The Dark Days of Jailing Journalists and Criminalizing Dissent.
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.
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.
Journalist Ahmet Şık found himself behind bars for writing a book that was not even published. So explosive was the subject of The Imam’s Army that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan likened it to a bomb. Şık was probing too far into one of the most influential and underreported forces in modern Turkish politics—the Gülen movement.
“I was arrested before I had the chance to put something new in the book,” Şık told CPJ of his March 2011 detention on initial charges of participating in the alleged Ergenekon anti-government conspiracy. Şık had been looking for evidence to support claims that the Islamic movement headed by the U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gülen had infiltrated Turkey’s powerful police and judiciary and was exerting a growing influence over the Erdoğan administration.
Şık believes that “There are lots of people among the accused I believe are guilty, but they are not being tried for their actual crimes. This is political score-settling. I believe that if there were an honest investigation in Ergenekon it would lead to democratization, but that is not what is happening.”
“The police officers responsible for the murder of Hrant Dink are the same officers that are running the Ergenekon investigation, and they are also from the Fethullah Gülen movement. They included me in the operation they were running because of things I wrote in my book,” Şener said. Şener thinks he was accused of involvement in the conspiracy because of his investigations into the Dink murder. In 2010, he was tried and acquitted under anti-terrorism laws on charges of revealing secret documents in a book he wrote alleging involvement by the national intelligence service MIT, the police, and gendarmerie in Dink’s murder.
“The police officers responsible for the murder of Hrant Dink are the same officers that are running the Ergenekon investigation, and they are also from the Fethullah Gülen movement.
Kurdish journalists constituted more than 70 percent of the 76 journalists imprisoned in Turkey when CPJ conducted an extensive survey in August 2012. The Kurdish issue provides a particularly tense context to the question of press freedom in Turkey. The Kurdish journalists’ fate does not simply test the democratic character of the Turkish state, it challenges Turkey’s sense of identity and is intimately linked to the Kurdish struggle for empowerment.
Turkish Kurds make up 12 million to 20 million of the country’s total population of 75 million, with about half living in the southeast and half in western cities, particularly Istanbul, according to Human Rights Watch estimates. Due to a large diaspora, mainly in Western Europe, the Kurdish conflict has reverberated abroad. The Turkish government has repeatedly sought to shut down Roj TV, a pro-PKK satellite station based in Denmark and Belgium, CPJ research shows. In early 2012, suspected PKK sympathizers ransacked and firebombed offices in Paris, Cologne, and other European cities of Zaman, a leading Turkish newspaper close to the Fethullah Gülen movement and generally supportive of the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP.
Turkish authorities constantly blur the line between the expression of radical political ideas and direct support for the PKK’s violent actions. “Voicing criticism is a right in a free society. Regardless of the harshness of the criticism, it is wrong to interpret it as terrorism,” Thomas Hammarberg, then the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights, said in an April 2012 interview with the Istanbul-based independent news portal Bianet.
The continuing crackdown on free expression and the slow pace of judicial reform are key concerns of European policy-makers and significant obstacles to Turkey’s EU accession bid. The European Parliament has repeatedly passed resolutions lamenting the slow pace of media reform and criticizing the arrests of individual journalists. In July 2011, Thomas Hammarberg, then the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights, issued a detailed report on freedom of expression in Turkey in which he raised deep concern about such issues as the dysfunction of the criminal justice system and the lack of constitutional safeguards.
“There’s an extreme amount of money in Turkish journalism,” said Çongar, arguing that the money has fueled a culture of complacency among elite journalists who have “chauffeurs and personal assistants” but lack the stomach for a fight. Çongar, who is facing dozens of legal complaints because of her critical reporting, said, “I don’t agree with my colleagues who say it has never been worse. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a very serious problem. But a journalist in Turkey needs to be brave.”
Çongar says that some of the journalists who have complained about government pressure and self-censorship have deluded themselves into thinking that Turkey has crossed some sort of democratic threshold and become a country in which the right to dissent is respected in law. Her framework: Turkey is an authoritarian state that has begun to soften around the edges. For Çongar, the underlying issue is that “the culture of tolerance is undeveloped in Turkey. There are legal cases for simple criticism.”
CPJ offers the following recommendations to Turkish authorities and the international community.
To Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan
Stop filing defamation complaints against critical journalists, publicly deprecating critical journalists, and pressuring critical news outlets to tone down coverage.
Publicly state your government’s recognition of the important role of a free press in Turkish society. Allow critical commentators to return to their jobs without government interference.
To the Turkish government
Release all imprisoned journalists who are being held on the basis of journalistic activities, even when those activities support ideas the government finds offensive. Halt the criminal prosecution of journalists in connection with their reporting and commentary. In dozens of cases documented by CPJ, the government has detained journalists on terrorism and anti-state allegations based only on evidence of their journalistic activities.
Halt the use of the anti-terror law against journalists. In numerous cases documented by CPJ, authorities have conflated the expression of political views the government finds offensive with outright terrorism. Such a practice contravenes Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
End the practice of jailing journalists for prolonged periods as they await trial or a court verdict. CPJ has documented dozens of cases in which journalists have been held for many months or even years without having been convicted of a crime.
Fundamentally and comprehensively reform all laws used routinely against the press, including provisions in the penal code and anti-terror law that criminalize newsgathering and publication of critical or opposing views. In drafting amendments to those laws, work with Turkey’s media and press freedom organizations.
Comprehensively reform laws and regulations governing the Internet, including Law 5651, to bring them in line with international standards for freedom of expression. Thousands of websites have been blocked under Law 5651 with little public or judicial oversight.
Enact broad constitutional reforms to protect press freedom and freedom of expression in accordance with international legal standards and Turkey’s obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights. Reject all efforts to constitutionally limit press freedom, such as those outlined in a July 2012 proposal submitted by the Justice and Development Party. The July proposal would severely restrict independent journalism on crucial matters such as national security, the judicial system, and human rights, and would contravene international standards for free expression.
To the European Union
Urge Turkish authorities to immediately free all journalists jailed for exercising their right to freedom of expression and freedom of the press.
Call on Turkish leaders to abolish all legal provisions, particularly in the penal code and the anti-terror law, that are used to unduly restrict freedom of expression and freedom of the press, and to bring them into conformity with European and international human rights standards.
Insist that Turkey’s EU membership be dependent on respect for its obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights, along with its effective implementation of European Court of Human Rights rulings, especially those related to freedom of expression and freedom of the press.
The European Parliament should closely monitor attacks against the press in Turkey and hold regular hearings on freedom of expression and freedom of the press.
To the Council of Europe
The Council of Europe, particularly the Committee of Ministers and the Parliamentary Assembly, should hold Turkey accountable under the European Convention on Human Rights and demand substantive changes in Turkey’s legislation and policies so that they comply with European and international human rights standards.