In a report titled “Democracy in Crisis: Corruption, Media and Power in Turkey,” released on Monday, Freedom House called on the Turkish government to recognize that in a democracy, a free press and other independent institutions play a very important role and that the government should cease its threats against journalists, repeal the criminal defamation law and overly broad antiterrorism and criminal organization laws that have been used to jail dozens of journalists, and comply with European and international standards in procurement practices in order to reduce the incentive for media owners to curry favor by distorting the news.
The report also said that Turkish media owners themselves must make a commitment to support changes in procurement practices “if they are to win back the trust of Turkey’s citizens” and maintain stability in the country.
The report was prepared after a Freedom House delegation traveled to Turkey in November of last year to meet with journalists, NGOs, business leaders and senior government officials about the “deteriorating state of media freedom in the country.”
Freedom House’s report on media was prepared by Susan Corke, director for Eurasia programs at Freedom House; Andrew Finkel, a journalist based in Turkey since 1989; David Kramer, a former US State Department deputy director for European affairs in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, and current president of Freedom House, who also served as assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor from March 2008 to January 2009; Carla Anne Robbins, a clinical professor of national security studies at Baruch College; and Nate Schenkkan, program officer at Freedom House.
“Since November, events in Turkey have taken a severe turn for the worse. The police raids that revealed a corruption scandal on December 17, and the allegations of massive bid rigging and money laundering by people at the highest levels of the government, have sparked a frantic crackdown by the ruling Justice and Development (AK) Party. More journalists have been fired for speaking out. Thousands of police officers and prosecutors have been fired or relocated across the country. Amendments to the Internet regulation law proposed by the government would make it possible for officials to block websites without court orders. The government is also threatening the separation of powers by putting the judiciary, including criminal investigations, under direct control of the Ministry of Justice,” said the report, adding, “The crisis of democracy in Turkey is not a future problem—it is right here, right now.”
The report stated that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan frequently attacks journalists by name if they write critical commentaries, and journalists have lost their jobs after these public attacks. It also said at least 59 journalists were fired or forced out in retaliation for their coverage of last summer’s Gezi Park protests in İstanbul. With the December corruption scandal, another string of prominent columnists have been fired.
Companies sympathetic to the government receive billions of dollars in government contracts, often through government bodies housed in the Prime Minister’s Office, while companies with media outlets critical of the government have been the targets of tax investigations, forced to pay large fines and are likely to be disadvantaged in public tenders, the report continues.
The report also pointed out that the National Intelligence Organization (MİT) has wiretapped journalists covering national security stories, using false names on these warrants in order to avoid judicial scrutiny. Stressing that dozens of journalists remain imprisoned under broadly defined counterterrorism laws, the report said, “A majority of those in prison are Kurds, and some analysts believe the government is using them as bargaining chips in negotiations with the Kurdish [Kurdistan Workers’ Party] PKK.”
“These tactics are unacceptable in a democracy,” said the report, adding that many journalists have practiced self-censorship to avoid angering the government, especially Erdoğan.
The report also comments: “The intentional weakening of Turkey’s democratic institutions, including attempts to bully and censor Turkey’s media, should and must be a matter of deep concern for the United States and the European Union. As the AK Party’s internal coalition has grown more fragile, Erdoğan has used his leverage over the media to push issues of public morality and religion and to squelch public debate of the accountability of his government. The result is an increasingly polarized political arena and society.”
Emphasizing that although building a resilient democracy is ultimately up to Turkish citizens, the report said the international community cannot afford to be bystanders. Praising EU officials who have been openly critical of the Turkish government’s pressure on the media, the report criticized the administration of US President Barack Obama, saying the US has been far too slow to realize the seriousness of the threat to Turkey’s democracy.
The statements coming from the US are either from the White House press secretary or the State Department spokesperson, and the message is, “The US does not and will not interfere in Turkey’s internal politics.”
The report said that Obama, in his first visit to Turkey in 2009, gave strong support for the Erdoğan government and praised the country’s media freedom, but Freedom House added that recognizing Turkey as a model democracy in the region was a critical mistake. As the Erdoğan government was in the process of fining the Doğan Media Group after its criticism of corruption related to the AK Party, Obama’s talk in Parliament in April 2009 encouraged what Erdoğan had been doing with the media.
The report said that “a crisis of this scale” requires reactions from high-ranking American officials.
The report acknowledged that under the AK Party government there has been progress in some important areas of free expression, for example, the long-standing taboos on the discussion of minority rights, including the rights of Kurds and Alevis, headscarves for women and the Armenian genocide have all been lifted. But the report stressed that the credit due for such gains cannot offset the atmosphere of intimidation that has deepened as the AK Party has consolidated its power.
The report also mentioned that editors and reporters from across Turkey’s media had told Freedom House about “angry phone calls from the prime minister’s office after critical stories run, and—long before Gezi—of media owners being told to fire specific reporters. In a growing number of cases, editors and owners are firing reporters preemptively to avoid a confrontation with government officials.”
The report pointed out that those reporters who still hold their jobs admit to censoring their own coverage to ensure they remain employed, and when they cover politics, media employees are forced to be more concerned about their jobs than the story.
“At the heart of the problem are politicians and a prime minister who came to power vowing to create a more liberal government but have become increasingly intolerant of criticism and dissent,” said the report.
The report also suggested that the US should encourage reform in Turkey, including negotiating a free trade pact to parallel the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) between the US and EU. “Such an agreement must require that Turkey commit to transparent procurement practices. In addition to strong rhetorical defenses of a free Turkish press, the United States and Europe should also marshal investment and development funds to support the growth of independent Turkish media. Most important, with Turkey’s government proposing new steps every day that would reverse democratic gains, the U.S. should elevate Turkey’s democratic crisis to a matter of bilateral importance and engagement,” said the report.
“There are positive signs that with the government suddenly weakened, some of Turkey’s media are beginning to remember their long-suppressed role, breaking stories and covering the corruption scandal in depth. Outlets associated with the Gülen movement like Zaman, Today’s Zaman, and Bugün; Doğan-owned Radikal and Hürriyet; T24, an independent Internet news site; and even formerly pro-government media like Habertürk are finding their voices after years of harassment and pressure,” said the report.
Emphasizing that Turkey is not a dictatorship, the report said it remains “a country where criticizing the government means risking your livelihood, your reputation, and sometimes, your freedom, and at the present moment, it is a country where the government is behaving more, rather than less, authoritarian.”
The report described the Hürriyet, Milliyet, Sabah and Akşam dailies as the mainstream media, as they can reach an audience beyond those within one ideological group. However, the report said that Sabah and Akşam have been sold to pro-government business groups, thus these newspapers have become “mouthpieces for the government,” and some call them “Erdoğanist.”
According to the report, members of the media and the government alike describe the newspapers’ Ankara bureau chiefs as “lobbyists” for their companies.