Turkey: A long line of press freedom violations

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.

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.

  • 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. 

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.

Sign Index on end Turkey’s crackdown on press freedom.


Verified incidents against the media and journalists reported to Mapping Media Freedom between May 2014 and 9 March 2016:

March 2016

February 2016

January 2016

December 2015

November 2015

October 2015

September 2015

August 2015

July 2015

June 2015

May 2015

April 2015

March 2015

February 2015

January 2015

December 2014

November 2014

October 2014

September 2014

August 2014

July 2014

June 2014

May 2014

Turkey: War on journalists rages on

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (Photo: Philip Janek / Demotix)

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (Photo: Philip Janek / Demotix)

The ongoing deterioration in Turkey’s press freedom has been well documented by Index on Censorship’s Mapping Media Freedom project since its launch in 2014. The crackdown appears to be getting worse, according to a new report by Amnesty International this month. It states that the “human rights situation deteriorated markedly” in Turkey in 2015, as did respect for freedom of expression, including criminal detention though anti-terror laws and the targeting of anyone critical of government policy.

Despite the welcome release of Cumhuriyet journalists Can Dündar and Erdem Gül on 26 February, the situation for media freedom looks uncertain. Here are some of the most worrying reports from February.

Journalists killed

In total, Mapping Media Freedom has recorded the deaths of 15 journalists since July 2014. Seven of these deaths have occurred in Turkey, two of those in this year alone. Gülsen Yıldız, a journalist working in Ankara for Tarim TV, was killed on 18 February. She was among 28 people who died during a terrorist attack on passing military vehicles in the capital.

Source: Index on Censorship / Mapping Media Freedom

Later in February, the discovery of a body, later identified as journalist Rohat Aktaş, in the southeastern town of Cizre. Aktaş had been shot in the arm in late January while covering efforts to help those wounded during clashes between Kurdish separatists and Turkish forces.

On 24 February, Dicle-Haber reported that Aktaş’ body was identified by DNA tests carried out by the forensic authority. “Scores” of people are reported to have been killed in Cizre following a raid by security services on buildings they say harboured Kurdish separatist fighters. The exact details of Aktaş’ death are currently unknown.

Journalists detained on anti-terror charges

This year began on a somewhat positive note with the 5 January release of VICE News journalist Mohammed Ismael Rasool. Rasool, an Iraqi Kurdish reporter, had been detained since 27 August 2015 while reporting in the country’s southeast and charged with working for a terrorist organisation.

On 11 February, Nazım Daştan, a journalist for Dicle News Agency (DİHA), which reports in Kurdish, was arrested in Gaziantep on charges of spreading online propaganda for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which the Turkish state lists as a terrorist group. On the next day, he was brought to testify in court and then taken to jail.

On the same date, Feyyaz İmrak, also journalist for Dicle News Agency (DİHA), was arrested along with 16 others on charges of being members of the PKK. Police searched his home and confiscated his reporting equipment and notes.

İmrak appeared before a criminal court 15 February to hear the charges against him, and is currently being held at Antalya Prison, pending trial.

Journalists denied access

For any journalist, access to sources is essential for their ability to carry out their duties. The denial of access is a major problem for journalists in Turkey, something foreign journalists know all too well.

On 9 February, Turkish authorities rejected a permanent press accreditation application filed by Silje Rønning Kampesæter, a correspondent for Norway’s Aftenposten. The press accreditation application also affects her residence permit in Turkey. No reason was given for the rejection.

The authorities also detained Claus Blok Thomsen, a Danish journalist working for Denmark’s daily newspaper Politiken, at the Istanbul airport, barring him from entering the country. The journalist was seeking access to report on refugees at the Turkish-Syrian border.

When Thomsen identified himself as a journalist, police forced him to open his phone and computer, undermining the confidentiality of his sources. He was then detained in a cell overnight and put on a plane to Copenhagen the next day. He was reportedly told to not try re-entering Turkey.

Also see:
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

This article was originally published at Index on Censorship.

Mapping Media Freedom

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