Turkey’s Press Freedom Crisis

1. Summary

The Committee to Protect Journalists prepared this report to highlight the widespread criminal prosecution and jailing of journalists in Turkey, along with the government’s use of various forms of pressure to engender self-censorship in the press. CPJ’s analysis found highly repressive laws, particularly in the penal code and anti-terror law; a criminal procedure code that greatly favors the state; and a harsh anti-press tone set at the highest levels of government. Turkey’s press freedom situation has reached a crisis point. 

Jailing and intimidating the press

The government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has waged one of the world’s biggest crackdowns on press freedom in recent history. Authorities have imprisoned journalists on a mass scale on terrorism or anti-state charges, launched thousands of other criminal prosecutions on charges such as denigrating Turkishness or influencing court proceedings, and used pressure tactics to sow self-censorship. Erdoğan has publicly deprecated journalists, urged media outlets to discipline or fire critical staff members, and filed numerous high-profile defamation lawsuits. His government pursued a tax evasion case against the nation’s largest media company that was widely seen as politically motivated and that led to the weakening of the company.

In written responses to CPJ and in public comments, Turkish authorities have said independent assessments of the country’s press freedom problems are exaggerated. They dispute the numbers of imprisoned journalists, asserting that most of the detainees are being held for serious crimes that have nothing to do with journalism.

In all, CPJ identified 76 journalists imprisoned as of August 1, 2012. After conducting a detailed, case-by-case review, CPJ concluded that at least 61 of these journalists were being held in direct relation to their published work or newsgathering activities. The evidence was less clear in the cases of the 15 other journalists being held, but CPJ continues to investigate. Time and again, CPJ’s analysis found, the authorities conflated the coverage of banned groups and the investigation of sensitive topics with outright terrorism or other anti-state activity. CPJ’s review also found alarming use of detention prior to trial or verdict. More than three-quarters of the imprisoned journalists in CPJ’s survey had not been convicted of a crime but were being held as they awaited resolution of their cases.

In the 27 years CPJ has compiled records on journalists in prison, only Turkey itself has rivaled the extent of the current anti-press campaign. In 1996, Turkish authorities jailed as many as 78 journalists, CPJ research shows. Today, Turkey’s imprisonments surpass the next most-repressive nations, including Iran, Eritrea, and China.

Journalists as enemies of the state

About 30 percent of journalists jailed in August 2012 were accused of taking part in anti-government plots or being members of outlawed political groups. Several have been linked to the alleged Ergenekon conspiracy, which prosecutors have described as a vast plot aimed at overthrowing the government through a military coup. According to the government’s theory, journalists were using news coverage to create the kind of societal chaos conducive to a coup.

Two prominent investigative reporters, Ahmet Şık and Nedim Şener, were charged with aiding the Ergenekon plot and were jailed for more than a year before being released pending completion of their trials. The government alleged that Şık, with Şener’s assistance, was writing a book to further the goals of the Ergenekon plot. Şık was indeed writing a book about a sensitive topic—the spreading influence of the Islamic Fethullah Gülen movement. Şener said he was not assisting Şık but that he had drawn the government’s ire with his book outlining the authorities’ failures in solving the 2007 murder of editor Hrant Dink. CPJ’s review determined that the charges against Şık and Şener were based on the journalists’ professional work.

In fact, broadly written articles in the penal code give the authorities wide berth to use journalists’ professional work to link them to banned political movements or alleged plots. These provisions include “committing a crime on behalf of an organization,” “aiding and abetting an organization knowingly and willingly,” and “making propaganda for an organization and its objectives.”

Other penal code articles prohibit journalists from “breaching the confidentiality of an investigation” or “influencing a fair trial,” effectively criminalizing independent, in-depth coverage of police and court activities. Although these articles rarely lead to imprisonment, they serve to intimidate journalists into self-censorship. They have also been used with disturbing frequency: Turkish press groups say up to 5,000 criminal cases were pending against journalists at the end of 2011.

Pro-Kurdish news called terrorism

About 70 percent of those jailed in August 2012 were Kurdish journalists charged with aiding terrorism by covering the views and activities of the banned Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, and the Union of Communities in Kurdistan, or KCK. Staff members for the Dicle News Agency and the Turkish-language newspaper Özgür Gündem in particular have been targeted, as have journalists with Azadiya Welat, Turkey’s sole Kurdish-language daily. Three former Azadiya Welat editors-in-chief were imprisoned when CPJ conducted its August 1, 2012, survey.

Throughout the Kurdish prosecutions, CPJ found that the government conflated reporting favorable to the PKK or other outlawed Kurdish groups with actual assistance to such organizations. Basic newsgathering activities—receiving tips, assigning stories, conducting interviews, relaying information to colleagues—were depicted by prosecutors as engaging in a terrorist enterprise.

Authorities have made prolific use of the country’s anti-terror law against Kurdish journalists. Independent analysts say the law’s definition of terrorism is overly broad and vague, allowing zealous prosecutors and judges to imprison journalists sympathetic to the Kurdish cause as though they were members of a terror group. Such prosecutions contravene Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which protects freedom of expression.

In its effort to suppress Kurdish viewpoints, the government has gone so far as to regulate the use of words themselves. In 2012, the Council of State banned the use on television of the word “guerrilla” in relation to the PKK, saying it would “legitimize the terrorists and terrorism.”

A moment of political choice

In letters to CPJ, senior government officials touted legislation adopted in July 2012 as a reform package that would improve press freedom. The measure reduced penalties for a few offenses such as “attempting to influence a fair trial,” curbed censorship of periodicals accused of producing propaganda, and altered the system that adjudicates serious anti-state and terrorism cases. But the measure did not fundamentally change the anti-terror law or penal code to rid them of the broad, ambiguous language used to silence critical news and dissenting opinion.

Ominously, the same month the legislation was adopted, the ruling Justice and Development Party proposed a sweeping constitutional amendment that would restrict coverage of the judicial system, national security, and other public issues, along with vaguely defined topics such as “public morals” and “others’ rights.” The proposal, pending in parliament in October 2012, would enshrine in the nation’s governing document the suppression of critical news and opinion.

The government’s efforts to subvert the media’s watchdog function and suppress dissident views make it difficult for Turkey to achieve long-term strategic goals. The country’s economic future remains linked to European integration, but its press freedom crisis is a key concern among European policy-makers. European Union accession is unlikely unless the problems are corrected.

Turkey’s close relationship with the United States—built in part on Ankara’s image as a regional model for democracy—is also at risk. Turkey continues to promote itself as a regional leader in freedom. “We firmly believe that guaranteeing fundamental freedoms is vital for our democracy,” Namık Tan, the country’s ambassador to the United States, said in a June 2012 letter to CPJ. “This is even more important now as Turkey is setting a significant example for many other countries in our region.” Yet such claims are contradicted by the persecution of journalists at levels that place Turkey alongside global outliers such as Iran.

Turkey’s national security threats are real, but they do not justify the current environment in which dissent is equated with terrorism. Modifying individual laws and making incremental reforms will not address the crisis. Prime Minister Erdoğan and his government must exert the political will to abandon the systemic suppression of critical views and dismantle the country’s vast system of media repression.

(Photo by Reuters)

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