After an Attempted Coup the Journalists’ Nightmare
Journalists in Turkey are enduring the worst period of repression in living memory. According to Tutuklu Gazetecilerle Dayanışma Platformu (The Solidarity Platform with Detained/Imprisoned Journalists) on 23 October 2016 at least 116 were in prison. The Journalists Union of Turkey states that 10,000 (almost one-third) have lost their jobs since 2013; 3,000 after the coup attempt on 15 July 2016. The day after the attempted coup more than a dozen news sites were blocked by the telecommunications regulator.
On 20 July, President Erdoğan declared a three-month state of emergency and partially suspended the European Convention on Human Rights. Since then, the Turkish government has been able to rule by decree and can pass bills that have the force of law: 16 television channels, 23 radio stations, three news agencies, 45 daily newspapers, 15 magazines and 29 publishing houses with links to the opposition Gülen movement have been ordered to shut down.
At the end of September, 12 television channels and 11 radio stations – most of them pro-Kurdish – were shut down by decree no.668, which allows for closure without a court order on the grounds of being related to terrorist organisations or being a threat to national security. Further, all their property can be confiscated by the state. Some newspapers are still surviving, however.
On 5 October 2016 an amendment came into force on the bylaw controlling the Press Advertisement Authority, which allocates official advertisements and announcements to print media. The amendment rules that newspapers which do not fire journalists tried under the Anti-Terror Law (TMK) within five days will not benefit from official advertisements. Just in the second quarter of 2016, 56 journalists have been tried in accordance with that law and six have been sentenced to 15 years in prison in total, according to a BİA Media Monitoring report.
At the beginning of November the purge continued when police detained and charged the editor and several writers of opposition newspaper Cumhuriyet, one of Turkey’s oldest and most-respected newspapers. Editor Murat Sabuncu, a cartoonist and seven board members were sent to prison to await trial on terrorism-related charges. In August the paper’s former editor Can Dündar fled the country into exile after being sentenced to five years in prison on spying charges.
Accreditation Used for Censorship
The government is not only intervening in editorial policy but is also targeting journalists directly by, for example, excluding parliamentary reporters and the Ankara representatives of “dissident” media outlets.
A prominent journalist from Cumhuriyet said that “the bureaucracy in Ankara provides information only to journalists from pro-government media who already act like members of the ruling party. It is impossible to leak any criticism of the government.
“In press conferences there is a hierarchy that ranks media as pro-government, mainstream and opposition. Sometimes we are not invited to press conferences on critical issues. Opposition media can access insider information but only off the record.”
Previously, he added, parliamentary reporters could get off-the record briefings after Cabinet meetings but after 2002, when the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power, that stopped.
Sultan Özer, the former Ankara representative of Evrensel daily, whose accreditation for the prime minister’s office was cancelled in 2008, said it happened “because of a question I asked in written form. They claimed my lack of continuity of attendance as a reason. But journalists cannot be subject to compulsory attendance. I sued and won after two-and-a-half years. I should add that you cannot follow any meetings in AKP’s head office without accreditation from the prime minister’s office.”
She also stated that “we cannot get an appointment for any minister or bureaucrat. They never allow us to ask a question. If a reporter asks any critical question – even from the mainstream media – their newsrooms are asked never to send them to further meetings.”
It’s alleged that the government has controlled questions in press conferences. In 2010, a reporter from TRT (Turkish Radio Television Corporation – the Public Service Broadcaster) asked about a price rise for natural gas in Turkey, but directed the question to the prime minister of Bulgaria instead of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, at that time Turkey’s prime minister. Immediately Erdoğan intervened by saying he had asked the wrong man then answered the question.
Özer has complained not only about discrimination against media seen as “dissident” by the government but also about a lack of solidarity among journalists. She said: “When you asked a critical question about government policies some colleagues reacted before the spokesperson. Last year during the Minimum Wage Commission Board’s press meeting I asked if it was possible to survive on this minimum wage. The employers’ representative challenged me in a harsh tone.”
Recently, when 664 press cards were cancelled by the Directorate General of Press and Information of the Office of the Prime Ministry, the reaction of journalists and media organisations was weak. The selective dissemination of press cards and other accreditation, plus restricting access to official press meetings to select media organs should be considered state censorship and journalists should unite against them.
Self-censorship is Alarming after the Coup Attempt
In addition to official censorship, self-censorship is widespread. Journalists and media do it out of fear of government reprisal. Many people, including Cumhuriyet’s Can Dündar have left the country. Dündar and the paper’s Ankara representative Erdem Gül were imprisoned for 92 days after their stories on Turkish intelligence trucks bound for Syria were published in early 2014.
Later, Dündar was attacked in an attempted shooting outside a courthouse in Istanbul on 6 May 2016. The gunman was released after five-and-a-half months in jail. Dündar said: “Nowadays being a journalist is much more dangerous than ever and needs courage and self-confidence.”
