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Turkey’s government and courts have demonstrated their unwillingness to adhere to basic values on press freedom and media pluralism. From judicial harassment and seizing media companies to silencing Kurdish and critical media, Turkey’s government has been used by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to silence critical voices in the country.
The European Charter on Freedom of the Press is a non-binding guideline on press freedom, signed on 25 May 2009 in Hamburg by 48 editors-in-chief and leading journalists from 19 European countries. It consists of 10 articles on media freedom, and if we take it as an ideal for which countries should operate, we see no country in the EU is perfect. However, Turkey finds itself in a unique position of being consistently in breach of every single one on an almost weekly basis.
Index on Censorship’s Mapping Media Freedom has verified over 200 violations of media freedom in Turkey since the project began in May 2014. The seizure of the Zaman Media Group, which owns Zaman and Today’s Zaman, on 4 March was just the latest in a long line of assaults against media diversity in the country. Any respect for diversity seemed to be dispersed like the crowds of supporters who gathered at Zaman’s headquarters, who were then set upon by police with water cannons and tear gas.
A day after the takeover of Zaman, trustees were appointed by the authorities to Cihan News Agency in another bid to silence criticism of Erdogan. Cihan said on its website late on Monday 7 March that an Istanbul court would appoint an administrator to run the agency on a request from a state prosecutor. Interference by the government is now systemic in the Turkish media.
Opposition journalists are routinely punished in Turkey. Barış İnce, a former editor of Birgün who still writes for the leftist daily, was sentenced on 8 March to 21 months in prison for “insulting” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. A week previously, on 2 March, journalist Arzu Yıldız attended a hearing at Ankara criminal court for “insulting” Erdogan, former Justice Minister Kenan İpek and Justice Minister Undersecretary Basri Bağcı. Yıldız explained that she is being tried for a retweet, and not for something that she personally wrote.
On 9 February, Claus Blok Thomsen, a Danish journalist working for daily newspaper Politiken, was detained by Turkish authorities at the Istanbul airport and then barred from entering Turkey. He was travelling to the country to report on refugees at the Turkish-Syrian border. At the airport, Thomsen allegedly identified himself as a journalist and then the police forced him to open his phone and computer, undermining the confidentiality of his sources.
Rather than having the full protection of the law, Turkish journalists often find themselves at its mercy. Nineteen journalists have so far been arrested or detained in the country this year alone, many of them on terror-related charges. This includes Nazım Daştan, a reporter for Dicle News Agency (DİHA), which reports in Kurdish, who was charged with spreading terrorist propaganda on Facebook in February.
Threats to the economic livelihood of the media are commonplace in Turkey. On 3 November 2015, 58 journalists were dismissed from İpek Media Group when it was unlawfully seized in a government-led police operation in late October. Sound familiar? When Zaman was taken over, editor-in-chief Abdülhamit Bilici was fired without remuneration by the new trustees. Many other members of staff were let go also.
Mapping Media Freedom routinely reports on instances where journalists have been denied access to information. Most recently, German reporter Frank Nordhausen, a correspondent for the Berlin-based Berliner Zeitung, was arrested while covering the takeover of Zaman. Other journalists exercising their right to report were set on by police.
Turkish authorities rejected a permanent press accreditation application filed by Norwegian daily Aftenposten’s correspondent Silje Rønning Kampesæter, on 9 February 2016. Turkish authorities have not issued any written statement on the reason for the rejection. The application also affects her residence permit in Turkey.
Over the past two decades, right to know laws have become commonplace in the European Union. In Turkey, the principle has yet to catch on. In the wake of the bomb that ripped through Ankara killing 37 people on Monday, Erdogan’s government moved to block Facebook and Twitter as part of a media ban. Domestically, blanket media bans are becoming more common in Turkish media. On 17 February, the government rushed out a temporary broadcast ban after another deadly blast in Ankara. Similar measures were taken the month previously as well.
This week, Erdogan has claimed the definition of a terrorist should be changed to include terrorist “supporters”. It was clear who the president had in mind: “Their titles as an MP, an academic, an author, a journalist do not change the fact they are actually terrorists.” By treating critical journalists like terrorists, Erdogan is effectively redefining their profession.
Recent examples include the holding of Cumhuriyet newspaper editor Can Dundar and Ankara bureau chief Erdem Gul in pre-trial detention on charges of revealing state secrets and attempting to overthrow the government. This was not an isolated incident.
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Verified incidents against the media and journalists reported to Mapping Media Freedom between May 2014 and 9 March 2016: