Turkey’s Press Freedom Crisis

2. Assault on the Press

Nuray Mert, one of Turkey’s most prominent political columnists and commentators, had a long history as a government critic, but in the view of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, her comments last year opposing administration policies toward ethnic Kurds went too far. Erdoğan lashed out with a personal attack that implied Mert was traitorous, setting off a torrent of public vitriol—including threats to her safety—and prompting her politically sensitive bosses to cancel her television show and newspaper column. 

“I feel intimidated in many ways,” Mert recounted in a compelling first-person account published in this report. “I receive hateful, sexist mail; my luggage is mysteriously rummaged when I travel; my private phone calls are tapped.” And yet, by her own account, Mert is far more fortunate than most journalists who have dared to challenge the positions of Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party, or AKP, and its predecessors in power.

Turkish authorities have mounted one of the world’s most widespread crackdowns on press freedom in recent history. At least 76 journalists were imprisoned, nearly all on anti-state charges, when CPJ conducted an extensive survey in August 2012. More than three-quarters had not been convicted of a crime but had been held for many months or even years as they awaited trial or a court verdict. Scores of other journalists have faced criminal charges, many of them multiple counts, for critical coverage seen as “denigrating Turkishness” or influencing the outcome of a trial. Between 3,000 and 5,000 criminal cases were pending against journalists nationwide at the end of 2011, according to the estimates of Turkish press groups. Erdoğan has led this anti-press campaign, personally filing several defamation lawsuits against journalists, while he and his government have pressured news organizations to rein in critical staffers. These actions have sown widespread self-censorship as news outlets and their journalists, fearful of financial, professional, or legal reprisals, shy from sensitive topics such as the Kurdish issue and the crackdown on free expression itself.

SIDEBAR: The dignity of speaking out

“The prime minister’s tone is an important factor. He has told us what newspapers he wants us not to read. He has told media owners they should fire reporters and columnists they disagree with—and many owners have done so,” said Hakan Altinay, chairman of the Open Society Foundation-Turkey, which promotes human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. “It is also important that Prime Minister Erdoğan has never said he has learned something from a dissenting voice or thanked any critic for helping him identify a possible error.”

The AKP sent a resounding message in July 2012 that it was ready to ratchet up news media control, proposing a constitutional amendment that would restrict press coverage of vast areas of public life, from the judicial system to national security, along with vaguely defined subjects such as “public order, public morals, [and] others’ rights.” 


Of the 76 journalists imprisoned on August 1, 2012, at least 61 were being jailed in direct reprisal for their journalism, according to CPJ’s analysis, which was based on a review of court documents and Justice Ministry records, along with interviews with defendants and lawyers involved in the cases. The evidence against the other 15 journalists was less clear, and CPJ continues to investigate the basis for their detentions.

The imprisonments constitute one of the largest crackdowns CPJ has documented in the 27 years it has been compiling records on journalists in prison. Only Turkey itself has rivaled the extent of the current anti-press campaign. In 1996, at the height of a clampdown on the Kurdish press, Turkish authorities jailed 78 journalists in direct relation to their work. Across the world, Turkey’s current prison tally far surpasses that of the next most repressive nations, including Iran, which was imprisoning 42 journalists when CPJ conducted its December 2011 prison census; Eritrea, which was holding 28; and China, which was jailing 27. CPJ’s analysis of imprisonments in Turkey also found that the crackdown has accelerated in the last two years: Two-thirds of imprisoned journalists were detained in 2011 or 2012.

Of those imprisoned in Turkey, just over 70 percent are Kurdish journalists who have been charged with aiding terrorist organizations by covering the viewpoints and activities of the banned Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, and the Union of Communities in Kurdistan, or KCK. Nearly all of the other jailed journalists faced allegations of participating in anti-government plots or being members of banned political movements. Several have been linked to the alleged Ergenekon conspiracy, a shadowy plot that prosecutors say was aimed at overthrowing the government through a military coup. Journalists, as the government’s theory goes, were using news coverage to sow the sort of societal chaos that would be conducive to a coup. 

