April 23, 2015

Turkey criticized for press freedom violations at European Parliament event

Turkey was criticized for cracking down heavily on independent and critical media at a seminar held in the European Parliament (EP) on Wednesday.

The event, titled “press freedom in Turkey,” was sponsored by the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe Party (ALDE) and the Greens/European Free Alliance (Greens/EFA).

In his opening speech, the president of the ALDE in the EP, Guy Verhofstadt, said Turkey is a country that represents “one of the highest numbers of jailed journalists in the world.” Verhofstadt mentioned that Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has ranked Turkey 149th out of 180 countries in its latest press freedom index.

In a written statement released on the eve of the seminar, the president of ALDE also slammed Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) for not living up to their promise of delivering a democratic Turkey that respects the rule of law. Verhofstadt said, “Mr. Erdoğan and his AK Party have not lived up to the initial promise of delivering a modern, democratic and tolerant Turkish society, based on the rule of law.” “The initial gains in ending the political influence of the Turkish military and state administration have been replaced by authoritarian tendencies and security laws, by intolerance towards criticisms and lack of self-reflection,” he added.

Verhofstadt, who previously served as Belgian prime minister, also urged the EU to do more to support press freedom in Turkey. “We need to increase the EU's support, in very practical terms, to the media and journalists, both in the candidate countries and in the neighbouring ones,” he stressed, calling for the EU to set up “an ambitious exchange programme for journalists - to secure higher standards but also to support their self-confidence to stand up against undue pressure and to remain strong on the front-line for free speech."

The ALDE leader's critical comments came after a Turkish prosecutor barred Ekrem Dumanlı, the editor-in-chief of the country's highest-circulation daily, from attending the seminar in Brussels.

In a decision issued on Tuesday, Public Prosecutor Hasan Yılmaz said the request by Dumanlı's lawyer to temporarily lift the travel ban imposed on his client, which would allow Dumanlı to attend the conference in Brussels, “was not proper.” The prosecutor justified his refusal of the request by citing the nature of the crime Dumanlı was accused of.

Dumanlı participated in the event via teleconference.

Verhofstadt moderated the discussion, and Rebecca Harms, the co-president of Greens/EFA, delivered concluding remarks. Journalist Andrew Finkel also spoke at the seminar. EP members Marietje Schaake, of the ALDE, and Bodil Ceballos, of Greens/EFA, participated as well.

Harms cited the discrimination against newspapers that are not pro-government by Turkey's flagship carrier Turkish Airlines (THY), saying “the government wants to have 100 percent control of the media.” “I feel that this situation is not being understood in Europe,” she underlined.

The THY stopped distributing several dailies, including Zaman, Today's Zaman, Bugün, Ortadoğu, Aydınlık, Birgün, Cumhuriyet, Evrensel, Yeni Çağ and Yurt, to business-class passengers after a major corruption and bribery investigation that implicated high-ranking government officials became public on Dec. 17, 2013. The THY's ban was imposed on the newspapers on Dec 23, 2013 -- six days after the investigation was made public -- without any explanation.

Ceballos argued, "We have to put more pressure on Turkey,” and suggested that the European Union and a mechanism of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) called the Universal Periodic Review, which aims to improve human rights situations on the ground in each member state, can be utilized to exert pressure on Turkey.

Schaake also issued a statement critical of Turkey ahead of the seminar, saying that “press freedom has been restricted by the Turkish government in a systematic manner.

“Imprisoning journalists, censorship of social media, reporting bans, tax fines on media companies and personal attacks by politicians against editors and columnists have a severely chilling effect on free speech and media freedom" she noted.

Verhofstadt said the prosecutor prohibiting Dumanlı from flying to Brussels is a proof of how relevant the topic of the seminar is. "I wish I could be there to explain the press freedom problems in person. […] Nevertheless I feel lucky. At least I could link up through teleconference, because my colleague Hidayet Karaca, the manager of STV network, has been in jail since December of last year,” Dumanlı remarked.

