Country Focus: Turkey’s battered press freedom

Turkey

 With 18 cases of physical attacks against Turkish journalists in 2020, and 139 cases in the past five years, press freedom in Turkey remains a major concern

Muneef Khan

Ranked at 154 in the annual World Press Freedom Index (2020) and accounting for the second-highest number of journalists arrested – 37 out of 274 – in the world, Turkey’s press freedom crisis has been a long-standing issue.

In October 2020, a coalition of 11 international press freedom, journalism and human rights groups visited the country in order “to assess the condition of press freedom”.

Following their visit, a press statement was issued by the organisations – including Human Rights Watch, Reporters Without Borders and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) – stating that “Turkey’s press freedom crisis is worsening amid growing state capture of media”.

Furthermore, the coalition also highlighted the jailing and prosecution of journalists stating that “scores of journalists remain behind bars in Turkey or face baseless prosecutions in retaliation for their work”.

According to a CPJ report in 2013, which stated that over 211 journalists were jailed worldwide, Turkey topped the list with 40 journalist arrests; followed by Iran (35 arrests) and China (32 arrests). In 2016, Turkey’s arrest numbers shot up to 81.

But Turkey’s press freedom crisis is not a recent occurrence and all fingers point towards the President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who co-founded the right-wing and conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP) along with Abdullah Gul in 2001; the party has been in power since 2003.

Media Crackdown:

On July 15, 2016, the AKP government managed to overcome an attempted coup aimed at capturing areas within Istanbul and Ankara.

The failed coup was allegedly orchestrated by Erdoğan’s former ally Fethullah Gülen – the alliance came to a bitter end in 2013 with Erdoğan placing Gulen on Turkey’s most-wanted terrorist list while the latter remains in exile.

While Gülen denied his involvement in the attempted coup, the Erdoğan-led government imposed a three-month emergency and detained scores of journalists, judges and soldiers on grounds of suspicion.

According to a report published by Bianet in 2016, close to “778 press cards were cancelled, the property of 54 journalists was confiscated, 29 broadcast bans were imposed, 179 media outlets were closed by statutory decrees, the passports of 46 journalists were cancelled and three cases of accreditation discrimination were reported”.

By the end of the same year, 2,708 journalists and media workers lost their jobs. The Turkish Journalists’ Association (TGC) stated that “10,000 people were left unemployed as a result of the closure of 179 media outlets”.

The following years also witnessed an increase in political affiliations with media outlets in the country. According to Reporters Without Borders, “7 out of the 10 most widely read news portals” belonged to the government. Television saw a higher figure with 9 out of the 10 most-watched news channels belonging “to owners with government affiliations”.

Press freedom in Turkey

 

On January 19, 2021, the government imposed advertising bans on social media sites Twitter, Periscope and Pinterest citing their failure to comply with Turkey’s new social media laws that require media platforms – with over 1 million daily users – to appoint legal representatives in the country.

The law, which came into effect in October 2020, has been widely criticised by human rights groups and termed as a form of censorship.

“We hope that Twitter and Pinterest which have still not announced their representatives will rapidly take the necessary steps,” Omer Fatih Sayan, deputy minister, communications and infrastructure said in the T.C. Resmi Gazette.

He added, “It is our last wish to impose bandwidth reductions for social networks that insist on not complying with their obligations.”

In an article for Deutsche Welle (DW), Veysel Ok, a free speech and press freedom lawyer from Turkey stated that while the new laws were aimed at combating hate speech, “it now seems like another tool to silence dissenting voices”.

Media freedom violations:

In 2015, Can Dündar, former editor-in-chief of Turkish daily Cumhuriyet, was arrested along with the publication’s Ankara bureau chief, Erdem Gül, for publishing stories on the Turkish intelligence service supplying arms to Islamist groups in Syria.

Referring to the story, in a public statement, President Erdogan stated that Dündar would “pay for this”. The arrest was condemned by various rights groups who termed it as a sign of growing authoritarianism under Erdogan.

On May 6, 2016, Dündar was sentenced to five years and ten months in prison. Before his sentencing, Dündar escaped an assassination attempt outside the courthouse

After his release in February 2016, Dündar left for Germany where he continues to remain in exile while his trial continued and his assets in Turkey were seized.

In 2016, Dündar was awarded the CPJ’s International Press Freedom Award in recognition of his work with the Cumhuriyet and his fight against the charges levied on him.

In his award acceptance speech, Dündar said, “It is our responsibility to defend our garden. And we must do so with belief, courage, and determination. Even at the price of our own freedom. Even at the expense of our own lives.”

In December 2020, a Turkish court sentenced Dündar to 27 years in prison on terrorism and espionage charges; he continues to remain in exile.