Mapping Media Freedom: A disastrous week for Turkish journalism

Words by Ianka Bhatia and Henrik Choy

Turkey has faced severe turmoil since last Friday’s attempted military coup. While it was ultimately thwarted, 290 people were left dead as of 18 July with many more injured. In response, the government has since cracked down on dissent and suspended the European Convention on Human Rights, with more than 50,000 people rounded up, sacked or suspended from their jobs.

In addition, the country has seen an increase in violations against media workers, with journalists murdered, held hostage, arrested and physically attacked, as well as having equipment confiscated or destroyed. These violations have raised concerns from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, whose representative on freedom of the media, Dunja Mijatović, has said: “Fully recognising the difficult times that Turkey is going through, the authorities need to ensure media freedom offline and online in line with their international commitments.”

Worries over these freedoms have only increased since President Erdogan announced on Wednesday that Turkey would be in a state of emergency for the next three months, enabling the government to initiate arrests and investigations in response to the failed coup. 

Here are five reports from Index on Censorship’s Mapping Media Freedom project that give us most cause for concern.

Journalist killed by pro-coup soldiers

15 July, 2016: Mustafa Cambaz, a photojournalist for the pro-government newspaper Yeni Safak, was shot and killed by soldiers during the failed coup attempt. Earlier that day, he had tweeted: “We are taking the streets following our commander-in-chief Erdogan’s call and order”. The Committee to Protect Journalists was quick to condemn the attack, with the Europe and Central Asia Program coordinator Nina Ognianova calling on “Turkish authorities to punish those responsible for killing Mustafa Cambaz to the full extent of the law”.

Military raids TV channels

15 July, 2016: Renegade members of the Turkish military seized control of several media outlets and studios throughout Turkey, taking hostages and disrupting broadcasts. In Istanbul, soldiers gained control over the Dogan Media Center, which contains multiple news outlets including Hurriyet newspaper, the English-language Hurriyet Daily News and television stations CNN Turk and Kanal D.

Hostages were also taken in Ankara, where a news anchor for state broadcaster Turkish Radio and Television was forced to read a televised statement announcing the coup attempt at gunpoint. All hostages were eventually released and broadcasting resumed as normal by the morning of 16 July.

Regulatory body blocks access to news websites

17 July: Turkey’s telecommunications regulatory body, TIB, blocked access to five websites including media outlets Gazetport, Haberdar, Medyascope, ABC Gazetesi, and Can Erzincan TV. Twenty more were blocked two days later following approval from a judge.

Release of list of journalists to be detained

18 July: A pro-government Twitter user released a list of journalists who were accused of involvement in the coup and therefore subject to arrest. Journalists from both state and privately run media outlets were included on the list, which was circulated via social media at a time when public authority figures began to take measures to shut down websites that were critical of the government.

Accreditation of 34 journalists taken away

19 July: At least 34 journalists had their press credentials revoked in the aftermath of the coup. The decertifications impacted journalists from a variety of media outlets, including the daily newspaper Meydan, the liberal Taraf, Nokta magazine and Irmak TV. The Directorate General of Press and Information of Turkey stated the decertifications were done for the sake of national security in the aftermath of the coup.  

Mapping Media Freedom logged a number of threats to press freedom from Turkey over the past seven days. Here are the rest of the reports:

15 July: One hour after the first reports of the coup attempt, social media sites, including Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube, were blocked. Access was eventually restored.

15 July:  A photographer for Hurriyet, Selcuk Samiloglu, was physically attacked by a group of men while attempting to cover clashes on the Bosphorus Bridge.

15 July: CNN Turk cameraman Ahmet Akpolat was restrained by the neck and verbally threatened by military personnel when he refused to comply with a demand to hand over a tape during a raid of the Dogan TV building in Istanbul. His camera was broken.

15 July: Three CNN Turk reporters — Goksel Goksu, Fulya Ozturk and cameraman Onur Ozel  were beaten and their equipment damaged when they tried to film developments in Taksim Square.

18 July: Several Turkish TV channels, including Halk TV, IMC TV and Hayatin Sesi TV, were temporarily blocked.

19 July: The office of Istanbul newspaper Gazetem Istanbul was vandalised by several dozen men claiming the publication had supported the failed coup.

19 July: Valentin Trushnin, a reporter for Russian TV channel REN, was revealed to be on Turkey’s “banned foreigners list” when he was taken into custody at Ataturk Airport.   

19 July: Turkish Radio and Television Supreme Council canceled broadcasting licenses for 24 TV channels and radio stations due to their alleged ties to the Gülen movement.

20 July: Local police barred LeMan, a satirical Turkish magazine, from printing and distributing its newest issue, a special edition on the failed coup.

20 July: Access to Wikileaks was blocked after it released 30,000 emails from President Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP).

20 July: The office of Meydan was searched and editor-in-chief Levent Kenez and editorial manager Gulizar Baki were arrested. They have since been released. 

21 July: Ozgur Dusunce (Free Thought) newspaper columnist Orhan Kemal Cengiz and his wife Sibel Hurtas were arrested upon arrival at Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport. Hurtas has since been released.

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

Yavuz Baydar: Imminent collapse of journalism in Turkey

Prague, Czech Republic. 4th February 2013 -- Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan gestures during a press conference with Czech Prime Minister Petr Necas (not pictured) at government headquarters in Prague. -- Prime Minister of Czech republic Petr Neas has expressed support for Turkeys bid to join the EU, in a visit by the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan.

February 4, 2013. Recep Tayyip Erdogan during a press conference in Prague.

With conditions worsening on a daily basis, Turkey now risks total blackout on public debate.

Punitive measures and harsh restrictions have diminished the domain for free and independent journalism, and media pluralism is showing strong signs of total collapse.

