Yavuz Baydar: A noble profession has turned into a curse

From left, Ahmet Nesin (journalist and author), Şebnem Korur Fincancı (President of Turkey Human Rights Foundation) and Erol Önderoğlu (journalist at Bianet and RSF Turkey correspondent). (Photo: © Bianet)

From left, Ahmet Nesin (journalist and author), Şebnem Korur Fincancı (President of Turkey Human Rights Foundation) and Erol Önderoğlu (journalist at Bianet and RSF Turkey correspondent). (Photo: © Bianet)

I have known Erol Önderoğlu for ages. This gentle soul has been monitoring the ever-volatile state of Turkish journalism more regularly than anybody else. His memory, as the national representative of the Reporters Without Borders, has been a prime source of reference for what we ought to know about the state of media freedom and independence.

On 20 June, perhaps not so surprisingly, we all witnessed Erol being sent to pre-trial detention, taken out of the courtroom in Istanbul in handcuffs.

Charge? “Terrorist propaganda.” Why? Erol was subjected to a legal investigation together with two prominent intellectuals, author Ahmet Nesin, and Prof Şebnem Korur Fincanci – who is the chairwoman of the Turkish Human Rights Foundation – because they had joined a so-called solidarity vigil, as an “editor for a day”, at the pro-Kurdish Özgür Gündem daily, which has has been under immense pressure lately.

This vigil had assembled, since 3 May, more than 40 intellectuals, 37 of whom have now been probed for the same charges. One can now only imagine the magnitude of a crackdown underway if the courts copy-paste detention decisions to all of them, which is not that unlikely.

Journalism has, without the slightest doubt, become the most risky and endangered profession in Turkey. Journalism is essential to any democracy. It’s demise will mean the end of democracy. 

Turkey is now a country — paradoxically a negotiating partner with the EU on membership — where journalism is criminalised, where its exercise equates to taking a walk on a legal, political and social minefield.

“May God bless the hands of all those who beat these so-called journalists” tweeted Sait Turgut, a top local figure of AKP in  Midyat,  where a bomb attack on 8 June by the PKK had claimed 5 lives and left more than 50 people wounded.

Three journalists – Hatice Kamer, Mahmut Bozarslan and Sertaç Kayar – had come to town to cover the event.  Soon they had found themselves surrounded by a mob and barely survived a lynch attempt.

Most recently, Can Erzincan TV, a liberal-independent channel with tiny financial resources but a strong critical content, was told by the board of TurkSat that it will be dropped from the service due to “terrorist propaganda”. Why? Because some of the commentators, who are allowed to express their opinions, are perceived as affiliated with the Gülen Movement, which has been declared a terrorist organisation by president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

It is commonplace for AKP officials from top down demonise journalists this way. Harrassment, censorship, criminal charges and arrests are now routine.

Detention of the three top human rights figures, the event in Midyat or the case of Can Erzincan TV are only snapshots of an ongoing oppression mainly aimed at exterminating the fourth estate as we know it. According to Mapping Media Freedom, there have been over 60 verified violations of press freedom since 1 January 2016. 

The lethal cycle to our profession approaches its completion.

While journalists in Turkey – be they Turkish, Kurdish or foreign – feel less and less secure, the absence of truthful, accurate, critical reporting has become a norm. Covering stories such as the ”Panama Papers” leak — which includes hundreds of Turkish business people, many of whom have ties with the AKP government — or the emerging corruption case of Reza Zarrab — an Iranian businessman who was closely connected with the top echelons of the AKP — seems unthinkable due to dense self-censorship.

Demonisation of the Kurdish Political Movement and the restrictions in the south eastern region has made it an extreme challenge to report objectively on the tragic events unfolding in the mainly Kurdish provinces which have forced, according to Amnesty International, around 500,000 to leave their homes.

Journalism in Turkey now means being compromised in the newsrooms, facing jail sentences for reportage or commentary, living under constant threat of being fired, operating under threats and harassment. A noble profession has turned into a curse.

In the case of Turkey, fewer and fewer people are left with any doubt about the concentration of power. It’s in the hands of a single person who claims supremacy before all state institutions. The state of its media is now one without any editorial independence and diversity of thought. 

President Erdoğan, copying like-minded leaders such as Fujimori, Chavez, Maduro, Aliyev and, especially, Putin, did actually much better than those.

His dismay with critical journalism surfaced fully from 2010 on, when he was left unchecked at the top of his party, alienating other founding fathers like Abdullah Gül, Ali Babacan and others who did not have an issue with a diverse press.

Soon it turned into contempt, hatred, grudge and revenge.

