Letter: EU must not ignore collapse of media freedom in Turkey

The President of the European Council
Donald Tusk
General Secretariat of the Council of the European Union
Rue de la Loi/Wetstraat 175
B-1048 Bruxelles/Brussel

Federica Mogherini, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy
Stavros Lambrinidis, EU Special Representative for Human Rights
Elmar Brok, Chair of the European Parliament Committee on Foreign Affairs
Johannes Hahn, Commissioner for European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations
Martin Schulz, President of the European Parliament

Dear President Tusk,

We, the undersigned press freedom and media organisations, are writing ahead of the upcoming meeting between EU leaders and Ahmet Davutoğlu, Prime Minister of Turkey, to express our concern over the collapse of media freedom in Turkey.

In the past six months, we have recorded 50 incidents in clear breach of international standards with regards to media freedom and pluralism in the country.[1] These violations include the recent government takeovers of the Feza media group and the Koza İpek Group; the prosecution and jailing of daily Cumhuriyet editor-in-chief Can Dündar and Ankara bureau chief Erdem Gül on politically motivated charges of terrorism, espionage and revealing classified information; the police raids of Bugün TV; the assault of journalist Ahmet Hakan; and the blocking of Dicle News Agency’s website.

Many of these violations took place against the backdrop of the migration and refugee crisis or are related to reporting on sensitive issues such as the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) or Turkey’s security operations in the south. Hence we believe the Council has the mandate to address these violations during the specific working session on EU-Turkey cooperation.

This mandate stems from the Council’s commitment to the rights to freedom of expression including freedom of the press, which was reaffirmed when adopting the EU Human Rights Guidelines on “freedom of expression online and offline” on 12 May 2014.[2] By doing so, the Council pledged that “through its external policy instruments, the EU intends to help address and prevent violations of these rights in a timely, consistent and coherent manner.”

The guidelines also state that “all appropriate EU external financial instruments should be used to further protect and promote freedom of opinion and expression online as well as offline.”

While we welcome the fact that you discussed the situation of the media in Turkey with Prime Minister Davutoğlu last week, we believe the EU must not reach a deal without a specific conditionality clause that requires Turkey to improve the environment for freedom of expression and freedom of the media.

When meeting Prime Minister Davutoğlu on 18 March 2016, you have the unique opportunity to not only discuss the press freedom situation in Turkey, but to bring forth concrete measures that Turkey ought to take in order to start reversing its unrelenting crackdown on the media. Without taking these measures Ankara cannot and must not be considered a trustful strategic partner for the European Union. Specifically, we ask that you make any EU-Turkey agreement conditional on the release of the more than dozen journalists currently jailed for their work;[3] the immediate return of the media outlets belonging to the Feza and Koza İpek groups to their rightful owners and editorial boards; and the abandonment of Turkey’s official practice of using vague anti-terror laws to equate press coverage with criminal activity.

At a time when the very essence of the European Union is questioned, it is critical to show unity and coherence over one of its core foundations: human rights, and in particular freedom of opinion and expression, which are fundamental elements of democracy.

Yours sincerely,

Jodie Ginsberg, Chief Executive, Index on Censorship
David Diaz-Jogeix, Director of Programmes, Article 19
William Horsley, Vice President and Media Freedom Representative, Association of European Journalists
Nina Ognianova, Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator, Committee to Protect Journalists
Jo Glanville, Director, English Pen
Mogens Blicher Bjerregård, President, European Federation of Journalists
Barbara Trionfi, Executive Director, International Press Institute
Carles Torner, Executive Director, PEN International
Christophe Deloire, Executive Director, Reporters Without Borders
Deborah Bonetti, President, Foreign Press Association in London

[1] www.mappingmediafreedom.org (verified reports from 1 October 2015 to 14 March 2016)

[2] EU Human Rights Guidelines on Freedom of Expression Online and Offline, adopted by the Council on 12 May 2014 (Foreign Affairs Council meeting)

[3] At least 28 journalists jailed in Turkey (last update: 26 February 2016). Source: European Federation of Journalists and affiliates, http://europeanjournalists.org/journalists-in-jail-europe/

Zaman: The murder of a newspaper

On Friday night, security forces stormed Zaman, the widest-circulating Turkish newspaper. Though many Turkish news outlets studiously avoided covering the raids, the screens of international news channels were full of images of Turkish police using tear gas and water cannon against protestors trying to protect their paper. Particularly striking were the injuries to young women wearing Islamic headgear, the very segment of the community, which the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) once vowed to defend.

