May 22, 2015

RSF harshly condemns Turkish prosecutor’s request to silence dissident media ahead of polls

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has harshly condemned Turkey over a prosecutor's recent attempt to silence media critical of the government by asking a ministry to bar those media outlets from using the state's communications infrastructure, warning that the government is seeking to gag independent media ahead of the June 7 general election.

The RSF, a French-based press freedom advocacy group, released a statement on Friday expressing its strong criticism and condemnation of Ankara Public Prosecutor Serdar Coşkun's recent attempt to silence the voice of media outlets that are critical of the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government.

In a highly controversial move, Coşkun, who is responsible for the Bureau for Crimes against the Constitutional Order, sent a document on April 27 to the Turkish Satellite Communications Company (TÜRKSAT) Directorate General, which falls under the Ministry of Transportation, Maritime Affairs and Communications, asking it to prevent the state-owned satellite connection from being used by certain media outlets.

In its statement, the RSF accused the government of harassing independent media outlets ahead of the upcoming parliamentary election. The RSF stated that the prosecutor's request mostly concerns news organizations such as Samanyolu TV and Bugün TV channels that support Fethullah Gülen, a Turkish Islamic scholar who inspires the Gülen movement, also known as the Hizmet movement.

The movement has been the target of the AK Party government and then-Prime Minister and current President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan since a major corruption and bribery scandal that implicated Erdoğan and several government officials on Dec. 17, 2013. “Condemned by many other Turkish media outlets as well as by Reporters Without Borders, this proposed prohibition [by the prosecutor] would escalate the major offensive that has been under way for the past two years against Gülen and his supporters,” the RSF statement reads.

Listing the successive government-orchestrated investigations and legal proceedings that have already been launched against many news organizations and prominent journalists such as Zaman Editor-in-Chief Ekrem Dumanlı and Samanyolu Broadcasting Group CEO Hidayet Karaca, the RSF warned: “If the prohibition goes ahead, it would deal a devastating blow to media freedom and diversity in Turkey. Many commentators are criticizing the paranoia that the government is displaying towards the country's leading media groups and accuse it of trying to ‘silence the free press'.”

The Turkish police raided a number of venues on Dec. 14 of last year and detained 31 suspects, including a number of journalists. Karaca and Dumanlı were among the journalists detained. Dumanlı was later released pending trial on Dec. 19, while Karaca is still behind bars. Apart from Karaca, there have been other journalists who were arrested or subjected to various legal proceedings for engaging in their profession.

European press unions also condemn attempt against critical media

During a recent press conference in Brussels to promote a platform to monitor media violations across the globe launched by leading European media organizations such as the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) and the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), representatives of these press organizations expressed their concerns over the Turkish prosecutor's request to silence dissident media in the country ahead of the elections.

EFJ General Secretary Ricardo Gutiérrez said the prosecutor's request is a clear violation of freedom of the press. “We will immediately in the coming days submit this case to the online platform of the Council of Europe [CoE] for the protection of journalism. For us it's clearly a violation of press freedom,” Gutiérrez said.

“We're still working on cases of imprisoned journalists from the last three years. We are facing new threats in Turkey, one of which is self-censorship. The government or sometimes media owners place pressure on media staff. Sometimes freelancers are not organized, not allowed to join unions; it's a way to keep them under control. They can't organize themselves, they can't find a way to protect their independence, not only financially but also editorially,” he added.

Also commenting on the issue, William Horsley, the international director of the Centre for Freedom of the Media and vice president of the Association of European Journalists (AEJ), said Çoşkun's request to silence some media outlets will be the point that spells the end of media freedom in Turkey.

“It's completely indefensible and very worrying. We see in Turkey the misuse of administrative, judicial and particularly executive power by the government. This spells the end of hope for journalism,” Horsley said.

Pointing to the dozens of journalists who were recently arrested or subjected to various legal proceedings in Turkey just for doing their jobs, Horsley said: “It's very desperate to see so many good journalists being stopped from doing their work because they are the subject of a criminal prosecution, or are in jail or fear for their lives or the lives of their family. They are vilified in public by public officials, by leading politicians. This must stop. It is completely undignified and quite wrong for a democratic country.”

CoE's Jagland: EU is aware of dire situation in Turkey

CoE Secretary-General Thorbjorn Jagland said the council is aware of the dire situation in Turkey, adding: “We have raised it regularly with the [Turkish] authorities. If you look at the judgments of the European Court of Human Rights [ECtHR] [given against Turkey], many of them are based on Article 10 and on the principle of freedom of assembly. When I was in Turkey, we [the Turkish authorities and the CoE] agreed that we should establish a joint committee in order to implement judgments from the court. It's important to note that implementing the judgments of the court means not only paying compensation, but also changing legislation. It's a priority for us to work with the Turkish authorities in changing legislation in the areas of freedom of the press and freedom of assembly.”

Jagland further said it would not be easy to adopt the necessary legal steps to ensure freedom of expression and to end the pressure exerted on journalists, adding: “I can see it's not easy because there are so many issues related to this. You have for instance the concentration of ownership, which is an issue in Turkey. And pressure and threats against journalist not only from the authorities but also from the owners of media outlets. There are many things going on there.”

Meanwhile, the Canadian parliament has sent a letter to Canada's foreign affairs minister, Rob Nicholson, in which lawmakers express their deep concerns about the increasing number of attacks on freedom of the press in Turkey. The letter that was signed by two state ministers and 134 lawmakers called on Nicholson to take all possible steps to put pressure on President Erdoğan and the Turkish Foreign Ministry to “find a peaceful, democratic and permanent solution to end this dangerous situation in the country [in terms of the press freedom].”

The Turkish media reported that the prosecutor's demand came as part of an investigation into claims about the “parallel structure” and particularly targets those media outlets believed to be inspired by the Gülen movement.

The “parallel structure” is a term invented by Erdoğan following a massive corruption scandal to refer to members of the Gülen movement. The movement strongly denies such claims.

Despite its repetitive statements against the so-called “parallel structure,” the government has failed to offer any evidence indicating such a structure ever exists within the state since December 2013, when senior members of the government of then-Prime Minister Erdoğan were implicated in a massive corruption scandal. Moreover, there is no court decision classifying the movement as an "armed terrorist organization," as is claimed by pro-government circles.

Published on Today's Zaman, 22 May 2015, Friday