Editorials on Turkey in U.S. Press

The Washington Post — Turkey’s Press: Turkey’s Kurds

Wednesday, July 16, 1997

It is an irony and an embarrassment that even as NATO imposes high democratic standards on new members, it has given an errant old member, Turkey, a bye. On the litmus issue of imprisoning journalists for what they write, for instance, Turkey is the recognized world champion. The Committee to Protect Journalists, an American defense group, counted 78 jailed Turkish journalists at the beginning of the year. All the more satisfying, then, that the group has now elicited from the new Turkish government of Mesut Yilmaz a commitment to do something about a record that, if a current NATO applicant had it, would exclude it from the West’s premier democratic club.

The trouble lies, of course, in Turkey’s continuing conflict with a Kurdish minority that has its pacific assimilationist element but its armed separatist element as well. An official policy giving a long leash to an assertive Turkish military has not only failed to curb Kurdish terrorism but has also cost past governments political support. Journalists who write about Kurdish nationalism from an independent perspective have been at risk of being locked up and censored, harassed, and beaten. Article 312 of the Turkish penal code permits reporting and commentary on other than the government line to be punished as “incitement to racial hatred.”

The Kurdish problem is as tough as any ethnic conflict anywhere. No one has a good solution in the inflamed circumstances in which it is unfolding now. What is certain, however, is that the problem must be addressed in a context in which the Turkish people are fully and fairly informed about the options before them. This is the prospect now opened up by the Yilmaz government. It speaks for a minority coalition and faces parliamentary resistance to its new free-press commitments. But it also has the opportunity to bring Turkey the appreciation rather than the opprobrium of the democratic West. Up to this point, the army has plainly been calling most of the shots on policy toward the Kurds. The army is manifestly unfit for this role and plays it poorly. Opening up the press is no glib civics textbook prescription. It is a practical way for Turkey to build support for a consensus approach.

Copyright © 1997 The Washington Post. Reprinted by Permission.

The New York Times: Turkey, Jailer of Journalists

Sunday, July 13, 1997

Turkey has the shameful distinction of imprisoning more journalists than any country in the world. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists has complied a list of 78 reporters, writers, and editors now in jail, and the Turkish Press Council reckons the total may be twice as high. Now that a new government has assumed power, it has a timely opportunity to open those prison doors. Doing so would lessen a stain on Turkey’s reputation and enhance the democratic credentials of Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz’s secularist center-right coalition.

Most of the journalists in prison are charged with disseminating “separatist propaganda” or with being members of proscribed pro-Kurdish political groups. In fact, under Turkey’s broad anti-terrorism law, journalism itself is criminalized and reporters face prison for doing their job. An emblematic case is that of Ocak IsikYurtçu, a prominent writer and former newspaper editor who has served three years of a 15-year sentence. Mr. Yurtçu’s offense was to publish articles about the Turkish Army’s scorched-earth campaign against Kurdish insurgents in southeastern Turkey.

Mr. Yurtçu’s plight, along with scores of other cases, will be taken up this summer by a visiting delegation of journalists, among them Terry Anderson and Peter Arnett, at the request of Turkish press organizations. By responding favorably, Prime Minister Yilmaz would signal a halt to Turkey’s descent into repression. He would begin to answer critics, especially in the European Union, of Turkey’s dismal human rights record, and would set a different example from his immediate secular and Islamic predecessors.

This is more than a press issue. For nearly a decade Turkey has relied primarily on force to counter Kurdish terrorists, without opening a parallel political track for a huge, aggrieved ethnic minority. Press freedom is among the casualties of a failed strategy, imposed by the military, which Mr. Yilmaz cannot change overnight. Yet it is within his power to release jailed journalists and decriminalize free speech, an essential precondition for an end to Turkey’s domestic turmoil. Turkey’s friends hope he will not let this moment pass.

Copyright © 1997 The New York Times Co. Reprinted by Permission.

The Philadelphia Inquirer: Free speech under fire Turkey leads the world in jailing journalists

Wednesday, July 9, 1997

His name is unfamiliar to most Americans; his newspaper, unknown here. But his case should be a cause for anyone who cherishes the right too often taken for granted in this nation: to publish criticism of the government.

Ocak Isik Yurtçu was imprisoned on Dec. 28, 1994, for editing a daily newspaper critical of the Turkish government, and is now serving a 15-year, 10-month sentence under the country’s abusive antiterror law. “Nobody in the world has been sentenced to so many years in prison for articles others have written,” he said from Sakarya Prison last year.

