Demonstrators hold posters reading "Journalism is the insurance of democracy," in front of a courthouse in Istanbul on September 9, 2020, before a trial of jailed journalists. On a 2021 press freedom mission, CPJ and partners spoke with journalists and opposition politicians about proposed legislative changes that will impact Turkey's media. (AFP/Ozan Kose)

Turkey’s government sends a bleak message on press freedom

CPJ’s recent press freedom mission in Turkey got off to a disappointing start. International organizations led by the International Press Institute, and including Reporters Without Borders, Human Rights Watch, and Osservatorio Balcani Caucaso Transeuropa, a think tank focused on seven European countries, gathered in Ankara and Istanbul to discuss our concerns about possible updates to Turkey’s social media law, proposed restrictions on foreign funding, and the potential criminalization of “disinformation.” The government, however, decided to pretend it wasn’t at home.

Members of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), which have a majority alliance in parliament, did not accept the mission’s invitations to meet during our October 4 – 8 visit. Nor did the office of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the justice ministry.

Nevertheless, our group was able to meet with a range of regulators, diplomats, editors and opposition politicians, including members of Turkey’s parliamentary Human Rights Commission on October 6 in the capital of Ankara. One, Mahmut Tanal, the deputy of the center-left Republican People’s Party (CHP), said the AKP’s decision not to attend sent a strong message to members of the media. “Even the AKP not showing up to the meeting is a statement on the status of the press freedom,” he said. The politicians noted that because they are in the minority on the commission they lack the power to put press freedom on its agenda. For example, the commission has no contact with imprisoned journalists – the country is the second largest jailer of journalists worldwide according to CPJ’s 2020 prison census — said CHP deputy, Sezgin Tanrıkulu.

CPJ’s Özgür Öğret (top row, at left) and other partners in the Turkey press freedom mission outside the Turkish parliament. (Courtesy Özgür Öğret)

In spite of the absence of members of the ruling party, our mission discussed one of its major concerns at CHP headquarters — a draft law presented to the parliament October 1 by an MHP deputy that would tighten government supervision over foreign-funded news outlets and mandate that the outlets’ representatives register with the government in order to be able to operate in the country.

Failing to obey the law could result in prison terms for journalists. According to opposition politicians and journalists we met with, the proposed legislation doesn’t yet pose a serious threat since it was proposed by a deputy and not a party, meaning that parliament is unlikely to vote on it. But they said that the draft law’s existence could be a trial balloon – a way for majority politicians to test support for more restrictive measures on the funding of the press.

We also discussed the governing party’s desire to criminalize what it considers online “disinformation,” a move that would increase digital censorship. AKP politicians have publicly said that Turkey should jail those who spread disinformation on social media, but have yet to put forward proposed legislation in this regard. The opposition politicians told us they were not sure how the government plans to legally define disinformation, but they expected it to have negative implications for journalists and press freedom. The politicians are also monitoring potential changes to last year’s social media law, which has been used to mandate the removal of journalistic content from news sites, as CPJ has documented

CPJ emailed the directorate of communications of the Turkish presidency and MHP chairman Devlet Bahçeli for comment on these legislative plans but received no reply.  

In another meeting İlhan Taşçı, the CHP representative to the High Board of Radio and Television (RTÜK), the official telecommunications watchdog, accused the watchdog of bias in favor of pro-government media, saying that under the leadership of AKP chair Ebubekir Şahin, RTÜK has been more prone to issue fines to critical outlets accused of breaking content laws than to pro-government outlets. Taşçı said although some of these fines have been canceled by courts, the repetitive punishments aim to discredit the critical outlets in the public’s view. Şahin was among the AKP officials who declined our invitation to meet; he has told Turkish media that he “does not discriminate” between pro-government and critical media.

Our delegation also met with directors of the Constitutional Court of Turkey, who told us of the creation of a new department aimed at ensuring that local courts do not reject constitutional court decisions, an ongoing issue that has impacted journalists. In 2018, for example, the constitutional court ruled that local officials should release imprisoned journalists Mehmet Altan and Şahin Alpay but the officials refused to comply. Eventually the two were released. The mission discussed some of the cases pending before the court, such as the appeal of imprisoned journalist Nedim Türfent.

To wrap up our mission, we visited the socialist daily Evrensel. We discussed the ongoing ban on public advertising in the paper and how courts have set a dark precedent by ordering the publication to remove content on the basis that it damaged an individual’s reputation. In spite all this, chief editor Fatih Polat lifted our spirits by saying, “We are reporting on bad things but we will keep doing our job with a smile on our faces. Let nobody think it is too late for Turkey. There is room left to breathe.” Let’s hope he’s right.

UPDATE: Turkey’s ministry of justice contacted the International Press Institute two weeks after the end of our mission to say that Justice Minister Abdulhamit Gül would be willing to meet with members of our delegation. No date for the meeting has yet been set.