The seizure of a news organisation by placing it into court-appointed administration is not trivial. The Zaman group employs some two thousand people, runs a nationwide network of correspondents and puts out an English language daily, Today’s Zaman, which has an international following on the web. It is impossible to imagine a court in any country with the slightest pretension of being democratic acting with such impunity.

The final headline of the independent version of Zaman was that there could be no legal basis for the takeover. Indeed, Article 30 of the Turkish Constitution reads: “A printing house and its annexes, duly established as a press enterprise under law, and press equipment shall not be seized, confiscated, or barred from operation on the grounds of having been used in a crime.” (As amended on May 7, 2004; Act No. 5170)”

tzIt is no secret that Zaman demonstrated fidelity to the movement associated with the exiled cleric, Fethullah Gülen. The paper once supported the rise of AKP but in recent years has been a bitter critic. The legal document, which placed Zaman’s parent company into court-appointed administration, relies on the testimony of an anonymous witness who maintains that the editorial policy was dictated by what it calls the Fethullah Terror Organisation (FETÖ in its Turkish acronym). This in turn is guilty of conspiring with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). It is enough to point out that the existence of FETÖ is at best hearsay, at worst the invention of subeditors in the pro-government press – never mind that Zaman itself once took a more hawkish line towards the PKK than the government itself.

According to reports reaching P24, the prosecutor struggled to find a court which would accede to his request. The Zaman building is in the Bakırköy province of Istanbul and comes under its jurisdiction. However, the request in the Bakırköy court was refused. Finally another, more friendly court acceded to the prosecutor’s demand, even though it is dubious whether it had the competence to do so.

The paper may not be guilty of treason but is has been guilty of apostasy – of having turned its back on AKP and President Tayyip Erdoğan in particular. Since then the two have been in mortal combat. Loyalists to the Gülen movement and the Zaman group in particular pursued corruption allegations against leading government officials in December 2013.

By forcing Zaman’s takeover the government lays itself open to universal condemnation. Turkey, once a proud EU applicant, now plumbs the lower depths of global rankings of transparency and free expression. Sadder still, this does not seem to trouble it a jot.

“The timing is a slap in the face,” according to a diplomat quoted in The Financial Times. “The seizure came during a visit to Istanbul by Donald Tusk, the European Council president, and two days before Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, is to see Ahmet Davutoğlu, the Turkish premier,” the paper points out. Turkey now calibrates its place in the world not as a democratic standard bearer in a troubled part of the globe but as a buffer zone between Fortress Europe and a tide of Syrian refugees. This, it believes, gives it licence to get away with the murder of a newspaper.

In Turkey all eyes, government and opposition, are on the EU to see if Brussels is prepared to put expediency above principle and if European pubic opinion is prepared to see Ankara give up all pretence of democratic governance in exchange for grudging cooperation on Syria.

It is not just the timing of the EU summit, which is significant. The Constitutional Court recently gave the presidential office a swift kick in the shins with the release from pre-trial detention of the editor-in-chief of Cumhuriyet newspaper along with his Ankara bureau chief. The high court ruled that the charges against them – that printing stories in a newspaper could correspond to treason – were essentially absurd. Since then, newspapers and ministers loyal to the president have been braying for the judges’ blood. The president himself has said he would neither respect nor abide by the high court’s decision and now appears even more determined to draft a new constitution which would allow him to do exactly that.

Not everyone in AKP supports this autocratic trend. There is a small wave of discontent from the old guard who believe a constitution that concentrates even greater powers in presidential hands is a dangerous step. These homegrown dissidents took quiet satisfaction in the court’s defence of Cumhuriyet. So one can see the raid against Zaman as the president re-asserting his authority against these pockets of resistance to one-man rule.

Turkey’s 1982 Constitution was prepared under conditions of martial law. It attempted to dictate a society in which the rights of citizen were subservient to the needs of the state. This rendered it anachronistic before the ink on the Official Gazette was dry. It has constantly been rewritten and there have been consistent demands that it be replaced.

Yet no one, not even in their wildest babblings, ever claimed the current Constitution was insufficiently authoritarian, or that it ceded too little power to the arbitrary whim of government, or that it failed to enshrine the Machiavellian principle that “might makes right”.

No one, that is, until now. As the ink on the printing presses of Turkey’s independent media run dry so too do hopes for the country’s future.

See also:
Statement: Index condemns seizure of Zaman
Sign our petition: End Turkey’s crackdown on press freedom
Letter: Writers and artists condemn seizure of Zaman news group
Reaction: Turkish court orders seizure of Zaman news group

Originally posted on Platform 24.

