Reporters Without Borders urged the Turkish government today to prove it supports the media freedom it proclaimed during the recent election campaign.
The appeal came in a report called “Media and justice in Turkey – mistrust and repression” after recent fact-finding visits by the worldwide media freedom organisation to investigate the hounding and prosecution of journalists by the country’s police and courts.
Despite significant advances in freedom of expression, journalists are still arrested and tried for doing their job or expressing an opinion, their documents seized and their sources tracked down, the report said. Journalistic principles are still poorly guaranteed by law while a wide range of legislation continues to prevent many topics being reported.
The few guarantees that do exist are too often swept away by the judiciary’s repressive habits and paranoia. Journalists have also been victims of the sharp political polarisation during the election campaign and the present fierce struggle for control of all state institutions.
“On Saturday, investigative journalists Ahmet Sik and Nedim Sener will have been in prison for 100 days. Major demonstrations to support them are planned, showing that media freedom is not just an election slogan. Turkish civil society is protesting as never before that these violations of freedom are very serious. The protests call for an immediate response from the government,” Reporters Without Borders said.
“The authorities are politically responsible for the judiciary’s hounding of journalists. This undermines the government’s claim to be a regional democratic model. The authorities therefore need to start a frank and open dialogue with journalists and with the country’s international partners.”
At a press conference in Istanbul on 19 April, Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Jean-François Julliard pointed to a number of taboos for which journalists are being prosecuted if they violate them. Unfortunately, this has continued, with plenty of examples in just the past two weeks.
The longstanding taboo of discussing and reporting on the armed forces has eased but the judiciary and police are still out of bounds for journalists, especially as these institutions are both judges and interested parties.
Reporting of legal matters is thus the main cause of prosecution of journalists, based on the Penal Code’s article 285 (legal confidentiality) and 288 (trying to influence the result of a trial). Journalists Nedim Sener and Hasan Cakkalkurt (of Milliyet) and Aysegül Usta (of Hürriyet) appeared before the second chamber of the magistrates court in Bakirköy (Istanbul) on 2 June for “violating legal confidentiality.” It is the ninth trial for Sener, who has been in prison since 3 March in connection with the wide-ranging Ergenekon case.
Criticism of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government is tolerated less and less, as shown by the trial of Ahmet Altan, director of the daily Taraf, that began on 9 June. He faces two years and eight months in prison for “offending the person of the prime minister” after criticising him in two articles in January for ordering the destruction of an unfinished statue symbolising the rapprochement between Turkey and Armenia. He described Erdogan as “a shallow person.”
The Kurdish issue is still the hardest one for journalists to tackle because of the judiciary’s repressive reliance on the outdated Anti-Terror Law and repressive articles of the Penal Code.
The country’s only Kurdish-language daily, Azadiya Welat, was suspended again (for the ninth time) on 13 June for 15 days and all copies ordered seized for supposedly printing “propaganda for a terrorist organisation.”
The paper’s former editor, Vedat Kursun, was sentenced on appeal to 10 and a half years in prison for this offence on 9 June. He has been imprisoned in Diyarbakir for the past two and a half years and had been sentenced by a lower court to 166 years in jail.
Ercan Atay, of the paper Batman Gazetesi, was sentenced to 37 days in prison on 7 June for quoting in an article a statement by a member of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). This was described by the court as “praising a criminal” and resembles many cases cited in the present report.
Reporters Without Borders calls on the Turkish judiciary to study urgently the lists of imprisoned journalists complied by the Freedom for Journalists platform (GÖP) and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and release immediately and unconditionally all those only jailed for doing their job. Reporters Without Borders has identified at least five such cases and there are undoubtedly many more but the secrecy of the judiciary makes it hard to identify them.
The Anti-Terror Law and the repressive articles of the Penal Code must be abolished or thoroughly revised to comply with international agreements ratified by Turkey that guarantee freedom of expression. The judiciary must change its attitude to the media, stop lumping together journalists and “terrorists” and allow the media to regulate itself more.
“Turkey is at a crossroads,” Reporters Without Borders said. “Progress towards democracy over the past decade has been impressive but is incomplete and fragile. The latest attacks on journalists show that a return to the past is possible at any moment. The ruling JDP/AKP’s easy election victory should reassure the country’s leaders and show them they have nothing to fear from allowing freedom of expression. The government must now prove it is still determined to carry out the democratic reforms demanded by Turks.”