September 6, 2015

‘We will not allow any journalist to be imprisoned in Silivri again'

With less than two months left until the Nov. 1 snap election, more journalists are facing legal action over claims of insulting President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and more media organizations have been threatened by raids or seizures.

This week's guest for Monday Talk says this shows that President Erdoğan is trying to put a muzzle on the press until the election to silence critical voices.

“The president is offended by even the smallest things; he has reacted to anything he finds insulting. I have been in journalism for many years and I have never seen so many investigations against so many journalists before. Moreover, the investigations might end up in arresting journalists,” said Pınar Türenç, chairwoman of the Press Council, which receives complaints regarding media ethics, and works for freedom of communication and freedom of the press in Turkey.

The first week of September began with a raid on the Ankara offices of Koza İpek Holding, which owns several media organizations including the dailies Bugün and Millet, TV stations Bugün TV and Kanaltürk and the website, all of which are highly critical of President Erdoğan and the interim government of the Justice and Development Party (AK Party).

On the day of the raid, the Bugün daily published a report documenting weapons being transported from Turkey to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Syria allegedly with the knowledge of the local customs director.

The Twitter whistleblower who writes under the name of Fuat Avni had posted tweets about the government's plans for a large-scale media crackdown a few days prior to the raid on the Koza İpek group. Fuat Avni claimed that the police would raid the Zaman group and dailies Cumhuriyet and Sözcü as well.

And the first week of September ended with more journalists being accused of insulting Erdoğan, such as Zaman Chief Editor Ekrem Dumanlı, Hürriyet columnist Ertuğrul Özkök and Bugün columnist Yavuz Baydar.

More than 100 people have recently been charged and some detained after being accused of insulting Erdoğan since he was elected president in August of last year. His AK Party took a blow with the June 7 election and was not able to form a single party government.

Evaluating the developments, Türenç answered our questions.

Were you surprised by the raid on Koza İpek Holding and some of its media outlets?

It was not so surprising. Why? Because we learned from Fuat Avni that there would be raids on and/or seizures of Koza, Zaman, the Doğan groups and Sözcü daily. However, when I was asked about the possibility of raids before they happened, I said I did not think that there would be such reckless acts that would degrade Turkey badly internationally. And when I heard about the news of the raid on Koza, I was not surprised. This is an abnormal situation that should never happen in a democratic country, but abnormal things have become normal in Turkey. I hope this will be it and we will not have any more tension leading up to the election.

What do you think could be worse happening until the Nov. 1 snap election?

We had several other difficulties on the lead-up to the June 7 election and we have problems again on the lead-up to the Nov. 1 snap election. Erdoğan does not want to hear any critical voices from the media till Nov. 1. However, when there is no freedom of the media, there will not be healthy and normal elections. We would like a normal situation in the country. If what Fuat Avni tells us is true, there will be seizures of media organizations. We went through this before in the case of Kanaltürk and Tuncay Özkan [Kanaltürk's founder Özkan was imprisoned on Sept. 27, 2008, as an Ergenekon suspect, allegedly a terrorist organization preparing a Turkish secularist military coup against the AK Party government; he was released in March 2014]. We are in an odd period. One media group is targeted today and there will be another tomorrow. The Sözcü daily published a front page editorial decrying restrictions on press freedom, and the paper's columnists had empty columns. Is this normal? And until when?

Regarding the raid on Koza İpek, there is a perception in the opposition about the government -- that the operations were done upon the orders of President Erdoğan. Indeed, CHP deputy and former journalist Barış Yarkadaş said this. What do you think about this idea?

It is not possible not to agree with Barış Yarkadaş. Tayyip Erdoğan often and graphically says how he will strangle the media group [related to Fethullah Gülen]. And he is the only person governing Turkey and whatever is being done must be going on with his knowledge. The government acts with orders from Ak Saray or Beştepe [where Erdoğan built a huge presidential palace].

‘We will not allow any journalist to be imprisoned in Silivri again'

The government also targets Cumhuriyet and Sözcü. Cumhuriyet daily's chief editor faces an aggravated life sentence for publishing images that would seem to prove that arms were transferred to Syria by the National Intelligence Organization (MİT). President Erdoğan filed a criminal complaint against Dündar after prosecutors launched an investigation against both him and the newspaper. Sözcü editors just announced that there have been 57 court cases against the daily in the past year. What else will happen?

Fuat Avni signals that as Can Dündar is being pressured and prosecuted allegedly on terrorism-related crimes, the Cumhuriyet daily will be seized. But this will not happen easily. We will not allow any journalist to be imprisoned in Silivri again. We will all go to Silivri and we will not allow any journalists to be imprisoned there. We don't know if they will seize any other groups' media organs. We will wait and see. We see increasing pressure on the Doğan Group as well. Doğan Media Group President Aydın Doğan had their ethics council meeting and decided that there is an effort on the part of government to label them as terrorists. Journalism can never be related to terrorism. Koza İpek Group faces a similar threat. But is it possible to support a terrorist organization that does not exist?

There are also bans on social media. For example, it is not possible to access Özgür Gündem daily on Twitter, and this is also a dangerous development for the public because when people cannot get news from traditional sources, they turn to the social media as an alternative. But there are bans there as well…

Yes, social media bans have been common in Turkey, and, for that, related laws have been passed by the government, unfortunately.

‘It's not acceptable to establish ties between media and terrorism'

As for the president's complaints against journalists, there have been several such cases against journalists and critics for insulting President Erdoğan. The latest being against the Zaman daily's chief editor, Hürriyet daily columnist Ertuğrul Özkök and Bugün daily columnist Yavuz Baydar. How would you evaluate this development?