CPJ’s examination of case records found numerous abuses of due process. Journalists were routinely held for prolonged periods as they awaited trial or a verdict, effectively subjecting them to harsh punishment at the mere accusation of a crime. Fusün Erdoğan, general manager of the leftist Özgür Radyo, for example, was jailed for six years as her case languished in the court system without a verdict. In the cases of Kurdish journalists, judges and law enforcement officials often prohibit the defendants from giving statements in their native Kurdish, even though language accommodations are typically extended to other types of defendants. “They bring in a translator for cases such as narcotics trafficking, but they do not for these cases,” defense lawyer Özcan Kılıç told CPJ.

The indictments, interviews, and news accounts portray a government intent on imprisoning journalists for publicizing views that the authorities find offensive. Reporting on the PKK, for example, is conflated with aiding the PKK. For these journalists, basic newsgathering activities—receiving tips, assigning stories, relaying information to colleagues—are depicted as engaging in a terrorist enterprise. Conducting interviews with the wrong people—from KCK representatives to the government’s own security officials—is used as evidence of a crime. Throughout the cases, the expression of certain ideas and the possession of certain books, newspapers, and magazines are criminalized. The indictments are peppered with Orwellian guilt-by-association references; one journalist is declared a suspect and then a second journalist is implicated for communicating with the first. In the Ergenekon case, the government has defined the plot in such broad and vague terms that journalists expressing critical views, including such prominent investigative reporters as Nedim Şener and Ahmet Şık, can be implicated.

CPJ sought comment from Prime Minister Erdoğan, which elicited a response from Namık Tan, Turkish ambassador to the United States. In a June letter to CPJ, Tan said his government has been undertaking reforms in consultation with the European Union, the Council of Europe, and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. Tan, whose full response is published in the appendix to this report, pointed to a 2008 change that required the justice minister to approve prosecutions under the law barring insult to Turkishness. He also cited a 2012 legislative package, which was approved by parliament in July. The measure reduces penalties for some offenses, curbs censorship of periodicals accused of producing propaganda, and alters the system that adjudicates serious anti-state and terrorism cases.

Tan said “a great majority” of imprisoned journalists were accused of crimes “that concern the security and integrity of our country and that are not related to their work.” While saying pretrial detainees deserved the presumption of innocence, Tan said it would be “inaccurate and unfair” to consider these imprisonments to be press freedom violations.

Justice Minister Sadullah Ergin struck a similar position in response to CPJ’s request for comment. “We, as the government, would not want any single person, whether a journalist or not, to be victimized because of their thoughts or expressions,” Ergin said in his letter, the full version of which is published in the appendix to this report. But Ergin justified the criminal prosecution of journalists, saying that Turkey must balance the protection of free expression against the need to bar “the praising of violence and terrorist propaganda.” Neither Ergin nor Tan addressed the AKP’s restrictive constitutional proposal, and administration officials did not respond to CPJ’s follow-up questions concerning the plan.

In a country with a history of military coups, the September 12, 1980, coup casts a long shadow over today’s events. The common narrative of the 1980 coup—that the military stoked political tension to set the stage for an overthrow—is echoed in the Erdoğan government’s broad allegations that Ergenekon conspirators were promoting social chaos. And the vast, overlapping, and repressive legal structure that was established after the coup and the ensuing Kurdish insurgency, much of which is still in place, has allowed successive administrations, including the Erdoğan government, to criminalize dissent, charge intellectual opponents with terrorism, and imprison waves of critical journalists.

“The government is still using the outdated laws of the September 12 era,” said prominent television journalist Mehmet Ali Birand, editor-in-chief of the Kanal D news department. “The laws are written in such an unclear way that they are open to interpretation. One judge can take them from the left, another one from the right. You never know. Because of this we are always afraid that one way or another we can get in trouble.”