The Russia-Turkey crisis is feeding a new propaganda war between the countries


Credit: Shutterstock / Frederic Legrand – COMEO

Before 24 November, Turkey was described in Russian news reports as a reliable partner in ambitious projects (TurkStream pipeline, construction of Sochi’s Olympic venues), a source of fruits and vegetables in a period of European food embargoes and Crimea blockade, and one of the main tourist destinations, visited annually by over three million Russians.

But after the downing of the Russian fighter jet, Turkey became the target of a new information war. Reports on estimated growth of turnover and perks at Turkish resorts in Russian state-run media were replaced by a long list of accusations.

Dmitry Kiselev, the head of a state international news agency Rossiya Segodnya and the anchorperson of a weekly programme Vesti Nedeli accused Turkey of buying oil from the Islamic State, exporting carcinogenic vegetables to Russia and trying to revive the Ottoman Empire. Vladimir Soloviev, a popular anchorperson on television channel Rossiya 1, labeled Turkey a sponsor of terrorism.

All media platforms, directly or indirectly controlled by the state, were used in the construction of an image of a new enemy. The past was revised by articles, recalling a long history of Russian-Turkish wars and crimes of the Ottoman Empire. The future was programmed by analysing chances in a possible third world war. Coverage of current affairs has become far from unbiased. News selection has been focused on demonstration of Russia’s sanctions effects and Turkey’s internal problems — oppression of journalists, a growth of child marriage and crime.

After weeks under information attack, on 3 December, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu dismissed the allegations by Russian media as “lies of this Soviet-style propaganda machine”.

“In the Cold War period, there was a Soviet propaganda machine. Every day it created different lies. Firstly, they would believe them and then expect the world to believe them. These were remembered as Pravda lies and nonsense,” he said.

Days later the Russian state news agency RIA Novosti proved his point by using a classic Soviet propaganda trick. In an op-ed that called Davutoglu “Reich Minister”, RIA Novosti compared the new enemy to the old by appealing to one of the most loathed images for all Russian people since the WWII – Nazi Germany.

This method, as with many others used against Turkey, has been tested and mastered during the Ukrainian crisis. Maidan activists, who later became a new elite of the country, were also labeled by Russian television channels as “fascist nationalists” and “extremists”. The technology of information war, the main propaganda mouthpieces and the image of the enemy remain the same.

On 7 December, Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM) published the results of its survey, saying that 73% of Russian population have changed their attitude to Turkey to the worse since the downing of Su-24.

VTsiom, whose director admitted that the main clients of the center are the Kremlin and the ruling party United Russia, has been criticised for manipulation. The results of the survey are symptomatic. If the data is correct, it demonstrates that anti-Turkey propaganda works very well. If the results were rigged in favour of the Kremlin’s agenda, it shows the desirable goal of the information attack.

The day after, on 8 December, a film crew from Russia’s state television channel Rossiya 1 was detained in the Turkish province of Hatay, close to the Syrian border, and deported from the country because of “violations of regulations of work of foreign journalists in the Turkish Republic”. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation responded with harsh critiques, accusing Turkey of “a series of infringements of the rights of local and foreign journalists”.

However, in a communique by OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media on propaganda in times of conflicts, published last year in reference to a similar case related to the Ukrainian crisis, Dunja Mijatović made it clear that censoring propaganda is not the way to counter it. The best way to neutralise propaganda is balance and accuracy in broadcasting, independence of media regulators, prominence of public service broadcasting with a special mission to include all viewpoints, a clear distinction between fact and opinion in journalism and transparency of media ownership.

A similar view was expressed in a speech by Agnès Callamard, the former executive director of ARTICLE 19, delivered at UN Headquarters in December 2014.

“Hatred needs and is fed by censorship, which, in turn, is needed to nurture incitement to the actual commission of atrocity crimes. The lesson is clear: In our efforts to prevent mass atrocities, the free flow of information and freedom of expression are ultimately are our key allies – not our enemies.”


Mapping Media Freedom

Click on the bubbles to view reports or double-click to zoom in on specific regions. The full site can be accessed at https://mappingmediafreedom.org/

Jodie Ginsberg: “I believe in free expression, but…”


The decision by six authors to withdraw from a PEN American Center gala in which Charlie Hebdo will be honoured with an award once again emphasises the dangerous notion that some forms of free expression are more worthy than others of defending.

