The number of threats to media freedom in Turkey have surged since the failed coup on 15 July.
One of the most vital duties of a journalist — in any democracy — is to report on the day-to-day operations of a country’s parliament. Journalism schools devote much time to teaching the deciphering budgets and legal language, and how to report fairly on political divides and debates.
I recalled these studies when I read an email Wednesday morning from an Ankara-based colleague. I smiled bitterly. The message included a link to an article published in the Gazete Duvar, which informed that 200 journalists had been barred from entering the home of the Grand National Assembly of Turkey. Security controls at the two entrances of the failed-coup-damaged building had been intensified and journalists were checked against a list as they tried to enter.
The reason for the bans? Most of those who were blocked worked for shuttered or seized outlets alleged to be affiliated with the Gülenist movement.
Parliament, though severely damaged by bombing during the night of the coup attempt, is still open. For any professional colleague, these sanctions mean only one thing: journalism is now at the absolute mercy of the authorities who will define its limits and content.
Many pro-government journalists do not think the increasingly severe controls are alarming. “It is democracy that matters,” they argue on the social media. “Only the accomplices of the putschists in the media will be affected, not the rest.”
If only that were true. Reality proves the opposite. Along with the closures of more than 100 media outlets, a wide-scale clampdown on Kurdish and leftist media is underway. Outlets deemed too critical of government policies have come under post-coup pressure.
Late Tuesday, pro-Kurdish IMC TV reported that the official twitter accounts of three major pro-Kurdish news sources — the daily newspaper Özgür Gündem and news agencies DIHA and ANF — were banned. Some Kurdish colleagues interpret the sanctions as part of an upcoming security operation in the southeastern provinces of Diyarbakır and Şırnak.
What I see is a new pattern: in the past three-to-four days, many Twitter accounts of critical outlets and individual journalists have been silenced. An “agreement” appears to have been reached between Ankara and Twitter, but no explanation has yet been given.
For days now, many people have been kept wondering about the case of Hacer Korucu. Her husband, Bülent Korucu, former chief editor of weekly Aksiyon and daily Yarına Bakış, is sought by police after an arrest order issued on him about “aiding and abetting terror organisation”, among other accusations. She was arrested nine days ago as police had told the family that “she would be kept until the husband shows up”.
Hacer Korucu’s case, without a doubt, shows how arbitrary law enforcement has become in Turkey. As a result no citizen can feel safe any longer.
“She is a mother of five,” was the outcry of Rebecca Harms, German MEP. “A crime to be married to a journalist?”
How do we now expect an honest Turkish or Kurdish journalist to answer this question? By any measure of decency, the snapshot of Turkey in the post-putsch days leaves little suspicion: emergency rule gives a free reign to authorities who feel empowered to block journalists from covering the epicenter of any democratic activity — parliament — and let relatives of journalists suffer.
Meanwhile, we are told on a daily basis that democracy was saved from catastrophe on that dreadful July evening and it needs to be cherished.
“Turkish police have cancelled all the journalists’ passports since July 15.”
This tweet landed in my timeline on Monday morning. The author was Selina Doğan, an opposition deputy and a lawyer.
Doğan, who belongs to Istanbul’s Armenian community, tweeted a follow-up on the case of my colleague, Hayko Bağdat, whose passport was seized at the border as he returned to Turkey.
I spoke to Doğan about the situation. She and her husband, lawyer Erdal Doğan, had insisted on knowing what really is going on with what they see as arbitrary restrictions on freedom of movement. She told me that “as a precaution” an unknown number of journalists’ passports were “cancelled”. A police officer told her that according to a government decree the police had to seize travel documents before sorting out who is under legal inquiry. Anyone “suspected” would have their travel documents taken away. “It is even more bizarre now,” she told me. “Each and every person is a priori suspect, and has to prove their innocence, instead of vice versa.”
Soon after my chat, another tweet: this time it was Eren Keskin, a well-known Kurdish columnist and lawyer, who is also co-editor in chief of pro-Kurdish daily, Özgür Gündem. “Everybody under the legal inquiry under Anti-Terror Law should check,” she wrote. “Thousands of passes cancelled. I had already a ban on travel abroad, now my pass cancelled. Thanks Turkey, I am a fan of your democracy :).”
What about a journalist who is now charged with lifetime imprisonment stemming from a single news report? Şermin Soydan, a Kurdish reporter, is just such a case. Soydan, who is with the pro-Kurdish DIHA news agency, was arrested 14 May for a story she wrote titled The Secret Document on Operation to Gever, which details the security operations in Yüksekova, in Hakkari province. The 21-page indictment, calling her story “so-called news”, now accuses her of “obtaining state secrets on security”, “jeopardising security forces’ abilities to combat”, “membership of a terrorist organisation” and “aiding and abetting a terror group”.