But then, no country in the world imprisons journalists and smothers press freedoms more egregiously than Turkey. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), for three years running Turkey has held more journalists in prison than any nation on earth. The count is now 78.

Most are charged under an antiterror law that effectively classifies all reports on the Kurdish rebellion other than the government’s as either “separatist propaganda” or “incitement to racial hatred.” Imagine if the United States had had such a law during the civil-rights movement.

Mr. Yurtçu’s newspaper published what is considered balanced reporting on the Kurdish conflict, but truth is not what the Turkish government wanted its people to read.

A delegation from CPJ will be arriving in Turkey on Saturday, to champion the cause of Mr. Yurtçu and his many jailed colleagues before the nation’s top leaders. They will be pushing for the abolition of the repressive laws and the release of the 78 imprisoned journalists.

They will be demanding that a nation that wants desperately to join the European Union and to take part in the Western world’s economic and technological advances, adhere to a fundamental precept of democracy: a free press.

The imprisoned journalists deserve the support of anyone here who has published an angry letter about the President &#151 or written such a letter. Or has called a radio talk show and complained about Congress. Or has passed out leaflets knocking the mayor or town council.

It’s worth remembering, as Mr. Yurtçu wrote, “It is impossible to have other freedoms in a country where there is no freedom of the press.”

Copyright © 1997 The Philadelphia Inquirer. Reprinted by Permission.

The Sun (Baltimore): Turkish amnesty

Sunday, Aug. 17, 1997

FREEING six editors from prison would be a positive result of the amnesty enacted by Turkey’s parliament Thursday. They include a prominent Kurdish editor, Ocak Isik Yurtçu.

This would reduce the journalists imprisoned for journalism in that NATO country to 72, as counted by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. It is a pay-off for a visit by leaders of the committee in July.

Since Turkey is in many other respects a mature democracy, this continuing imprisonment of many more editors, writers and broadcasters than any other country holds is a continuing outrage. Even this amnesty does not relax the restrictions under which more are being arrested, tried and imprisoned.

For Turkey to win respect as a country that values intellectual freedom, it will have to do better than this.

Copyright © 1997 The Baltimore Sun Company. Reprinted by Permission.

The Sun (Baltimore): Turkey jails too many journalists; World leader: Contradicts pretense at being a Western democracy.

Sunday, July 13, 1997

THE NEW coalition government of Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz wants to win recognition of Turkey for legitimacy and democracy, after muscle-flexing by the military dislodged its partly-Islamist predecessor. There is one quick way for Mr. Yilmaz to achieve this: Let the reporters, opinion writers and broadcasters out of prison.

The Committee to Protect Journalists, based in New York, has documented the presence of 185 reporters, editors and broadcasters in the prisons of 24 countries round the world, locked up for doing their work. Of these, an astonishing 78 are in Turkey, far more than in any other country. This is a conservative, confirmed figure; the Turkish Press Council thinks that the real number is nearly double that.

Many of these prisoners are from periodicals catering to the Kurdish minority, which Turkey under successive governments has long suppressed, even prohibiting their language until fairly recently. Others are from leftist publications. Their “crimes” are reporting facts or presenting political opinions. These are not crimes in civilized countries.

For a regime that is a pillar of NATO and wants to join the European Union, this is out of character with its aspirations.

A mission of prominent newspeople representing the Committee to Protect Journalists, along with representatives of other international organizations concerned with freedom of the press, are visiting Turkey this week at the request of Turkish journalists, to lobby Turkey’s government for a restoration of press freedom. Aside from being the right thing to do, it would also be, in the global public relations sense, the smart thing to do. And easy to achieve.

Copyright © 1997 The Baltimore Sun Company. Reprinted by Permission.

Boston Globe: Turkey’s unfree press

Thursday, July 10, 1997

Too often American journalism can appear a frivolous mix of gossip and scandal. Seen from the perspective of societies in which journalists still practice the deadly serious business of speaking truth to power, this frivolity may seem a paradoxical price that Americans pay for their freedoms.

For reporters and editors working under regimes hostile to freedom of information, simply doing one’s job can mean a long prison sentence or death. Reporting the casualties in a war between news gatherers and the rulers they perturb, The Committee to Protect Journalists scrupulously documents case after case of journalists killed or imprisoned for practicing their profession.

