Turkey’s War on Dissident Journalism With No place for Media Solidarity

Turkey’s War on Dissident Journalism With No place for Media Solidarity

Tom Law

The hostility of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s and his ruling Justice and Development Party to a free press and independent journalism has become something of a dangerous obsession in recent months.

The Ethical Journalism Network, which has been monitoring the pressure on Turkish newsrooms in recent years, has exposed the threats of self-censorship and political pressure on journalism. Now the signs are the situation is getting even worse.

As part of the government policy to keep journalism on a tight leash, it announced last month that it will make regular inspection of journalism and media.

In this case, it is to ensure media reporting is in line with the socially conservative “family values” of the regime, but it’s another signal that the crisis facing journalism, which has put two leading journalists in jail and facing controversial charges of terrorism and espionage, is likely to intensify in the coming months.

The EJN last month joined with the global free expression community to highlight the cases of journalists Can Dündar and Erdem Gül who face life sentences if found guilty. We joined an effort to arrange a prison visit by free press campaigners but the government refused to allow it.

Ceren Sözeri, who represents the EJN in Istanbul, said that the media representatives in defiance staged a demonstration outside Silivri Prison, “in protest against the refusal to grant us a visit and to call for Dundar and Gul and all jailed journalists to be freed.”

At the protest Steven Ellis and Kadri Gürsel from International Press Institute read out a statement from the nine media and press freedom support groups who tried to visit the imprisoned journalists.

The demonstration coincided with the Turkish prosecutor’s publication of a 473 page indictment against the two journalists. The only evidence presented against them is “their news stories and columns”, says Sözeri, who is also a professor and faculty member at the Communications Department of Galatasaray University.

According to Turkish newspaper, Hürriyet, the charges against both journalists include:

  • gathering secret state documents for the purposes of political and military espionage
  • attempting to topple the government of the Republic of Turkey or attempting to stop either partially or totally the government from fulfilling its duties
  • deliberate support for a terrorist organization without being a member

The prosecutor alleges that through their news articles and columns Dündar and Gül attempted to manipulated the public to believe that the Turkish government and the state was providing assistance to the terrorist network Al Qaeda. Dündar and Gül, the prosecutor claims, were also aiming to bring this alleged support to the International Criminal Court. But press freedom groups are scathing about the charges.

“You can’t believe the prosecutor’s imagination”, Sözeri says, adding that “Dündar and Gül are on trial for journalism.”

She says 31 journalists are still in jail and Turkey has become an open prison due to widespread censorship and self-censorship.

The cases of Dündar, editor-in-chief of Cumhuriyet, and Gül, the newspaper’s Ankara bureau chief, have become iconic symbols of the growing repression now facing critical and independent voices in the Turkish media community.

The charges against them remain unclear, as they have not been allowed to review indictments against them. However, the case is believed to stem from a May 29, 2015 report published in Cumhuriyet that included a video purportedly showing Turkish security forces searching intelligence agency trucks en route to Syria containing crates of ammunition and weapons.

The denial of a prison visit shows a hardening of the official line. In recent years, when nearly 100 journalists were held in Turkish prisons, journalists in Turkey were often allowed to visit their imprisoned colleagues. However, in recent months, Turkey’s Justice Ministry has effectively barred most visits for both Dündar and Gül; the only visitors allowed to see them are close family members, lawyers or members of Turkey’s Parliament.

The coalition of global media groups working on these cases, besides the EJN, includes the International Press Institute (IPI), the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Reporters Without Borders (RSF), the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ), ARTICLE 19, Index on Censorship, PEN International, the World Association of Newspaper Publishers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA) and the South East Europe Media Organisation.

The groups insist that the persecution of these journalists in retaliation for having reported on a matter of urgent and undeniable public interest, and the refusal to permit visitation in the manner that any other prisoner would be allowed, represent a violation of their rights and a gross abuse of authority. This wrong is compounded by the fact that neither Dündar nor Gül have been convicted of any crime.

It’s also worrying to see the misuse of anti-terror law against the journalists, which is only the latest incident of its kind in Turkey, and adds to the evidence of growing authoritarianism and widespread abuse of human rights. This includes politicisation of the judiciary; the imposition of outright bans on disseminating certain content; the use of state agencies and economic levers to silence media outlets; verbal and – in some cases – physical attacks on critical journalists; and the orchestration of online hate campaigns targeting government critics.

Not surprisingly, the media freedom coalition is demanding that Turkey frees Dündar and Gül and drops all charges. The same demand is being made on behalf of all other journalists currently detained in connection with their journalism.

But given that the government is not in the mood for listening it is likely to take more focused campaigning and external pressure – particularly from Turkey’s political friends in the democratic world – to ensure that Erdogan and his government meet their human rights commitments under domestic and international law.

For other information on the cases of Can Dundar and Erdem Gul please see the links below:

 

For the EJN Reports on Turkey – Untold Stories, Censorship in the Park and Moving Stories– see: