament voted to authorize military action in Syria.
Turkey’s leaders aggressively defended their record on press freedom issues, denying that they had applied undue pressure. They blamed media outlets for polarizing and distorting coverage of recent events such as the Gezi Park rallies, a government corruption scandal, and a recently resolved hostage situation in Iraq.
Officials criticized a variety of news outlets, from local newspapers to The New York Times and CNN International.
“Media should never have been given the liberty to insult,” said Erdoğan during a 90-minute meeting on Thursday at the Çankaya Köşkü presidential palace in Ankara.
The government committed to taking several steps to address concerns raised by the delegation. The Ministry of Justice agreed to continue reform of Turkey’s anti-press laws, and agreed to make available for independent legal review case files of imprisoned journalists.
“Although we disagree with government leaders on the role of news media, we are encouraged by their willingness to meet with us,” said CPJ board Chairman Sandra Mims Rowe, who led the joint delegation. “We welcome the commitments they made, and we believe officials recognize the depth of international concern.”
The CPJ delegation included board members Anne Garrels, special correspondent for NPR; David Schlesinger, former editor-in-chief of Reuters; Jacob Weisberg, chairman of The Slate Group; Andrew Alexander, former ombudsman at The Washington Post; Steven Isenberg, former publisher of New York Newsday; and Mhamed Krichen, Qatar-based anchor and program host for Al-Jazeera. IPI representatives included Senior Press Freedom Adviser Steven Ellis and secretary-general of the South East Europe Media Organisation Oliver Vujović. CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon and Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova also participated in the meetings.
The Ministry of Justice informed the delegation that three journalists have recently been released from prison. CPJ has been able to independently confirm two of the releases. Today, Turkey is holding at least seven journalists, down from a high of 61 in August 2012, according to CPJ research. Many of those released are still facing charges and could again be imprisoned.
The delegation expressed concern about freedom of expression online. On Thursday, one day after members of the CPJ-IPI delegation met with President of the Constitutional Court of Turkey Haşim Kılıç, the court overturned new amendments to an Internet law, which would have allowed the country’s telecommunication authority to block websites swiftly and without a court order, and to collect and retain Internet users’ data, according to news reports.
Citing his concern that criminal and terrorist organizations, including the militant group Islamic State, are using the Internet to recruit followers, Erdoğan defended his government’s efforts to control online speech. “I am increasingly against the Internet every day,” he told the delegation.
In its meeting with Prime Minister Davutoğlu, the delegation noted that harsh statements from senior officials criticizing coverage have triggered vilification in the pro-government media, and sparked threats and attacks on social media, most recently against New York Times reporter Ceylan Yeginsu and Economist correspondent Amberin Zaman.
“If any journalists are under threat they can turn to my office and we will provide protection,” Davutoğlu said, adding, “Any threat to Amberin Zaman is a threat to me.”
Note to editors: The delegation is available for interviews in Istanbul on Friday, October 3. IPI will be issuing a separate press release.
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