Deniz Ergürel, secretary general of Turkey’s Media Association, a press freedom group, also points to the post-coup legal structures as a root cause of today’s repression. “We still have a constitution that was written after the military coup,” Ergürel told CPJ. “We need a more liberal, democratic, and diverse constitution. The current constitution was created during hard times and contains contradictory issues, including where freedom of expression is concerned. And we need better, more democratic anti-terror laws.”

Turkey’s penal code, anti-terror law, and code of criminal procedure—applied individually and in combination—allow for vast interpretation of what constitutes terrorism or affiliation with terrorist groups. Journalists have been charged under the penal code’s Article 220.6 with “committing a crime on behalf of an organization,” Article 220.7 for “aiding and abetting an organization knowingly and willingly,” Article 220.8 for “making propaganda for an organization and its objectives,” Article 309.1 for “attempting to change the constitutional order by force,” and Article 314.2 for “being a member of an organization,” along with the anti-terror law’s Article 2.2 for “committing a crime on behalf of an organization,” and Article 7.2 for “making propaganda for a terrorist organization.” More than 95 percent of journalists imprisoned on August 1, 2012, stood accused of such grave offenses.

The anti-terror law has been used as a club against Kurdish journalists, both historically and with particular frequency in the past two years, CPJ’s analysis found. In one case, Tayip Temel, editor-in-chief of Azadiya Welat, the nation’s sole Kurdish-language daily, faced 22 years in prison on charges of being a member of the banned KCK. As evidence, the government cited Temel’s published work, along with his wiretapped telephone conversations with colleagues and news sources, including members of two Kurdish political parties. “My articles, correspondences, headline discussions, and requests for news and visuals from reporters were defined as ‘orders’ and ‘organizational activity,’” on behalf of a banned group, Temel wrote in a January 2012 letter from prison published by the independent news portal Bianet.

Cases such as Temel’s, in which terrorism or anti-state crimes are alleged, are being tried in “special authority courts,” which are endowed by the criminal procedure code with extraordinary powers that greatly disadvantage defendants. These special courts may hold suspects in custody for months or even years without trial. They may hold detainees incommunicado, limit access to defense counsel, intercept and filter communication between detainees and their lawyers, and restrict suspects’ access to their files. Together, these powers have denied due process, eradicated the presumption of innocence, and granted heavy preference to the state. In July 2012, facing heavy criticism for the many due-process abuses, parliament adopted a legislative package that called for an end to the use of the special courts, although the measure shifted much of the courts’ authority to regional criminal courts. In addition, pending cases are unaffected by the change; the special courts will continue to rule on all cases that are before them now.

The July 2012 legislative package reduced penalties for offenses such as “breaching the confidentiality of an investigation” and “attempting to influence a fair trial,” charges that have been used against critical reporters who have sought to expose the details of Turkey’s broad and multipronged anti-state prosecutions. In addition, the measure stripped courts and prosecutors of the authority to halt publication of periodicals accused of “making propaganda for a terrorist organization.”

In all, the reforms are notably modest, according to CPJ’s analysis, conducted in consultation with Turkish lawyers. One change, for instance, would allow courts to suspend prosecution of journalists, but only on the condition the defendants not repeat the supposed crime over the next three years. Thus, journalists could avoid criminal prosecution if they censor themselves on the issues that got them into trouble in the first place.

Most important, the July reforms do not fundamentally alter Turkey’s anti-terror law and penal code to rid them of broad, ambiguous language that is routinely used to silence critical news and dissenting opinion. The changes also come against a political backdrop in which every incremental reform can be offset by a repressive new step. Just days after the legislative package was adopted in July, the AKP introduced a constitutional amendment that would restrict press freedom “to protect national security, public order, public morals, others’ rights, private and family life; to avert crimes; to ensure the independence and impartiality of the judiciary; to prevent warmongering and the propagation of every sort of discrimination, hostility or rancor and hatred.” The sweeping measure, pending in October 2012, would also eliminate a constitutional safeguard that protects printing houses from seizures or bans on their operations. Analysts said they were skeptical the proposal would ultimately pass but its introduction reflects the ruling party’s zeal for restricting the press.

