A raised hand holds a large ID card showing journalists in jail in place of a photo.
A press freedom activist holds up a placard, looking like a yellow press card, during a demonstration in solidarity with the jailed members of the opposition newspaper Cumhuriyet in Istanbul, Turkey, July 28, 2017. Turkey's presidency denies media credentials to independent outlets and has required existing card holders to reapply for new, turquoise cards. (Reuters/Murad Sezer)

Turkish presidency reintroduces press card controls that court found restrictive

On April 1 this year, press freedom groups in Turkey chalked up a small win when the nation’s top administrative court, the Council of State, suspended 2018 rules that made it easier for the authorities to cancel or refuse press cards. The changes had transferred authority over press cards to the presidency and barred them in connection with vague transgressions such as diminishing the dignity of the media profession or acting against national security, according to news reports.  

Then in May, Fahrettin Altun, head of the presidential communications directorate which regulates the press card process, announced on Twitter that new, replacement regulations had been put into effect. “The clauses that prevent those who make propaganda for terrorism and violence from hiding behind the press card were strengthened,” he wrote.

The revision was worse than the original, according to Gökhan Durmuş, chair of the Journalist’s Union of Turkey known by its Turkish acronym TGS, who spoke with CPJ. Notably, they re-establish Altun’s authority to decide who gets a card, he said. 

Press cards increase access for local reporters in the field, and foreign media workers can’t get a residence permit without one, journalists told CPJ. Yet the state decides who will get them and who will not, creating a tool to reward pro-government coverage, they said. Turkish officials have tried to deflect criticism for imprisoning dozens of journalists by claiming that those who lack card aren’t members of the press; President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said in 2018 that if they had credentials, they must have been issued by terrorists. New regulation is a bad sign, since the situation had worsened under the 2018 rules, according to CPJ interviews.  

The revised rules say cards could be revoked if journalists create content that praises terror, endangers national security or provokes animosity and hatred, Durmuş told CPJ. “When you word it like that, there is no problem,” he said. “But who will decide? The problem starts there,” he said.

The revisions also enable the communications directorate to cancel permanent credentials – granted to card holders after 20 years – if they diminish the card’s “integrity,” meaning even senior journalists could be stripped of their status over a social media post, Durmuş said.

CPJ emailed the Directorate of Communications for comment but received no reply.

Press cards come with perks such as free or discounted public transportation and the right to retire early, according to Durmuş, though their main utility is that police often require anyone reporting from parliament, official events, or even public locations to present one.

“Journalists who had not felt the need to take that card out of their pockets in previous years now have to carry it around their necks, especially if they are covering social events,” Durmuş told CPJ.

Yet cards are not accessible to everyone, he and others told CPJ – journalists must show two years’ worth of employment under a high rate of insurance to qualify, and digital media outlets are ineligible. Several journalists working for opposition or pro-Kurdish media told CPJ they don’t have a card, either because they were denied access or have opted out of the process, asserting bias. In April, Vice President Fuat Oktay was quoted in news reports saying 15,148 press cards were in use, but Durmuş estimated there are about 25,000 print and broadcastjournalists working in Turkey, not to mention those at digital outlets, he said. Given that some permanent card holders are semi-retired, he guessed that only about a quarter of the actual press corps are credentialed.  

After the 2016 failed coup attempt, CPJ has noted before, the Turkish government canceled nearly 2000 press cards in 2016-2018, and another 1400 in 2020. They also changed the card’s color from yellow to turquoise and required yellow card holders to reapply.Durmuş said he is one of roughly 300 journalists who are still waiting for the evaluation of their reapplications, including some permanent card holders. 

Fatih Polat, chief editor of the Evrensel daily newspaper, told CPJ by phone in May that he and other staff have been waiting for more than two years to replace yellow cards that expired in 2019. “They still haven’t given us the turquoise ones,” he said. “We are worried about the situation with this new regulation.” 

Canan Coşkun, a reporter for the independent news website Diken, told CPJ that she only had a card was when she was working for the independent daily Cumhuriyet. She has been working with digital outlets since she let the newspaper and has not been eligible since, she said. When she applied for the alternative freelancers’ card, she was asked if she had a criminal record.

“Of course I had [a record],” Coşkun told CPJ. “It is not really possible to work at Cumhuriyet without being tried and convicted due to your reporting,” she said. In 2018, CPJ documented Coşkun’s conviction for “making targets of those assigned to combat terrorism” in relation to her work.

Coşkun said the lack of the card does not affect her job, although she is occasionally excluded from courtrooms. “Most of the time we overcome [the situation] by explaining to the security personnel” she said.

Veteran journalist Mehveş Evin was fired from the daily Milliyet newspaper in 2015 after writing about the clashes in Turkey’s southeastern Kurdish region, she told CPJ via messaging app; her dismissal was noted by local news reports as well as Human Rights Watch. She did not apply for credentials again, in part because so many colleagues’ cards were canceled after the 2016 coup attempt, she said. “Even if I change my mind today, they would never give it to me.”

Ferhat Çelik, an editor from the pro-Kurdish Mezopotamya News Agency, told CPJ that none of its staff has the card because the agency is not practicing the required pro-government journalism. “[No one] working with us has the card because of this,” he said. “It is not given to us even if we fit the criteria.”

For foreign journalists, credentials are a prerequisite for a residence permit, Chris Feiland, chair of the Foreign Media Association in Istanbul, told CPJ by messaging app. “Without a valid press card, foreign media personnel have no choice but to leave the country,” he said.

“Especially outside big cities and during demonstrations, [we] get asked for the press card all the time,” he said, noting that an international press card was sometimes accepted in the field.  

Feiland said the government’s control over the system was a problem, and cited occasional instances of press cards not being renewed or foreign media workers being deported, but noted that the system had been functioning more smoothly since the process for foreign applicants was revamped late last year. 

Durmuş, of the journalists’ union, said the government should consult professional organizations before issuing press card rules. Along with other press freedom groups, the union has gone from welcoming the Council of State’s judgement on the old press card rules, to challenging the new ones in court, he said.

[Editor’s note: The fourth paragraph has been updated to reflect President Erdoğan’s full name.]