This weekend people in Turkey vote in a general election but they do so in an atmosphere of intimidation and after an unprecedented assault on dissident voices including targeted attacks on independent media.
The assault on critical voices in Turkish journalism has been condemned as one of the worst crackdowns in the republic’s history in the run-up to crucial parliamentary elections on Sunday. Reporters critical of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government and his ruling Justice and Development party (AKP) have been fired from newspapers seen as close to the president and some offices of pro-opposition media outlets have been raided.
Observers say the attacks are a last desperate effort by the government to head-off defeat in elections that could signal an end to 10 years of effective one-party rule.
But the democratic deficit in Turkey is already well established and was highlighted only days ago by an international delegation of international press freedom groups, including the Ethical Journalism Network, which called on the government to stop the restriction of press freedom and expressed solidarity with journalists in Turkey.
Last week nine international press freedom organisations came together to observe the raised pressure on journalists in Turkey.
Ceren Sözeri, from Galatasary University, who represented the EJN on the mission, which took place from October 19to 21, says that after the visit, which included meetings with victimised journalists, and representatives of foreign governments and opposition political parties, pressure on journalism was significantly raised.
“This has impacted negatively the right of share and receive information of people in Turkey especially during the election time, she says. “It should be added that the ruling party representatives didn’t respond to our meeting requests.”
The final statement of the mission lays bare the harsh realities facing independent media in Turkey which have increased in recent days.
Commenting on the mission Sözeri describes the daily conditions facing journalists under fire:
“On Monday, 19th of October, I saw a bullet-proof curtain the first time in my life in Cumhuriyet daily’s building. Five journalists have been murdered and the building attacked many times, so journalists try to protect themselves.
“All the veteran journalists we interviewed say the pressure from the government has significantly increased in the last 3-4 years. These people have lived through times of the military coup, but they knew that was temporary but today they have no idea when the restrictions on their freedom will end.”
She says there are several types of censorship. “First, there are direct telephone calls from the government or the circle of the government and President Erdoğan to newsrooms interfering directly over editorial policies,” she says.
If that doesn’t work, there are pressures through cancellation of accreditation or tax penalties or targeted attacks by the government or the pro-government media.
A second line of attack comes through official investigations and lawsuits. According to BIA Media Monitoring Report between July-September 2015 some 28 journalists were sued based on Anti-Terror Law (TMK), 60 were sued according to Penal Code Article 299 (insulting presidency) and Article 125 (defamation).
The BIA Media Monitoring Report states that one journalist was ordered to pay 2,285 euros after allegations he insulted former Prime Minister Erdoğan, according to Article 125/3 of Penal Code. “We can also add broadcasting bans and blocked websites in this category. According to Engelli Web (a monitoring websites) more than 100 thousand websites are banned in Turkey,” says Sözeri.
Even more worrying, and highlighted in the last few days have been the third line of intimidation — physical attacks on journalists and media organisations.
The BIA Media Monitoring Report claims that between July-September this year 21 journalists, three media organisations and one newspaper printing press were attacked. The most prominent ones are two attacks to Hürriyet daily’s building in September and attacks on one of the most popular columnist TV talk show hosts Ahmet Hakan on October 1st.
During the attacks on the Hürriyet building the report says an AKP deputy, Abdürrahim Boynukalın, joined a violent protest in front of the building and was encouraging the crowd. Not only did he go unchallenged for this incitement, but he was rewarded with political elevation, becoming the council chairman during the AKP congress. He has also celebrated his provocative behaviour at the demonstrative in a video.
Given this level of intimidation it’s not surprising that journalists feel themselves unprotected against these attacks and fearful of arrest.
“The protests of representatives of foreign governments and the opposition political parties have limited impact,” Sözeri says. “As we mention in the declaration, the freedom of expression and freedom of media issues have been sidelined because of the political importance of the ongoing refugee crisis.”
The European Commission has postponed the release of annual progress report on Turkey’s EU membership application process to unknown future date and opposition parties have limited opportunities to express themselves during the election campaign.
“The television channels who are close to the Gülen movement (an opposition group accused of terrorism links by the government) were dropped from the cable, the satellite and the biggest private digital media platform, Digitürk, on the grounds of critical coverage against the government ahead of election,” she says. “The public service media and state news agency (Anatolian Agency) covers only the ruling party’s campaign and they turned into a government propaganda tools.”
With media beleaguered on all sides, solidarity among journalists is low. Only 6% of the country’s journalists are members of the union.
And the president and his ruling party have deepened the divisions within society to consolidate their vote.
“It is really dangerous for the society and for the media,” says Sözeri. “Hate speech has increased both online and offline media and journalists and columnists in pro-government media vulgarly target their colleagues.”
She says that before he was attacked columnist Ahmet Hakan was told by one of his media critics “we crush you as a fly” and it was the same hostile voice that targeted another woman journalist / anchor-woman by saying “I will finish your career in the media”.
“These kinds of verbal attack are encouraged by AKP and not condemned by the either government or president,” she says. “Many of our interviewees have given up trying to rebuild dialogues with their counterparts in pro-government media.”
Nevertheless, once the election is over, Sözeri has cause for optimism. “We still feel hopeful. I think that some journalists who work for the pro-government media are not so comfortable with their position. They are also under pressure,” she says. “But journalism in Turkey is losing ground. Journalists can save journalism in Turkey, that’s why we urge journalists to avoid the use of negative or hostile rhetoric targeting other journalists and to strive to uphold ethical standards through self-regulation.”
Photo: Ceren Sözeri
Taking part in the mission were 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, the Ethical Journalism Network (EJN), The Journalists Union of Turkey (TGS)