As Index on Censorship’s Mapping Media Freedom project highlights in its latest quarterly report, the country experienced a large number of media freedom violations.  

“Over half of the arrests [in the first quarter of 2016] occurred in Turkey when journalists were reporting on violence or protests in the country,” the report said. “The data indicates a pattern where arrests are launched on terror charges or taking place during anti-terror operations.”

In its latest World Press Freedom Index, scrutinising media in 180 countries, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) ranked Turkey as #151, marking yet another fall, this time by two positions.

“President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has embarked on an offensive against Turkey’s media. Journalists are harassed, many have been accused of ‘insulting the president’ and the internet is systematically censored,” RSF said in its findings.

The decline was even more dramatic in the annual Freedom of the Press 2016 survey by Freedom House. Its survey over the past year marked a fall by six points, placing Turkey as 156th among 199 countries, again among those as “not free”.

The government, controlled by Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), aggressively used the penal code, criminal defamation legislation, and the country’s antiterrorism law to punish critical reporting, and journalists faced growing violence, harassment, and intimidation from both state and non-state actors during the year. The authorities continued to use financial and administrative leverage over media owners to influence coverage and silence dissent,” it concluded.

This downfall is unprecedented in intensity. The country’s remnant core of brave, free and independent journalists, regardless of their political views, now agree that free journalism will soon cease to exist in Turkey. With full-frontal attacks on the media, the sector may become subservient to the political and bureaucratic power, with content rife with stenography and propaganda.

Legal inquiries and charges against journalists are continually on the rise. According to the ministry of justice, the number of “insulting the president” cases passed 1,800 since mid-2014.

In other cases, such as the charges brought against Cumhuriyet daily, its editors Can Dündar and Erdem Gül are accused of spying and treason, for printing news stories about lorries carrying weapons, allegedly to Syrian jihadist groups, by the government’s orders.

In another notorious case, investigative journalist Mehmet Baransu has been detained for over 13 months over his inquiries into the alleged abuses of power within the military.

In a fresh case, two senior journalists from Cumhuriyet, Ceyda Karan and Hikmet Çetinkaya, were sentenced to two years each in prison for “inciting hatred”. Their “crime” was to reprint the Charlie Hebdo front page cartoon in their column, which they said was an act of professional solidarity.

According to Bianet, a monitoring site, there are now 28 journalists in Turkish prisons, many of whom are affiliated with the Kurdish media, based on charges brought under anti-terror laws.

The draconian nature of charges and prison sentences leave little doubt about AKP government’s intent to criminalise journalism as a whole.

Punitive measures against journalism go far beyond court cases. The most efficient method has proven to be firing journalists who insist on exercising basic standards of the profession.

Since mid-2013, following Gezi Park protests, 3,500 journalists have lost their jobs. Media moguls have come under increasing pressure from the government, which demands action or threatens to cancel lucrative public contracts. Taking advantage of the low influence of trade unions (fewer than 4% of journalists are members), employers axe staff arbitrarily. 

As a result of this widespread exercise in conglomerate-dominated “mainstream media”, with newsrooms turned into “open-air prisons”, self-censorship in Turkey has become a deeply rooted culture. Blacklists have been drawn up of TV pundits and columnists in the press, who are known for critical stands, no matter their political leaning.

What apparently weighed heavy in the gloomy figures by Index on Censorship, RSF and FH is the fact that, from early last year, authorities started also targeting large, private media institutions, known for critical journalism.

Hürriyet, an influential newspaper belonging to Doğan Media was attacked by a mob two nights in a row last summer, after which its owners felt they had to “tone down” critical content.

In even more dramatic cases, Koza-Ipek Media outlets were raided by the police last autumn, followed some months later by a similar large-scale operation against Zaman Media, second largest group in the sector, and the largest independent news agency, CHA.

These seizures, along with some other critical channels yanked off satellite and digital platforms in recent months, left a huge vacuum, threatening to terminate the diversity of the media.

Now, with around 90% of the sector under direct or indirect editorial control of the AKP government, including the state broadcaster TRT, there are only three critical TV channels and no more than five small-scale independent newspapers left.

As a result of these assaults, two things are apparent: firstly, investigative journalism is blocked and news is severely filtered; secondly, with diversity fading out, public debate, a key aspect of any democracy, is severely limited.

Along with routine bans on reporting on specific events such as terror attacks, severe accreditation restrictions and a newly emerging pattern of deporting international media correspondents, the conclusion is inevitable.

A profession faces extinction and along with its exit, and a thick wall between the truth and the public, both domestic and international, is emerging. This total collapse will have far deeper consequences than anyone can imagine.

Turkey Uncensored is an Index on Censorship project to publish a series of articles from censored Turkish writers, artists and translators.

Turkey: PM Erdogan files lawsuit against Hürriyet

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has filed a €50,000 lawsuit against the newspaper Hürriyet and its editor-in-chief, Oktay Eksi. On 28 October, the newspaper ran a column entitled: “We have not been as critical as we should have been”, referring to the critical stance the media outlet had taken regarding the government policies on the construction of Hydroelectric Power Plants in the Ikizdere Valley, in the Eastern Black Sea region. After the article’s publication, Eksi issued a short note of apology and resigned as editor-in-chief of the newspaper.

Turkish journalists face jail for photographing Colonel

Hürriyet newspaper journalist Nurettin Kurt and editorial manager Hasan Kılıç face between one and three years imprisonment for publishing photographs of Colonel E.Y.B. The photographs were taken during the ongoing investigation into the alleged plot to assassinate Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç. Kurt and Kılıç have been charged under Anti-Terror Laws for “identifying officials on anti-terrorist duties as targets of terror organizations”. The court has not yet stated which terror organisations Kurt and Kılıç supposedly identified as targeting the Colonel.