CPJ Dangerous Assignments

What kind of journalism triggers Turkish state retribution? Read for yourself.
When Nadire Mater published the reminiscences of Turkish soldiers who had fought against Kurdish rebels in southeast Turkey (map), she crossed an invisible line. Her book was banned, and she now faces up to six years in prison. (click here to read Mater’s statement) American Andrew Finkel thought he was complimenting the Turkish army when he wrote in an Istanbul paper that it did not look like an army of occupation. (click here to read the article) But the military said he’d crossed a line separating journalism from insult, so Finkel suddenly faced criminal charges.

Turkey has a press that in many ways is as lively as any in Europe. But when Turkish journalists write about issues at the heart of modern Turkish politics—political Islam and Kurdish nationalism in particular—they cross into a minefield. In their zeal to control national discourse, political and military leaders have criminalized journalism, jailing reporters and editors for merely profiling a Kurdish leader, interviewing disgruntled Turkish soldiers, or suggesting that the military wields too much power.

Consider what happened earlier this year, when Abdullah Ocalan, leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), was tried and sentenced to death for treason. During his trial, Ocalan issued a dramatic appeal for an end to the 15-year war between Kurdish rebels and the Turkish army. It was sensational news around the world, and was reported by a variety of Turkish newspapers. But when one paper, Ozgur Bakis,reported that the PKK supported its leader’s appeal, authorities arrested editor Hasan Deniz and charged him with “aiding an illegal/terrorist organization,” a charge used frequently against journalists who write sympathetically about the Kurds. (click here to read the article) And when the Kurdish-language weekly Azadiya Welatran a Reuters photo of a pro-Ocalan demonstration in Germany on its front page, the managing editor was convicted of disseminating “propaganda for an illegal/terrorist organization.” (Click here to view the photo.)

New York Timesstory about the Ocalan trial revealed that state media were under orders to refer to the PKK leader as “the terrorist Ocalan,” and to his party as a “bloody terrorist organization” or “murder gang.” Above its story, the Timesran a headline that perhaps defines the only truly safe policy for Turkey’s beleaguered journalists: “Speaking of Kurdish Problems, Don’t.”

In Turkey, you can cross the line without even mentioning political Islam or Kurdish nationalism. On May 17, for example, newspaper cartoonist Dogan Güzel was charged with “insulting the Turkish Republic” for a comic strip suggesting that imported tea tasted better than Turkish tea. (Click here to see the cartoon)

In July 1999, CPJ published Turkey: Criminal Prosecutions of Journalists, a report on state repression of independent Turkish media. Of the 27 recent cases in our report, we have selected a sampling and offer here the raw evidence used to charge or convict those journalists whom Turkey contends have crossed the line.

On August 28, the Turkish parliament approved an amnesty bill that will secure the release of a number of journalists and writers who were jailed on the basis of their published work. The law was signed by President Suleiman Demirel on September 2. The new legislation “freezes” court cases or jail terms against individuals charged or convicted of “crimes” committed through the media for a period of three years. A number of journalists and writers–32 according to the government–are expected to be released from prison in the coming weeks. Dozens of other cases pending in court will also be suspended, including many of those documented in CPJ’s July report.
The new law is a welcome development, but offers only limited, temporary relief to Turkey’s press freedom problem. According to the law’s text, if a similar “offense” is committed within the three-year period, those amnestied will be required to serve their previous sentence in addition to any new sentence confirmed by the courts. Similarly, court cases pending against journalists would be reactivated.

And journalists who committed “crimes” prior to April 23, 1999 will not qualify for the amnesty. This arbitrary cutoff date allowed a Turkish court to bring fresh charges against Nadire Mater, who crossed the line with her interviews with Turkish soldiers. Just weeks after the amnesty was approved, Mater learned that she had been indicted for insulting the military. So while some will benefit from the amnesty, all of Turkey’s journalists still run the risk of crossing that invisible line.