Out of 77 journalists affiliated with DİHA in total, 13 are in jail.
Meanwhile, the discontent of the opposition parties with the government’s emergency rule decrees is growing. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has issued three very restrictive decrees and, according to the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), is blocking debates in parliament. The Turkish constitution spells out that under emergency rule decrees must be debated by parliament within 30 days of the issue. Some sources from the CHP told daily Cumhuriyet that they see clear signs from the AKP that it will call for a long recess of parliament, and, at best, a debate will take place in early October.
Given the militant language used by the AKP in Sunday’s mass rally in Istanbul and the growing concerns over the legislative body being paralysed, there is strong reason to remain skeptical about the sequences of events in Turkey.
Click on the dots for more information on the incidents.
Each week, Index on Censorship’s Mapping Media Freedom project verifies threats, violations and limitations faced by the media throughout the European Union and neighbouring countries. Here are five recent reports that give us cause for concern.
The piece was published on 1 July in the news section of the Telegraph but was subsequently taken down from the website. It was entitled “Theresa May is a great self-promoter but a terrible Home Secretary”.
“Daily Telegraph pulled my comment piece on Theresa May ministerial record after contact from her people #censorship”, journalist Jonathan Foreman tweeted on 2 July.
In addition, the statement said the NGO is running “political activities” because the newspaper is covering political issues.
Independent regional Pskovskaya Gubernia became well-known after a series of articles revealing Russian casualties in eastern Ukraine in the beginning of the Donbass conflict in the summer of 2014.
Azerbaijan: Editor sentenced to three months in jail for extortion
1 July 2016: Fikrat Faramazoglu, editor-in-chief of jam.az, a website that documents cases and arrests related to the ministry of national security, was arrested last Friday. He has been given a three-month sentence after being accused of extorting money by threats.
Faramazoglu’s wife said a group of three unidentified men showed up at their home, confiscating his laptop. Documents and even CDs from his children’s weddings were confiscated without any warrant. The three men informed Faramazoglu’s wife that her husband had been arrested.
Russia: Police detains Meduza freelancer covering death of children in Karelia
30 June 2016: Police detained Danil Alexandrov, a freelance journalist for Meduza news website working in Republic of Karelia reporting on the death of 14 children in a boating accident on Syamozero Lake. He was accused of working “without a license“.
“They hinted that it might be necessary to confiscate ‘evidence of my journalistic activities’,” Alexandrov told Meduza, adding that the police insisted the publication was a foreign media outlet and had to be accredited by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The Foreign Ministry’s rules on accreditation discuss full-time staff members of foreign media outlets but do not comment on freelancers. Alexandrov’s court case is scheduled for 6 July. He faces a maximum penalty of 1,000 rubles (€14) for working “without a license”.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks at a rally in Istanbul, 20 September 2015. Credit: Orlok / Shutterstock
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.
Article 1 Freedom of the press is essential to a democratic society. To uphold and protect it, and to respect its diversity and its political, social and cultural missions, is the mandate of all governments.
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.
Article 2 Censorship is impermissible. Independent journalism in all media is free of persecution and repression, without a guarantee of political or regulatory interference by government. Press and online media shall not be subject to state licensing.
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.
Article 3 The right of journalists and media to gather and disseminate information and opinions must not be threatened, restricted or made subject to punishment.
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.
Article 4 The protection of journalistic sources shall be strictly upheld. Surveillance of, electronic eavesdropping on or searches of newsrooms, private rooms or journalists’ computers with the aim of identifying sources of information or infringing on editorial confidentiality are unacceptable.
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.
Article 5 All states must ensure that the media have the full protection of the law and the authorities while carrying out their role. This applies in particular to defending journalists and their employees from harassment and/or physical attack. Threats to or violations of these rights must be carefully investigated and punished by the judiciary.
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.
Article 6 The economic livelihood of the media must not be endangered by the state or by state-controlled institutions. The threat of economic sanctions is also unacceptable. Private-sector companies must respect the journalistic freedom of the media. They shall neither exert pressure on journalistic content nor attempt to mix commercial content with journalistic content.
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.
Article 7 State or state-controlled institutions shall not hinder the freedom of access of the media and journalists to information. They have a duty to support them in their mandate to provide information.
Article 8 Media and journalists have a right to unimpeded access to all news and information sources, including those from abroad. For their reporting, foreign journalists should be provided with visas, accreditation and other required documents without delay.
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.
Article 9 The public of any state shall be granted free access to all national and foreign media and sources of information.
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.
Article 10 The government shall not restrict entry into the profession of journalism.
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.