“One crucial problem Turkish democracy faces is that whenever a political party gains power, it begins to repress the press and accept no criticism,” said Gülsün Bilgehan, a deputy from Ankara, a member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, and a member of the opposition Republican People’s Party. “The AKP government has sustained this negative habit and accelerated the pressure on the press in its third term.”


While repressive laws and legal structures are central to the problem, so too is the climate created at the top levels of the administration. “The judiciary takes its tone from the government,” Ali Birand said. “When the government gets tough, when the prime minister starts using tough sentences in his speeches, the judiciary gets tough as well.” And Erdoğan has been harsh and confrontational in his approach to the press, publicly scolding individual journalists, filing legal complaints, and pressuring news outlets to limit critical staff members. As in the case of Mert, media outlets have demoted or sacked prominent columnists and commentators who have angered the prime minister. One journalist, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal, recalled the organization’s owner announcing a change of policy to the staff by saying: “Guys, it’s finished. I don’t want criticism anymore. I don’t want to lose my money.” The owner gave journalists a simple choice: “If you want to stick with me—do it. If you don’t—go.”

Erdoğan has built a substantial record of filing defamation lawsuits against critics from across the media spectrum. In March 2005, he sued the publisher of the satirical magazine Penguen for having “assaulted the premier’s personal rights” by depicting him as various animals in cartoons that appeared on its cover, Bianet reported. A year later, the prime minister sued the left-wing daily Günlük Evrensel and its columnist Yücel Sarpdere for defamation in connection with an article that altered the lyrics of a favorite AKP song to criticize Erdoğan’s response to corruption allegations against his finance minister. The article not only insulted the premier, Erdoğan’s lawyers claimed, it went “beyond the limits of press freedom.” The same year, Erdoğan filed a defamation claim against Erbil Tuşalp, a journalist with the leftist daily Birgün, in connection with a December 2005 article that said government policies were increasingly authoritarian. Last year, the prime minister sued Ahmet Altan, editor-in-chief of the independent daily Taraf, for libel in connection with a January 2011 editorial headlined, “Erdoğan and hollow bullying.” Erdoğan withdrew the complaint only to sue Altan again, in March 2012, over an editorial that described the prime minister as “arrogant, uninformed, and uninterested” in reform. Erdoğan’s lawyers complained that the editorial was intended to humiliate the prime minister, Bianet reported.

Defamation complaints and criminal prosecutions have resulted in toned-down, airbrushed coverage of news events. “Newspapers that come out every day know all that’s wrong in Turkey but are too intimidated to do proper journalism,” wrote Milliyet columnist Asli Aydıntaşbaş, who said political influence has had a significant, chilling effect on the owners of news outlets. Much of Turkey’s media is owned by a few conglomerates with diverse holdings in construction, banking, tourism, and finance, a situation that leaves the news properties vulnerable to political pressure, the European Journalism Center found in a 2010 analysis.

In 2011, the Doğan Group, the nation’s largest media holding company, was forced to sell some of its media properties, including the daily Milliyet, in order to cope with a giant tax fine, originally assessed at $2.5 billion though later reduced. The tax case was widely regarded as a politically motivated effort to tame the conglomerate, whose flagship newspaper Hürriyet was known for its criticism of government policies and influence on public opinion. Four years earlier, Turkish bank regulators seized the assets of the Ciner Group, then one of the nation’s largest media companies, and later sold off the newspaper Sabah and its other media properties in a government auction. A company run by Erdoğan’s son-in-law, Berat Albayrak, was the sole bidder, purchasing the properties with the help of loans from two state banks, according to press reports.