He obviously thought that a series of election victories gave him legitimacy to launch a full-scale power grab that necessitated capturing control of the large-scale media outlets.

His multi-layered media strategy began with Gezi Park protests in 2013 and fully exposed his autocratic intentions.

While his loyal media groups helped polarise the society, Erdoğan stiffly micro-managed the media moguls with a non-AKP background — whose existence depended on lucrative public contracts — to exert constant self-censorship in their news outlets, which due to their greed they willingly did.  

This pattern proved to be successful. Newsrooms abandoned all critical content. What’s more, sackings and removals of dignified journalists peaked en masse, amounting now to approximately 4,000.

By the end of 2014, Erdoğan had conquered the bulk of the critical media.

Since 2015 there has been more drama. The attacks against the remaining part of the critical media escalated in three ways: intimidation, seizure and pressure of pro-Kurdish outlets.

Doğan group, the largest in the sector, was intimidated by pro-AKP vandalism last summer and brought to its knees by legal processes on alleged “organized crime” charges involving its boss.

As a result the journalism sector has had its teeth pulled out.

Meanwhile, police raided and seized the critical and influential Koza-Ipek and Zaman media groups, within the last 8 months, terminating some of its outlets, turning some others pro-government overnight and, after appointing trustees, firing more than 1,500 journalists.

Kurdish media, at the same time, became a prime target as the conflict grew and more and more Kurdish journalists found themselves in jail.

With up to 90% of a genetically modified media directly or indirectly under the control Erdoğan and in service of his drive for more power, decent journalism is left to a couple of minor TV channels and a handful newspapers with extremely low circulations.

With 32 journalists in prison and its fall in international press freedom indexes continuing to new all-time lows, Turkey’s public has been stripped of its right to know and cut off from its right to debate.

Journalism gagged means not only an end to the country’s democratic transition, but also all bridges of communication with its allies collapsing into darkness.

A version of this article originally appeared in Süddeutsche Zeitung. It is posted here with the permission of the author. 

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

Turkey arrests journalists who showed support for press freedom

UPDATE: 30 June, Erol Onderoglu and Şebnem Korur have been released from prison.

Index on Censorship calls for the immediate and unconditional release of journalists Şebnem Korur Fincancı, Erol Önderoğlu and Ahmet Nesin, who were arrested by Turkish authorities on 20 June.

“These individuals have committed no crime. Their transgression was to exercise freedom of speech to show their support for a free and pluralistic media. It shows the depths to which Turkey’s authorities have sunk to silence any and all narratives that differ with the government’s,” Melody Patry, senior advocacy officer for Index, said.

In May, Turkish authorities began investigations for “terrorist propaganda” against journalists that participated in a solidarity campaign with the Kurdish daily newspaper Özgür Gündem. The campaign, which involved editors-in-chief, was launched on 3 May 2016 — World Press Freedom Day. On 25 May, Önderoglu – a representative for Reporters Without Borders and member of the governing council of international free expression group IFEX, as well as a correspondent for Bianet – was added to the list under investigation. Korur Fincancı is president of Human Rights Foundation of Turkey (HRFT) and acting as editor-in-chief ad interim of Özgür Gündem. Nesin is a journalist and author.

Index reiterates its call for Turkey to review its terrorism legislation and to end the abusive practice of prosecuting journalists under anti-terror laws.

Press freedom in Turkey has rapidly declined in the last six months with over 60 verified incidents reported to Index’s project Mapping Media Freedom. Since 1 January 2016, three journalists have been killed, with attempts made on the lives of two others.  Mapping Media Freedom has recorded 31 incidents of arrest and detention since the start of 2016.

Yavuz Baydar: “Judicial coup” sends clear warning to Turkey’s remaining independent journalists

Turkey's president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, during a state visit to Ecuador in February 2016. (Photo: Cancillería del Ecuador via flickr

Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, during a state visit to Ecuador in February 2016. (Photo: Cancillería del Ecuador via flickr)

Nothing could illustrate the course of developments in Turkey better than the case of prosecutor Murat Aydın.

In what was described as a “judicial coup” in critical media, Aydin was one of 3,746 judges and prosecutors, who were reassigned in recent days, an unprecedented move that has shaken the basis of the justice system. Some were demoted by being sent into internal “exile”, some were promoted.

According to daily Cumhuriyet, his pro-freedom stance landed him in the former group.

Aydin’s transgression was to challenge the Turkish Penal Code’s Article 299 — the basis of “insulting the president” cases — in the country’s constitutional court. He argued that Article 299 was unconstitutional and conflicted with the European Convention on Human Rights. He had asked the top court to void the article.

