World Press Freedom Day 2014 has come at a crucial time in Turkey, when Turkey’s media freedoms are under a growing threat posed by the current government, which has been using censorship, intimidation and manipulation of the legal system to muzzle the press.
World Press Freedom Day is observed annually on May 3 by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to celebrate the fundamental principles of press freedom and to address current challenges and solutions. One of the themes for World Press Freedom Day this year is “safety of journalists and the rule of law,” which is particularly relevant in Turkey as of late.
Interestingly enough, it is Turkish investigative journalist Ahmet Şık who won UNESCO’s Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize. The prize goes to an individual or organization committed to defending the freedom of the press, especially in the face of persecution.
Currently, Turkey’s media is in a “very damaging period,” says Andrew Gardner, an Amnesty International (AI) researcher on Turkey, in an interview with Today’s Zaman.
“If the government of Prime Minister [Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan wishes to act as a model of democracy and tolerance in the region, it must turn away from the path of authoritarianism it seems to be on right now,” said Nina Ognianova, Europe and Central Asia program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).
On Thursday, Turkey’s press freedom level fell to “Not Free” from “Partly Free” in the “Freedom of the Press 2014” report released by Freedom House, a Washington-based watchdog organization. Turkey also ranked 134th out of 197 countries in terms of freedom of the press.
To mark this year’s World Press Freedom Day, CPJ released a new report, titled “Ten journalists to free from prison.” The report highlights 10 journalists from different countries and calls for them to be freed. Included on the list is Turkish journalist Fusün Erdoğan, former general manager of Özgür Radyo, who is currently serving a life sentence in prison. Ognianova described the journalist’s case to Today’s Zaman as “outrageous [and] a dark reminder that journalism is treated as a crime in today’s Turkey.” Ognianova added that in Turkey there are also at least 20 other journalists who are in prison “in retaliation for their work in Turkey … [therefore they] must all be freed without delay.”
Last Monday, Önder Aytaç, a Turkish scholar and well-known columnist for the Taraf daily, was sentenced to 10 months in prison for “insulting public officials” in a tweet he posted in September 2012 in response to the news that Prime Minister Erdoğan was planning to shut down private schools affiliated with the Hizmet movement.
On April 19, Turkey deported Azerbaijani journalist Rauf Mirgadirov after canceling his press accreditation. Mirgadirov was then arrested at the airport in Baku on espionage charges over his journalism activities in Turkey.
The most significant problem for Turkey’s press freedom is self-censorship — a result of the mainstream media becoming closely associated with the government, leading to biased media representation and the forced resignation of editors. The most common form of such self-censorship is “ordering around the mainstream media” via phone calls, according to Kadri Gürsel, chairman of the Turkish National Committee of the International Press Institute (IPI) and a columnist for Al-Monitor’s Turkey Pulse.
He mentioned that this was evident in the coverage of the Gezi protests. On June 6, for example, Prime Minister Erdoğan called the director of the Habertürk TV network, Fatih Saraç, to remove a scrolling news ticker in which opposition Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) leader Devlet Bahçeli was making statements supporting the Gezi protests and calling for the president to intervene while Erdoğan was away in Morocco.
Gürsel said that another way the government controls the media is by imposing tax penalties or using public resources to pressure media outlets that are not yet under the ruling party’s thumb. He explained that surprise tax investigations done without a court order are textbook methods for putting pressure on the media.
AI’s Gardner points out three important issues that need to be addressed for Turkey’s media freedom in the long run: problems within the law, the fair and just application of the law, and government tolerance of opposing viewpoints.
Accordingly, Gardner believes that Turkey’s defamation law should be removed from the Turkish Penal Code (TCK) and added to the civil law books, so that the government cannot use it as a tool to criminalize journalists. Likewise, he is concerned that the Counterterrorism Law (TMK) has also been used to target journalists. In the past few years, there have been many cases where journalists have been jailed for merely contacting terrorist organizations or people deemed as terrorists.
Gardner mentioned mid-April’s ruling of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), which found Turkey guilty of violating the freedom of expression and right to a fair trial of Kurdish journalist Hasan Bayar of the Ülkede Özgür Gündem newspaper. Turkish courts had ruled that Bayar violated Article 6.2 of the TMK when he published news reports about Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) statements and policies. Bayar had appealed to the Supreme Court of Appeals but, because the court declared the appeal inadmissible, he applied to the ECtHR on the grounds that the article and the court’s ruling were a violation of human rights.
Gardner also emphasized that the executive’s interference in the judiciary has been problematic. In the big picture, the reformed law on the Supreme Council of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK) also highlighted further issues regarding judicial independence. Gardner argued that this “directly has an impact on journalists” as it breeds the unfair application of the law on journalists in court cases. Gardner said that it is disastrous and that in some cases “there have been verdicts … not even in line with the Turkish law,” let alone the freedom of expression at an international standard. Furthermore, Gardner added that the application of the defamation law is not applied equally to government officials — who often don’t face charges — compared with journalists
In an interview with Today’s Zaman, Freedom’s House “Freedom of the Press” Project Director Dr. Karin Karlekar said the recent blocking of YouTube and Twitter present another form of government censorship. She said that these bans violated Article 19 of Law No. 5651 on regulating Internet broadcasting, which is concerned with people’s right to access information. Karlekar reiterated that blocking entire social-media platforms is not only a problem, but it affects the press freedom of an entire country. She expressed her sympathy for Turkey’s democracy, with Turkey’s press freedom in 134th place amongst 197 countries.
On the positive side, Gardner explained, Turkey’s civil society has been “incredibly vocal [in] rais[ing] awareness on these issues, which actually has made [a] difference [in] the YouTube and Twitter cases.” Gardner said that the strong will of the public to protest for such issues, as well as active NGOs, creates a positive ground to engage the government and international partners on. Gardner said that in “bringing Turkish media law in line with the international law,” the general public is actively working in collaboration with many civil society organizations such as AI, CPJ, Reporters Without Borders, the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESEV) and Bianet.
With May 3 being World Press Freedom Day, it could be an ideal opportunity for the ruling party to address current challenges that journalists face in Turkey, despite recent developments. It is notable that this year’s winner of was awarded to the Turkish journalist.
Karlekar suggests that a Turkish journalist winning the 2014 UNESCO Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize will “hopefully draw more attention from the international community to highlight the ongoing censorship issues in Turkey.”