The Ethical Journalism Network has called on Turkey to make an urgent return to democracy and press freedom.
At a meeting of more than 30 senior lawyers, media leaders and civil society groups held in the capital Ankara this week, EJN Director Aidan White said that the crackdown on dissident voices in journalism after the attempted coup in July was a step in the wrong direction.
“This is not the time for propaganda and intolerance,” he said, referring to 134 media closures and the recent detention of more than 100 journalists. “This is precisely the moment when Turkey most needs media pluralism and democracy.”
The meeting, organised by the Council of Europe and the European Union with the Justice Academy of Turkey, was the latest in a series of events aimed at strengthening the capacity of the judiciary on freedom of expression. It was the first international meeting to be held since the attempted coup on July 15 which triggered a state of emergency and a nationwide purge of people and institutions with alleged links to the Gulen movement which the government says was responsible for the coup.
It is one of two initiatives supported by the European Union which aim to strengthen democracy, the rule of law and media freedom in a country still suffering the aftershocks of the short-lived military uprising.
The EJN, said White, is working with UNESCO and media professional groups on another project to strengthen journalism, self-regulation, good governance in media management and to build trust in media across the Western Balkans and Turkey.
“These are not idealistic notions,” he said. “Structures are already in place and the EJN is working with international and local partners on practical work to build trust.”
He said that although the state of emergency in Turkey provided an enormous challenge, the media crisis was not new. “We should recognise also that media freedom in Turkey has declined at an alarming rate in recent years,” he said.
He pointed to aggressive use of the penal code, criminal defamation legislation, and the country’s anti-terrorism law in order to intimidate critical and independent media voices. Journalists have faced growing violence, harassment, and intimidation from both state and non-state actors over the past two years. He noted information from the Press Council that there are an astonishing 1845 law suits pending in the courts over alleged defamation of the country’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
“Even before the current emergency,” he said, “press freedom in Turkey had descended into a twilight world of political pressure, self-censorship and low levels of professionalism.”
He said that the answer to this crisis is to raise awareness, including among politicians at the highest level, of the need to support democracy and independent journalism. More actions to promote dialogue within journalism and within society about the importance of press freedom were also vital.
“Free expression and a professional media system are not added luxuries in our way of life,” he said. “They are cornerstones of democracy, vital to exposing corruption in public life, and the only way to ensure people are informed, tolerant and confident of their ability to play a role in democratic society.”
White gave the meeting a briefing on ethics, the current global media crisis and why journalists must be granted the professional space to make editorial choices freely without interference. He called for practical actions to support journalism and highlighted the EJN’s 5-point test for hate speech and the recently-launched guidelines on migration reporting as examples of editorial tools which aim to help journalists do their job more effectively.
At the same time he called for the promotion of value-based communications in public life. He noted that political rhetoric is increasingly fact-free and designed to generate emotional heat rather than rational and critical thinking in the public mind.
The public debate on migration, for example, has been hijacked in many parts of Europe by politicians and governments who exploit the legitimate fears and uncertainties of host communities in reception countries, creating a climate in which xenophobia, racism and Islamaphobia flourish.
In countries like Turkey, Russia and Hungary there are signs of a new authoritarianism in politics, he warned, which is leading to new threats to press freedom. Even in democratic countries — he quoted the examples of the Brexit debate in the United Kingdom and the combative language of Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump – there is a troubling disregard for ethical communications in political speech.
Therefore, he said, promoting responsible communications was not just a way of combating online abuse, propaganda and hate speech, it was an essential part of defending free expression.