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(Updated in November 2011)
The arrests of Ahmet Sik and Nedim Sener in March 2011 caused a huge outcry and put freedom of the press at the top of the Turkish political agenda a few months before the legislative elections. The two investigative journalists have received a number of journalism awards in Turkey and abroad. They contributed substantially to the unmasking of a coup plot by a shadowy ultra-Kemalist group inside the army, known as Ergenikon.
Their arrests were based on the ridiculous allegation that they were part of the group. As a result they became reluctant symbols of the current judicial trend. The Ergenekon case was at first hailed as a major step forward for democracy, insofar as members of the armed forces were held accountable by the civilian authorities for the first time.
However, while the investigation appears to be making little progress, a growing number of suspects have been arrested, lending weight to the view that the case is becoming politicised and manipulated.
As the conflict with the rebels of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) has intensified, the Kurdish question has remained a focal point, as illustrated by the arrest of Ragip Zarakolu, columnist and publisher of the Belge publishing house, in late October.
More than a dozen journalists are accused under anti-terrorism legislation of spreading propaganda on behalf of an illegal organization, or even of belonging to one, for having reported on the clashes in the east of the country or interviewed PKK leaders. Many of them have been imprisoned for months, even years, before being put on trial.
The red lines have not disappeared, but they are drawn in different places. Topics such as religion or anything personal about the prime minister are increasingly out of bounds. There is greater tolerance of criticism of the police or military institutions than previously, but coverage of court cases has become extremely difficult.
Most of the current trials of journalists concern breaches of investigative secrecy or attempts to pervert the course of justice. Although the courts are under the spotlight in high-profile political cases, the legal system jealously protects its corner and ignores the right to information.
The highly symbolic trial of those accused of the murder of the Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink is being concluded in a hasty manner. The gunman and several alleged accomplices were convicted but so far no light has been shed on those responsible inside the state apparatus.
Officials in the Trabzon police, who knew of the murder plot but did nothing to prevent it, were sentenced to administrative sanctions for negligence. However, an inquiry into the role of 30 high-ranking officials appears to have been shelved. The records of phone calls that took place near the scene of the crime have still not been handed over to the courts. Some CCTV recordings were “accidentally” destroyed by the security forces.
The European Court of Human Rights criticised the Turkish authorities in September last year for failing to prevent the murder plot, of which they were aware, from being carried out.
Turkey is on the list of countries “under surveillance” by Reporters Without Borders because of its habit of censoring the Internet. Although YouTube has been unblocked, thousands of other sites still cannot be accessed inside Turkey. Thanks to a campaign by activists, regulatory authorities were forced this year to abandon two anti-freedom measures, including a plan for keyword filtering which would mean installing a filter on every computer.
The height of absurdity appeared to have been reached last month when an Internet user was investigated for insulting the prime minister and other politicians in messages on the Facebook social networking site. The prosecution asked for a custodial sentence.
How the contradictions in Turkey’s freedom of information evolve will be pivotal in determining its democratic future. If the authorities want the country to be credible as a model of democracy in the region, they must as matter of urgency prove that they are able to guarantee its freedoms.
Turkey - 6 March 2014
Turkey - 17 February 2014