Supporters wave Turkish and party flags during an election campaign rally for Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu in Istanbul on May 6, 2023. Polls suggest that Kılıçdaroğlu could beat Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in the country's May 14 elections. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

In Turkey, cautious optimism that tough election could be good for press freedom

Turkey’s powerful Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) are facing one of the toughest challenges of their two decades in office. Polls ahead of the country’s May 14 presidential and parliamentary elections suggest that the president and his long-ruling party could lose to the opposition coalition of Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, leader of the Republican People’s Party (CHP).

An Erdoğan defeat could have profound implications for journalists in Turkey, long one of the world’s worst jailers of journalists. Kılıçdaroğlu promises to bring freedom and democracy to Turkey after an era that has seen Turkey’s independent media decimated by government shutdowns, takeovers, and the forcing of scores of journalists into exile or out of the profession.  

CPJ spoke to Cuma Daş, general-secretary of the Diyarbakır-based Dicle Fırat Journalists’ Association (DFG), Kenan Şener, general-secretary of the Ankara-based Journalists’ Association (GC), Barış Altıntaş, director of the Istanbul-based Media and Law Studies Association (MLSA), Gökhan Durmuş, chair of the Istanbul-based Journalists’ Union of Turkey (TGS), and Andrew Finkel, a founding member and executive board member of the Istanbul-based Platform for Independent Journalism (P24), about how the elections would affect the press freedom environment in Turkey and what the next administration could do to improve it.

Briefly explain the importance of these upcoming elections in Turkey for a global audience.

“The upcoming elections in Turkey are of utmost importance due to the incumbent government’s 20-year tenure, during which the country has experienced a gradual loss of freedoms, erosion of rule of law, media capture, and increased corruption,” said Altıntaş. “These elections could potentially change the course of Turkey and direct it to become a westward-looking nation again.”

For Finkel, Turkey’s future direction is at stake. “Democracy and full human rights will not blossom overnight if the current government is booted out of power, but at least it will be a first step on the road to reform. If they cling on, it will be by their fingertips, which will be [an] incentive to close all channels of dissent and tighten their grip on power.”

For Şener, “This election has turned into sort of a referendum in which ‘democracy or autocracy’ will be voted on.”

For Daş, these elections are “historically important” in a country that has witnessed the “rapid collapse of the law, education, economy, ecology, health, and media especially in the last 10 years.” He believes the vote could reestablish these areas and improve the country’s rights and freedoms.

If the current administration wins the elections, do you believe the status of press freedom in Turkey will a) improve b) worsen c) won’t change. Why?

All of the interviewed journalists expect the situation to worsen if Erdoğan stays in power, saying they believe the AKP will increase the already overwhelming pressure on critical media and freedom of speech in Turkey.

Altıntaş said it may depend on the margins: “If the current administration wins, press freedom might slightly improve if the government feels more secure in its newly strengthened position. However, if they win by a slim margin, they might lose some of their perceived legitimacy, feel cornered, and become more repressive towards free speech and media freedoms.”

“It would mean the electorate has approved all of the [AKP’s] antidemocratic practices done until today,” said Şener, adding that the AKP “would fortify its antidemocratic rule to avoid having to experience such an unsettling period ever again.” 

If the opposition alliance wins the elections, do you believe the state of press freedom in Turkey will a) improve b) worsen c) won’t change. Why?

All of the interviewed journalists believe a new opposition-led alliance would improve press freedom. However, they were also cautious in their optimism and do not expect miracles.

Things couldn’t get worse, but vigilance will still be required,” said Finkel. Durmuş noted that Turkey would definitely be in a better place because – while he doesn’t expect “enormous improvements” from a possible Kılıçdaroğlu administration – he also believes “the current situation cannot get worse.” 

“Longstanding issues such as the rights of the Kurdish minority might not improve, given the traditional rigidity of the Kemalist state,” according to Altıntaş. The majority of the journalists imprisoned in Turkey as of CPJ’s prison census last December are members of the Kurdish media and the arrests continued in 2023.

“We still would have a press freedom problem if the opposition takes power,” said Şener. “However, I believe it’s certain that we will be in a better spot than this.”

What changes would you like to see under the new administration?

All interviewees agreed on the need for judicial reform and independent judges that would, in Altıntaş’ view, “prevent the judiciary from being a government-wielded weapon against journalists.” A fair and independent Council of Judges and Prosecutors (HSK), the regulatory body that oversees the appointment, promotion and dismissal of judges and public prosecutors, would bring significant changes, she said.

For Daş, the priorities are freedom for all imprisoned journalists and the scrapping of the so-called “disinformation law,” mandating prison terms for those deemed to be spreading disinformation.

Durmuş and Şener both believe Turkey’s Press Law should be rewritten from scratch and that provisions limiting freedom of the press and enabling imprisonment of journalists should be dropped from the country’s Penal Law. All of the journalists called for reform of governmental bodies such as the media regulator RTÜK and the Press Ad Agency BİK.

Finkel described it as essential to send “a strong message to judiciary that freedom of expression and media independence are sacred and to be upheld through high-level statements by government officials” and also called for an end to “arbitrary restrictions” on internet access.

What would be the easiest moves the next administration could take to improve press freedom?

Daş and Şener called for the release of journalists imprisoned for their work, with Daş also noting that the next government should facilitate the return of those forced into exile and Şener calling for the abolition of the Press Law.

Durmuş feels that the next government’s first step should be to meet with journalist organizations about reestablishing press freedom. “All regulations that were made without consulting the journalists made it worse,” he said.

Finkel believes that political messages underlining the government’s commitment to the independence of judiciary and freedom of expression “would be very easy to deliver [and] could be done overnight.” These would go a long way in sending the message to the judiciary that the time of going after people for expressing even the slightest political dissent is over and that no judge should fear for their future should they decide not to convict a critic of the government, he said.

Altıntaş supports legal reform “favoring freedom of expression, as defined in the constitution and Article 10 of the European Court of Human Rights.”

What would be the hardest but most crucial moves the next administration should make to improve press freedom?

Interviewees again agreed on the importance of judicial reform, along with improving the professional rights of journalists by measures such as depoliticizing the issuing of press cards and using anti-terror laws to jail journalists.

For Altıntaş, the hardest move would be creating a climate of cultural change to educate citizens on democratic principles and ensuring the equal application of laws to those with differing opinions. “This would involve addressing long-standing issues, such as those faced by the Kurdish media, which predate the current administration,” he said.

Finkel believes that establishing self-regulatory mechanisms for press, broadcasting, and online media would be hard but crucial, as would decoupling the press from dependence on state funding and advertising and enabling local media to be funded by “neutral sources.”  

What moves should the next administration avoid for the sake of not worsening press freedom?

Finkel: “If there is a change of government, not to recreate the dependency of media on state partisanship.”
Daş: It would be sufficient if the next government didn’t “bother the journalists for practicing journalism.”
Altıntaş: “The next administration should avoid any actions that might harm the balance between the judiciary, legislature, and the executive.” 
Şener: “Journalists being tried and imprisoned in Turkey is a problem of practice rather than one of legislation. While the new government should put effort into making the laws more democratic, it should also not allow the current laws to be practiced in an antidemocratic manner.”