The committee’s defense of colleagues around the world is a defense of the value that makes open societies possible. This year’s accounting of 185 imprisoned journalists worldwide casts a revealing light on regimes that cannot tolerate the bright light that emanates from a free press.

The most egregious repression is practiced in Turkey, where 78 reporters and editors have been given long prison sentences under antiterrorism laws or a provision of the penal code that makes any article inconvenient to the government a crime against the security of the state.

The runners-up are Ethiopia, with 18 jailed journalists, China with 17, Kuwait with 15, and Nigeria and Burma with 8 each. Their combined total is less than that of Turkey. In a resolute effort to stop the criminalizing of independent reporting in Turkey, the Committee to Protect Journalists has petitioned Ankara, and sent letters of protest to the outgoing prime minister, Necmettin Erbakan, who enlarged the scope of government threats against press freedom.

All to no avail. In 1996, under Erbakan, the government imprisoned 27 more journalists than the year before. In response, the Committee to Protect Journalists, in cooperation with Turkish press groups and the International Press Institute, will send a mission to Turkey this week. It is a mission that deserves support from everyone who understands what can happen when the first line of freedom’s defense falls.

Copyright © 1997 Globe Newspaper Company. Reprinted by Permission.

St. Petersburg Times: A free press for Turkey

Saturday, July 5, 1997 Turkey’s top generals have been condemned for forcing the recent resignation of Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan because they feared the democratically elected, pro-Islamic leader was a threat to the staunchly secular republic.

The ouster was a slap in the face of the nation’s sizable Muslim population. But while it is easy to criticize the circumstances of Erbakan’s political demise, it is difficult to mourn the loss of his leadership. That is because Erbakan helped perpetuate the repressive environment that led to his own downfall. In the year Erbakan’s coalition government held power, it made little attempt to improve Turkey’s dismal human and civil rights record, especially on freedom of expression.

Press censorship remains rampant in Turkey, and newspapers critical of the government or its policies have been forcibly shut down. Police and military violence against journalists is common. So is harassment. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists documented 14 cases of arbitrary detention and 19 instances of assaults on journalists in 1996. By the end of the same year, Turkey, a close U.S. ally and self-described democracy, was holding 78 journalists in jail, more than any other nation in the world. Some are being held even though they have not been charged with a crime.

Others have been silenced by provisions in the government’s oppressive penal code and anti-terror law, which allow for the arbitrary detention of Turks suspected of having anti-government leanings. The laws have been broadly applied to jail journalists who have reported critically on the government’s 11-year conflict with the Kurdish minority in southeast Turkey. Some of the most outspoken opponents of the government in Ankara have simply been assassinated.

As a signatory of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Turkish government should not tolerate such mistreatment of its citizens, let alone promote it. Erbakan’s complicity in the oppression makes his departure reason to be cautiously optimistic.

Erbakan has been replaced as prime minister by Mesut Yilmaz, a member of a secular center-right party who says he will form a government that upholds freedom and democratic values. Let him start by releasing editors and reporters who are behind bars because they did what journalists are supposed to do in a free country – inform the people about their government’s policies and practices. Until its press is free, Turkey cannot claim to be a truly democratic society.

Posted by Permission. The St. Petersburg Times Copyright © 1997.

The Providence Journal-Bulletin:
Our right to know

Friday, July 4, 1997

During this Fourth of July week, the American Society of Newspaper Editors and many newspapers, including this one, have been highlighting the importance of the First Amendment, particularly as it applies to open government. This is an issue of great importance to the press, naturally, but even more so to the mass of the citizenry.

The essential transparency of government to the governed is a precondition for democracy, and the responsibilities that this imposes on both parties is a major part of the social contract of citizenship, arising from the founding of the United States as it threw off arbitrary and unaccountable colonial rule. Americans have the obligation to jealously guard these rights from any law, regulation or simple expediency that may threaten them. Certainly, in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, we have had frequent demonstrations of the dangers to public welfare stemming from secrecy in government.

Maintaining the transparency of government has been a role of the press. Its institutional interest in open government is to act as a surrogate for citizens in general. This claim is one the press must make with considerable humility and frequent self-examination, recognizing that sometimes the claim may not appear fitting to everyone. However, it is the simple truth that usually only the press has the resources, in news staff, and, if necessary, in legal talent, to force these issues. (The “Your right to know” campaign has included labeling stories in the Journal that depended on Rhode Island’s right-of-access laws.)