He continued, noting that arrests, intimidation, arbitrary dismissals, interference by governmental authorities in editorial independence, self-censorship, and pressure through tax fines, inspections and auditing by the government and threats to seize assets of media owners are among major challenges facing independent and critical media in Turkey. Dumanlı stressed that journalists are no exception. Similar pressures are also applied to businesses, artists, intellectuals and civil society representatives.

Dumanlı cited the recent withholding of accreditation for 13 media outlets enacted by the presidency for the 51st annual Presidential Cycling Tour of Turkey, taking place between April 26 and May 3. The press information bureau of the presidency announced recently that journalists from the Cihan news agency, Samanyolu and Bugün TV, Aksiyon Magazine, Aydınlık, Birgün, Bugün, Cumhuriyet, Evrensel, Meydan, Sözcü, Taraf, Yeniçağ and Zaman dailies have not been accredited to cover the events. The Turkish Journalists' Association (TGC) condemned the ban in a written statement on Wednesday, arguing that the presidency is not authorized to impose accreditation bans.

"I'm still optimistic, though, because when our offices were raided, thousands of our readers turned up in front of our building to show their support and sympathy," Dumanlı emphasized.

A short video was shown during the seminar, revealing a journalist affiliated with the Cihan news agency -- the largest privately funded news agency in Turkey -- being forcibly removed from an event attended by Erdoğan's wife, and sponsored by Turkish GSM operator Avea, in İstanbul on Monday. The reporter, Hüseyin Aydın, was seen in the video bursting into tears after he was singled out among other reporters and thrown out of the event with no justification at all.

Dumanlı has been the target of a government-orchestrated operation on critical media, and he was detained for five days in December 2014 on terrorism charges before being released pending trial.

But the court imposed a travel ban on him following his release. Dumanlı's lawyers have challenged the travel ban several times but were overruled. His defense lawyers say the ban is an arbitrary decision and conflicts with the ruling of the judge, which said that there is a lack of strong evidence necessitating the arrest of the suspect.

Dumanlı petitioned the Constitutional Court in January about rights violations while in police custody. He said the law had been violated in various ways during his detention, such as not being allowed to know what he and his journalism colleagues were accused of until they were questioned because of a confidentiality order placed on the investigation.

One of Dumanlı's lawyers, Hasan Günaydın, asked for TL 100,000 in compensation for non-pecuniary damages caused by a series of rights violations he was subjected to during his detention, which he said violated the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), Turkey's Constitution and rulings of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR).

Dumanlı's lawyer said that as they were not informed about the accusations, they were unable to prepare a defense, saying, “It is unthinkable for a lawyer who cannot examine an investigation file and see the relevant documents and evidence to provide legal support to their client.”

Günaydın said that although his client repeatedly asked the judge what the charges against him were when he appeared in court, but İstanbul 1st Penal Court of Peace Judge Bekir Altun only said Dumanlı's detention was based on two columns and one news article published by the Zaman daily. The lawyer said there was not even reasonable suspicion to legitimize Dumanlı's detention, let alone any evidence.

The launch of the operation was controversial in the first place because when rumors emerged in early December suggesting that Dumanlı was among those who would be detained in a police operation, based on the tweets of a government whistleblower who goes by the name Fuat Avni, Dumanlı visited the İstanbul Chief Public Prosecutor's Office on Dec. 12 to ask the chief prosecutor whether there was an investigation underway that concerned him.

The prosecutor, who checked the National Judicial Network Project (UYAP), told him that there was no investigation of him. Despite this, he was detained in a police operation two days later.

Günaydın said it is not legally possible to explain the detention of his client and his being kept in police custody for days without the presence of any evidence against him when he had just gone to the prosecutor's office to ask if there was an investigation.

The petition to release Samanyolu TV network executive and journalist Karaca, who was also arrested in the operation on Dec.14, 2014 and has been in jail for 130 days, was also rejected by the court on Tuesday. One of Turkey's leading investigative journalists, Mehmet Baransu, has been imprisoned since March based on charges that he acquired secret documents related to the security of the state.

Published on Today's Zaman, 22 April 2015, Wednesday