Turkey is a major media player. It boasts 300-odd private television stations as well as a national public network. There are around 1,000 private radio stations and as many as 50 daily newspapers serving a national market. It’s also a country where strong opinions are held and heard as the political pendulum swings between progressive and reform minded movements and the more narrow, insular and conservative politics of nationalism and religious fundamentalism.
Media and journalists have been among the most prominent victims in a long history of military coups, police brutality, torture and disappearances. The continued use of laws which limit free speech, including the controversial laws against insulting “Turkishness,” remain an obstacle to press freedom, even today. much progress has been made to modernize the state and its economy and there have been significant improvements in the country’s human rights record,the problem of entrenched intolerance of critical opinion and of journalists reporting on minorities and political dissidents remains in place.
This intolerance has been especially exemplified by the killing of Hrant Dink, former editor in chief of Agos,in 2007.The assassination of Dink is not an isolated incident as it followed from many others in which journalists who investigated, who voiced their opinions in opposition and especially criticised the approach to issues about minorities were silenced by force.
The culture of violence that has developed in Turkey over many years, which has been directed at journalists can also be a cause for self-censorship for fear of retaliation from the public. Although progress on human rights protection has been made journalism is exercised in the shadows of the past. The intolerant political speech of government Prime Minister, provokes consternation both at home and abroad over increasing restrictions on freedom of speech, freedom of the press and internet use. International concern has largely focused on the continued imprisonment of journalists for reporting on the conflict in the country’s troubled south east where Kurdish rebels have been mounting a campaign of violence for decades.
More journalists are imprisoned in Turkey than anywhere else in the world and the Turkish Journalists’ Union says 63 journalists are still in jail, while more than 120 journalists have been released pending trial. In November 2013 22 journalists were given sentences ranging from six years to life imprisonment in a case, alongside senior military officers, politicians and academics convicted of plotting a coup against the AKP government.
The government says the imprisoned journalists are guilty of criminal acts, but many EJN members vigorously campaigning with international rights groups over the abuse of human rights and free speech, strongly disagree. Many observers saw the brutal tactics of the police at Gezi Park and the problems of media self-censorship and the purge of critical and independent journalists that give an echo of the country’s troubled past. However, the government believes it has use reasonable force to keep the peace, and has mounted a balancing acting down hard enough to keep its critics quiet while not alienating international business and political links especially in Europe where it still hopes for membership of the European Union.
Whether this strategic approach is successful remains to be seen, but unquestionably the behaviour of media over the Gezi story has prompted some serious internal reflection within journalism and a growing appetite for change and an end to the stifling structural and political controls that limit press freedom and pluralism.