Fortunately, the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment are no longer unique to the United States, but are embodied in the laws of many countries, to a greater or lesser extent. But there are countries where these rights don’t exist or are often flouted by governments. One is Turkey, which holds 78 journalists in its prisons, more than any country. These journalists have been detained or convicted by state security courts.

The Committee to Protect Journalists, based in New York, which defends journalists carrying out their professional responsibilities, has petitioned the Turkish government to free these journalists. Of particular concern is the jailing of Ocak Isik Yurtçu, editor of the now-defunct daily newspaper Ozgur Gundem, who is serving the third year of a 15-year sentence under Turkey’s sweeping anti-terror law. He is being punished for publishing articles about the ongoing Kurdish insurgency in eastern Turkey.

There are many threats to the public’s right to know, and they arise in a myriad of contexts and conflicts, frequently with the worst of intentions, but sometimes, it must be admitted, with the best. The latter, of course, can make the defense against them just that much more difficult.

Freedom of expression can present many problems and many opportunities for abuse, which a civilized society must guard against. Still, however, it is good to recall the remark attributed to Churchill about democracy: that it is the worst system of government – except for any other.

Copyright © 1997 The Providence Journal Company. Reprinted by Permission.

The Dallas Morning News: PRESS PERILS; Journalists in Turkey struggle to cover news

Wednesday, July 9, 1997

The United Nations considers the free exchange of ideas and information a fundamental human right. Turkey, a U.N. member state, officially agrees. Turkey’s constitution says: “press is free, and shall not be censored.”

But the Turkish government hasn’t lived up to its own ideals.

Journalists in Turkey can report freely about some topics. Other issues land reporters in jail or worse.

  • In January 1996, police detained reporter Metin Goktepe as he was covering the funeral of two leftist prison inmates. Dozens of witnesses saw police beat Mr. Goktepe, who died from his injuries.
  • Revered and elderly writer Yasar Kemal was charged with treason for an article that originally appeared in a German publication. He was convicted and given a suspended sentence.
  • Television reporter Mahmut Ovur, who covers organized crime and corruption, was shot last month by gunmen near his home in Istanbul.

In addition, more than a half-dozen radio and television stations have been censored, shut down, or physically attacked.

Representatives of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists will visit Turkey next week to plead for an independent, free news media. They plan to meet with new Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz and other officials.

The committee estimates that as many as 150 journalists may be imprisoned in Turkey. Other human rights groups say that number is high; it probably includes writers who belong to extremist political factions and openly advocate violence.

The actual numbers don’t really matter. Turkey is recognized by human rights groups as having a longstanding predilection for harassing and censoring native and visiting reporters. Amnesty International recently ended a six-month campaign on Turkey that highlighted restrictions on the press. This month, Human Rights Watch presented awards to 12 Turkish writers and photographers who have struggled to continue to work despite great risk.

Freedom of expression is critical to true democracy. Turkey’s government will gain international respect if it protects and nurtures a free press

Copyright © 1997 The Dallas Morning News. Reprinted by Permission.

The Houston Chronicle: Turkey’s Path — Using a free press to strengthen a secular republic

Monday, July 14, 1997

Turkey is a country dangerously stressed by two cultures. One culture is secular, modern, pro-Western and backed by Turkey’s generals. The other is traditional, Islamist and tilted toward the interests of some of Turkey’s extremist neighbors. That’s an explosive mixture.

The resignation of Turkey’s prime minister, Necmettin Erbakan, last month has resulted in a new leader, anti-Islamist Mesut Yilmaz, which could be good news for the Turkish people and the West.

Prime Minister Yilmaz has promised to reinforce Turkey’s secular and democratic infrastructure which was threatened by Erbakan’s more repressive year-long leadership.

But he must do so without stamping on Turkey’s democratic history.

Yilmaz was helped by Turkey’s pro-Western military generals in seeing Erbakan go and his coming to power.

Even so, he must be cautious and guard against the obvious contradiction that will occur if he permits or utilizes military intimidation to strengthen Turkey’s democratic and secular foundations.

He should also move quickly to ensure a free press by repealing Turkish laws that got dozens of journalists imprisoned in the first place, such as stories critical of Turkey’s decade-long battle with Kurdish insurgents.

A free and uninhibited press is essential to a healthy democracy, even if their reports sometimes offend government officials, generals and Islamin leaders.

Copyright © 1997 The Houston Chronicle Publishing Company. Reprinted by Permission.