“It all started with the government’s takeover of Sabah in 2007 and got worse with the colossal tax fine on Doğan media,” Aydıntaşbaş told CPJ. “Following that, we have seen changes in the editorial management of newspapers, firing of critical columnists, and a gradual but consistent shift away from commentary and news that are unpleasant or critical of the government. Newspapers routinely exercise self-censorship and suppress critical information and news—even in the face of declining circulation.”


The case of Odatv, an ultranationalist website harshly critical of the government, provides a good example. In sum, the government alleges that staffers for the Internet portal—along with investigative journalists Şener and Şık—were aiding the alleged Ergenekon plot. Among other charges, the defendants are accused of “aiding an armed terrorist organization” and “inciting hatred and hostility,” crimes that carry sentences of 15 years or more in prison. But the indictment offers scant supporting evidence; it cites published articles, secretly recorded conversations between staffers about coverage, and emails between Odatv journalists and news sources. A dozen journalists were charged in the case in February and March 2011; at least four were still in detention as of August 1, 2012, as their cases proceeded through the court system.

“The criminal evidence against me amounts to news reports, from Odatv and other news outlets,” Odatv publisher Soner Yalçın, one of those still being held, said in a letter sent from prison and published by Bianet. “Interviews and contacts that we have made through the switchboard of our newsroom have somehow been turned into criminal evidence.”

Yet journalists in Turkey have been reluctant to cover the Odatv case in a critical way. “It might be assumed that such a case would create enormous media attention and wide-ranging support from colleagues. But no,” Ece Temelkuran, a critical columnist who lost her job at the national daily Habertürk, wrote in January for Index on Censorship, a London-based advocacy organization. “Since Prime Minister Erdoğan personally threatened the journalists who criticize this case, just a handful of reporters showed up in the court. Most probably, colleagues were afraid to end up like I did few days ago: unemployed. Or worse: ending up behind bars.”

And while journalists are being imprisoned by the dozen, people suspected of involvement in the January 2007 slaying of Turkish-Armenian editor Hrant Dink walk free. Only the gunman, a teenager at the time, and three low-level accomplices have been convicted and imprisoned in the case. Security and military officials with radical nationalist sympathies, accused by Dink’s supporters of complicity and cover-up in the murder, were never properly investigated. Before his slaying, Dink had been subjected to death threats, hate mail, and politicized criminal charges in retaliation for his iconoclastic work, including his writings about the mass killing of ethnic Armenians in Turkey during World War I. In June 2011, a court in the Black Sea city of Trabzon convicted six military officers of failing to act on information that Dink would be murdered; the six were given months-long prison terms, which they appealed. They have yet to be incarcerated.

A system quick to incarcerate journalists before trial apparently works differently when the journalist is the victim. The inequity is striking considering that Şener has been among the incarcerated journalists.

In February 2009, Şener published a book titled The Dink Murder and Intelligence Lies, which alleged official involvement in the editor’s killing, including a cover-up of police negligence, concealment of evidence, and official threats against Dink. After the book’s publication, Şener was prosecuted on a number of charges, including “revealing secrets” and “attempting to influence a trial.” He faced more than 30 years in prison if convicted—longer than the sentence handed to Dink’s killer. Şener was acquitted of those charges in June 2010, only to be imprisoned again, as a suspect in the Odatv case, less than a year later.

The unlikely link connecting Şener to Odatv and Ergenekon: electronic documents of questionable authenticity that make unsupported claims of journalistic activity that even if true—and Şener says they are not—would not constitute a crime in a free society. Şener, detained for more than 12 months before being freed pending trial, faced up to 15 years in prison as he awaited a verdict.

(Photo by Reuters)

Editor’s note: The original text of this chapter was modified in paragraph four to correct a quote from Hakan Altinay.

Go to Chapter 3 >>
<< Go to Table of Contents