Charlie Hebdo was offensive to many — but as PEN points out — it was also vigorous in its defence of the importance of free speech, even in the face of those who would seek to silence that view through violence.

“Free speech for all can only be protected by standing up as vigorously – if not more vigorously – for the views you disagree with as those with which you agree,” said Index CEO Jodie Ginsberg. “If we don’t do that, freedom becomes something only for the favoured and powerful.”

Below Index republishes an article from CEO Jodie Ginsberg written a week after the attacks on Charlie Hebdo that addresses the importance of a defence of free speech in all its forms.

If you said “I believe in free expression, but…” at any point in the past week, then this is for you. If you declared yourself to be “Charlie”, but have ever called for an offensive image to be removed from public viewing, then this is for you. If you “liked” a post this week affirming the importance of free speech, but have ever signed a petition calling for a speaker to be banned, then this is for you.

Because the rush to affirm our belief in free expression in the wake of Charlie Hebdo attacks ignores a simple truth: that free speech is being eroded on all sides, and all sides are responsible. And it needs to stop.

Genuine free expression means being able to articulate thoughts, feelings and ideas without fear of harm. It is vital because without it individuals would be subject to the whim of whichever authority dictated what ideas and opinions – as opposed to actions – are acceptable. And that is always subjective. You need only look at the world leaders at Sunday’s Paris solidarity march to understand that. Attendees included Ali Bongo, President of Gabon, where the government restricts any journalism critical of the authorities; Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, whose country imprisons more journalists in the world than any other; and the UK’s David Cameron, who declared his support for free expression and the right to offend, while his government considers laws that could drive debate about extremism underground.

It is precisely the freedom for others to say what you may find offensive that protects your own right to express your views: to declare, say, your belief in a God whom others deny exists; or to support a political system that others dismiss. It is what enables scientific and academic thought to progess. As soon as we put qualifications around “acceptable” free expression, we erode its value. Yet that is precisely what happened time and again in response to the Charlie Hebdo attacks, with individuals simultaneously declaring their support for free expression while seeming to suggest that the cartoonists and anyone else who deliberately courts offence should choose other ways to express themselves – suggesting that the responsibility for “better” speech always lies with the person deemed to be causing offence rather than the offended.

“The free communication of ideas and opinions is one of the most precious of the rights of man. Every citizen may, accordingly, speak, write and print with freedom…”
French National Assembly, Declaration of the Rights of Man, August 26, 1789

Index believes that the best way to tackle speech with which you disagree, including the offensive, and the hateful, is through more speech, not less. It is not through laws and petitions that restrict the rights of others to speak. Yet, increasingly, we use our own free speech to call for that of others to be limited: for a misogynist UK comedian to be banned from our screens, or for a UK TV personality to be prosecuted by police for tweeting offensive jokes about ebola, or for a former secretary of state to be prevented from giving an address.

A project mapping media freedom in Europe, launched by Index just over six months ago, shows how journalists are increasingly targeted in this region, including – prior to last week’s incidents – 61 violent attacks against the media. Globally, the space for free expression is shrinking. We need to reverse this trend.

If you genuinely believe in the value of free speech – that all ideas and opinions must be heard – then that necessarily extends to the offensive and the vile. You don’t have to agree with someone, or condone what they are saying, or the manner in which it is said, but you do need to allow them to say it. The American Civil Liberties Union got this right in 1978 when they defended the rights of a pro-Nazi group to march in Chicago, arguing that rights to free expression needed apply to all if they were to apply to any. (As did charity EXIT-Germany late last year, when it raised money for an anti-fascism cause by donating money for every metre walked during a neo-Nazi march).

Countering offensive speech is – of course – only possible if you have the means to do so. Many have observed, rightly, that marginalisation and exclusion from mainstream media denies many people the voice that we would so vociferously defend for a free press. That is a valid argument. But this should be addressed – and must be addressed – by tackling this lack of access, not by shutting down the speech of those deemed to wield power and privilege.

Voltaire has been quoted endlessly in support of free expression, and the right to agree to disagree, but British author Neil Gaiman, who discusses satire and offence in the winter Index magazine, also had it right. “If you accept — and I do — that freedom of speech is important,” he once wrote, “then you are going to have to defend the indefensible. That means you are going to be defending the right of people to read, or to write, or to say, what you don’t say or like or want said…. Because if you don’t stand up for the stuff you don’t like, when they come for the stuff you do like, you’ve already lost.”

This article was originally posted on 12 January 2015 and reposted on 27 April 2015 at indexoncensorship.org