After the reshuffle, he was told he would now be handling cases in Trabzon on the Black Sea coast, clear across the country from İzmir on the Aegean, where he had been working.

“I was exiled because of the decisions I have made and my expressed views,” he told Cumhuriyet. ”The worst part is, there is no authority any longer where we seek these type of sanctions to be checked, where we can challenge unjust acts.”

Meanwhile, another prosecutor, Cevat İslek, who made his name  filing charges against journalists on the basis of “insulting the president” was promoted, Cumhuriyet noted, to the position as the deputy chief prosecutor in Ankara.

One wonders how such transfers are perceived by the public. Do Turks notice that the how the president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and his AKP government are seizing control over the domain of expression through the imposition of large-scale punitive measures? Do they notice that this is taking place in defiance of the constitution, which defines the office of the president as being “impartial”?

The accelerated authoritarianism in Turkey — chiefly targeting media, academia and civil dissent — leaves nothing to chance. Though the media sector and its professionals remain top of the list for the president’s persecution, those who are seen as instrumental in filing and judging the court cases against them are also targets.

The issue has raised the alarm levels to new heights. In a recent report a global body of legal experts issued an “orange level” of concern on the state of the judiciary in Turkey, warning, after scrutinising the rising problems, that it is falling into total subordination of the executive.

”The ICJ remains concerned that transfers are being applied as a hidden form of disciplinary sanction and as a means to marginalize judges and prosecutors seen as unsupportive of government interests or objectives,” the Geneva-based International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) wrote in its report, Turkey: the Judicial System in Peril, which was prepared after a long series of talks with anonymous judges and prosecutors, among others.

“Many of those with whom the mission met noted that there are now unprecedented levels of pressure, division, distrust and fear in the Turkish judiciary. There are alarming signs that this has already led to manipulation of the judicial system on political grounds, including to target government opponents or to criminalize and prosecute criticism of the government. Of particular concern, is the high number of prosecutions for offences restricting freedom of expression, in particular for the offence of ‘insulting the president’.”

With the backbone of justice highly infected by partisanship, a “total eclipse” is looming and it becomes much easier to grasp the magnitude of oppression. “Insulting” cases may have risen above 2,000 since last year, but what is happening today is a multifaceted assault on freedom of speech and journalism as a whole.

Media monitoring organisations – Platform for Independent Journalism, Reporters Without Borders and Turkish Trade Union of Journalists – estimate that, now, the portion of media under direct and/or indirect control of the presidential palace and the AKP, is around 90%. This is corroborated by Mapping Media Freedom, which has recorded the litany of cuts against journalism.

The remnant segment of independent journalism operates, under great legal and financial strain, with dailies such as secular Cumhuriyet, liberal Özgür Düşünce, leftist Birgün and Evrensel, and Kurdish Özgür Gündem. On the TV side, the “capture” is even more severe: there are only three channels — Kurdish IMC TV, liberal CanErzincan and secular Halk TV — airing critical content.

But even such a weakened media segment seems to worry the authorities. The most recent meeting of the National Security Council, a powerful body symbolising state authority, ended with the endorsement that the battle against what the AKP sees as the “domestic enemies”, namely the Kurdish Political Movement and what Erdoğan depicts as “parallel structure” Gülenists, will be escalated.

Everybody knows what this refreshed announcement means: the remaining independent outlets will be criminalised by any means necessary. The latest developments indicate that the special office of prosecution on crimes against the constitution is preparing to launch inquiries against a number of outlets, chiefly targeting the Kurdish media. In other words, further closures may be expected to appear on the government’s agenda.

Along with the systematic arrests of more than 12 reporters of Dicle News Agency, which is almost the only source of news on what takes place during “scorched earth” operations in the mainly Kurdish southeastern provinces, the strongest sign on the media clampdown is the legal investigation filed against more than 15 well-known journalists — most of them non-Kurdish — who took part in an act of solidarity, “Chief Editors Vigil”, with the pro-Kurdish daily, Özgür Gündem.

The journalists are expected to be charged with “terrorist propaganda” under Turkey’s anti-terror law, which Erdoğan and the AKP government refuses to revise despite EU demands – a key criteria for visa liberalisation for Turkish citizens.

Nothing, it seems, will suffice to alter the authoritarian course Turkey has been taking and the price journalists and peaceful dissidents are forced to pay rises geometrically.

But nothing seems to stop the tiny-but-tough core of resistant journalists who continue to confront the Orwellian state as it consolidates itself under the nose of the pro-government and subservient media.

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