In these circumstances, self-censorship itself becomes a protective shield for journalists. The noxious climate created by government and state repression puts all dissident voices at risk of abuse and reprisals, both from state agencies and the government’s online supporters.
The International Press Institute’s Online project has since January 2016 monitored coordinated online campaigns by supporters of the ruling AKP Party and affiliated trolls to silence critical reporting in Turkey. Messages include labels such as “traitor”, “terrorist” or “terrorist supporter”, as well as “kafir” (infidel). Many threaten violence and death. Aslı Aydıntaşbaş, a prominent journalist, recently wrote a piece entitled “Turkey’s repression is destroying my courage – and my health” for the Washington Post. She is suffering from sub-acute thyroiditis due to stress after the coup attempt. She defined the post-coup period as a nightmare.
“Over the past year, I find myself intuitively developing a set of survival techniques to be able to continue writing in Turkey. For example, the Turkish president and his family are off limits – I never write directly about him. I may refer to a statement he made or criticise ‘Ankara’ or ‘a government decision’. But the subject is never you-know-who.
“I do not touch the topic of corruption. Ever. Where possible, I opt for a foreign policy subject, as opposed to the domestic situation. I do not mingle with Gulenists or appear on their television shows. This is easier since they are all shut down. I tweet judiciously. I hardly go to demonstrations – even for free speech.”
A freelance journalist and fixer said he has rejected all requests from foreign journalists and media outlets after the coup attempt: “I worked with foreigners for years. But I gave up after this July. Why? Suggesting that we are going to make a vox pop or an interview with a person against the government, before, I knew that nothing would happen – at the worst we could be taken into custody for a short time. But now, I could foresee anything; the journalist I work with could be deported and I can be considered as a ‘terrorist’ and put in jail for weeks or maybe years.”
The crackdowns turned into a witch hunt. Nobody, especially journalists, feels safe, they just try to survive. A popular columnist from mainstream media explains: “Self-censorship is so ingrained in me I don’t know what I will write if tomorrow the repression disappears.”
Conclusion and Recommendations
Today, we are facing the worst crackdown on press freedom. Almost every international organisation calls the government of Turkey to stop jailing journalists, shutting down radio and TV channels and censoring the internet in an attempt to silence criticism. The alarming rise in state censorship is threatening the future of journalism, particularly political reporting. Before it is too late the government should heed these recommendations:
- The State Of Emergency which caused violations of fundamental rights after the 15 July coup attempt should be ended immediately.
- The government should stop journalism and release all jailed journalists.
- Radio and TV closures should be rescinded.
- Government officials should refrain from all discrimination, such as selective accreditation, which is considered to be censorship.
- Press cards must be issued and disseminated by an independent body of representatives of journalist unions and associations.
- The Press Advertisement Authority should be independent and transparent in its fair allocation of official advertisements and announcements to the print media.
There is a need for stronger solidarity between journalists and media organisations in struggling with state censorship and to rebuild trust and credibility in journalism.
It may take some time for the poisoned atmosphere caused by a purge of dissenting voices to dissipate, but more support for journalism that respects core principles of independence, truth and humanity will ensure that when this moment of political crisis eases media will be ready to play their part in restoring democracy, pluralism and renewed respect for human rights.
At their request some names have been withheld to protect individuals and their media outlets.
Keeping the Ethical Flame Alive in Turkey
Is ethical journalism possible in a country like Turkey where journalists are being targeted in a crackdown on press independence unprecedented in the country’s democratic history?
The answer, regrettably, is almost certainly not. The self-censorship reported by the EJN and others in recent years has now completely overwhelmed newsrooms. Critical voices are silent. The pervasive atmosphere is of fear and intimidation.
During 2016 the EJN was among a group of media freedom support groups to receive a solidarity award from the Turkish Journalists’ Association. We were honoured to received it, but we don’t fool ourselves into thinking that the perilous conditions for journalism will change anytime soon.
International protests play a key role in putting pressure on the government and must continue. But equally important will be to provide continuing support and to create new initiatives that will keep the ethical flame alive in the country’s stricken media industry.
The EJN will engage with media leaders in Turkey in the coming months to promote internal systems of ethical management, transparency and self-regulation within a media industry that has suffered from a awed system of politicised ownership that has weakened journalism for years and long before the current crisis.
We will also promote more effective media literacy and information programmes, particularly with young people and in co-operation with universities, to help develop a deeper understanding of the importance of pluralism and diversity in the public information sphere.
Such initiatives will not make headlines (and currently that is probably a good thing) but they will help Turkish editors and reporters keep in touch with the values of ethical journalism and, when conditions permit, to rebuild a culture of independent journalism that will put democracy back on track.