The Campaign to Free Imprisoned Turkish Journalists

An intensive, nearly year-long effort by the Committee to Protect Journalists to gain the release of imprisoned CPJ International Press Freedom Award winner Ocak Isik Yurtçu, a prominent Turkish editor, and other imprisoned Turkish journalists resulted in an amnesty law, passed by Turkey’s parliament, that freed six newspaper editors, including Yurtçu.

“This is the first step that the Turkish government has taken toward improving freedom of expression and freedom of the press in Turkey,” said CPJ Vice Chairman Terry Anderson, who headed CPJ’s emergency mission to Turkey in July to support Turkish journalists’ condemnation of press freedom violations in their country.

“Turkey should be encouraged for taking this important first step in redressing years of suppression of the independent press,” said William A. Orme, Jr., CPJ’s executive director. Turkey, a self-described democracy and a close ally of the United States, has imprisoned more journalists than any country in the world, 78 as of the beginning of the year.

The new law, passed by Turkey’s parliament Aug. 14, grants three-year suspended sentences to “responsible” editors jailed for their publications’ reporting of news and opinion regarding the government’s 12-year conflict with Kurdish insurgents. Reporters, cartoonists, and other journalists who have been convicted under the sweeping provisions of Turkey’s anti-terror law and penal code were not included in the law.

When a new secular leadership took charge of the government in June, CPJ saw the transition as an opportunity to press for change.

CPJ organized, with Turkey’s Press Council and Union of Newspaper Owners, an international delegation of journalists and leaders of press freedom organizations to travel to Turkey to meet with high-ranking government officials and party leaders. The delegation included CPJ board members Peter Arnett of CNN and Josh Friedman of New York’s Newsday, Middle East program coordinator Joel Campagna, and Orme. The International Press Institute and Reporters Sans Frontières sent their chief officers and prominent members.

The U.S. media rallied. Major newspapers across the country wrote editorials decrying the repression of the Turkish press and hailing CPJ’s effort to push for the abolition of the harsh laws that have criminalized independent reporting.

 The delegation arrived in Turkey July 12 and, during five days in Ankara and Istanbul, met with Turkey’s President Suleyman Demirel, Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz, Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit, Foreign Minister Ismail Cem, Justice Minister Oltan Sungurlu, and leaders of all major parliamentary factions. It won a promise from the prime minister that he would take immediate steps to introduce a bill that would release Yurtçu and other prominent editors, and present a sweeping press law reform package to parliament later in the year.

 The delegation’s activities received wide coverage in the Turkish, U.S., and international press. When the group traveled to remote Saray Prison northeast of Istanbul to visit Ocak Isik Yurtçu, whose cause CPJ had championed as emblematic of all imprisoned Turkish journalists, more than 100 journalists traveled with them. And when Anderson presented Yurtçu the CPJ International Press Freedom Award, the moment resonated in newspapers and on television screens around the world.

Yurtçu, 52, a lifelong journalist and the former editor of the Turkish daily Özgür Gündem, walked out of Saray Prison on Aug. 15 after nearly 32 months in jail. He was sentenced in December 1994 to a 15-year jail term on charges related to his newspaper’s coverage of the conflict with Kurdish separatists. CPJ awarded him the International Press Freedom Award in November 1996 in recognition of his courageous confrontation with Turkish censors and his principled decision to fight the charges in court rather than accept exile abroad.

“This is the first official recognition by the government of the absence of press freedom in Turkey,” Yurtçu said upon his release. “I am hoping that this recognition will open the way to freedom of thought in Turkey and to a democratic society, where thought is not a crime.”