The president has been offended by even the smallest things; he has responded to anything he finds insulting. I have been in journalism for many years and I have never seen so many investigations against so many journalists before. Moreover, the investigations might end up in arresting journalists! We even see investigations against the relatives of martyrs who have been outraged by their deaths; they have been accused of insulting the president [in the war with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK)]. Apparently, the president is fearful; otherwise, he would let things happen, but he is outside of the rule of law. None of those cases against journalists will be successful.

Meanwhile, we have had a journalism success story. A photograph has proven that it can be so powerful and shake the world. The photograph taken by a young local journalist, Nilüfer Demir, of the little boy whose body was found on the shores of Bodrum made the world realize a tragedy. This shows how powerful the media is.

Well, there are some media organizations -- “the pool media” – that are known to have very close relations with the AK Party government; they target other media groups or people critical of the government saying that they are involved in terrorism. How do you explain this?

It's not acceptable to establish ties between media and terrorism. Journalists' news or books that are liked by some are not liked by others. But you cannot label journalists as terrorists. On Channel 24 recently, commentators were very critical of the Doğan Media Group: They complained that the biggest share of the advertisements go to this group. There are “lynchings” on television and print media. Is such journalism acceptable? Where are our ethics? The Radio and Television Supreme Council [RTÜK] is supported by our taxes, but it does not object to such baseless broadcasting. The deputy prime minister is voiceless. The public's right to get information has been violated and when there is such intimidation, there cannot be free journalism.

‘We have never seen such a period'

You have been in the profession of journalism for a long time. Have you experienced such periods?

We have never seen such a period. I have been doing political journalism since 1974; I reported on prime ministers and presidents and have never seen anything like this. Between 1950 and 1959, some newspaper columns were printed blank. Now in the 2000s, we have seen a lot of pressure … Channel 24 commentators seemed very happy on the program that I mentioned that if Hürriyet daily were seized, such a mentality would not have been seen even in the 1950s. [Former prime minister and presidents] Turgut Özal and Süleyman Demirel, whom I followed very closely, sometimes told me that I asked too many questions, but they never called my bosses and told them to fire me. Yes, it is important that the economy goes well and all people think about how they are going to make a living, but the biggest problem we have is that we lack freedom of the press and an independent judiciary.

Is there pressure being put on the Press Council?

This is everybody's council; we do not make any differentiation among media groups. We work for freedom and independence of the press. We are a member of the World Press Council. We are the only referee institution that the United Nations accepts in Turkey as regards matters of the press. It is not easy to put pressure on us. We get complaints about news reports and after evaluating them, we either declare them “inappropriate,” we “warn” the media organization or “condemn” the report. We share our findings with the public. We are transparent and we are inspected. I came to office by election. Our high council members, our lawyers and I are all volunteers. We spend our own money here on expenses and we get membership fees. We are a civil society organization.

‘No journalists should be taken from their media organization's office to prison'

Journalists have always complained about the lack of widespread colleague support for arrested or detained journalists. What is the situation?

When journalists started being arrested, the media were silent for a while. We took the initiative and went to Silivri; we listened to the journalists and they told us about the poor prison conditions. We supported them and told them to resist. All of those journalists, including Tuncay Özkan and Mustafa Balbay, visited us after their release and said they appreciated our support. We acted together with the İzmir and İstanbul journalists associations. I prepared a booklet, “The Silivri Reality, Through the Eyes of a Journalist,” in English.

There are two journalists imprisoned in Silivri -- Mehmet Baransu and Hidayet Karaca. And there are other journalists in other prisons held on charges related to their alleged support to the Kurdistan Communities Union [(KCK), an umbrella group that encompasses the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK)]. This time, critics say that Baransu and Karaca have been left alone and have not been given any support by their colleagues. Do you agree?

Yes, there are 20-22 journalists who are being held in prison on their alleged relations to the KCK. Hidayet Karaca and Mehmet Baransu are also associated with terrorism. Prisons are no place for journalists. No journalist should be taken from their media organization's office to prison. That's what happened to Karaca. Journalists wait in prisons for years for their trials. What kind of a justice system is this? They should be out of prison as soon as possible pending trial if there is going to be a trial.

Have you visited Karaca and Baransu?

We haven't yet. We will apply for permission to visit them soon. They are not alone. I say often that they are not alone. Journalists are not terrorists. They cannot be arrested because of doing their job.

The main opposition Republican People's Party [CHP] established a commission to investigate pressures on media. Do you think they can achieve results?

The CHP has been doing this thorough the works of a previous deputy, Veli Ağbaba. They have been publishing media reports. The CHP is doing the right thing. The Nationalist Movement Party [MHP] is also critical of the pressure on the media.

Profile: Pınar Türenç has been the Press Council chairwoman since 2013. A graduate of the Ege University School of Communication, she started her journalism career at the Milliyet daily under the leadership of Abdi İpekçi in 1975 and worked there for 13 years. In the 1990s, she worked on private television news channel Star TV (the channel was called Magic Box at the time) and Show TV reporting on the wars in Afghanistan, Kosovo and Northern Iraq and interviewing world leaders and politicians. In 1999, she began working at Hürriyet, followed by a television program on TV8 in 2002-2007. Türenç had leadership roles in several civil society projects including KADER (the Association for Education and Supporting Women Candidates). She has received several journalism awards and has taught on journalism courses at the Marmara University School of Communication since 2000.

Published on Today's Zaman, 6 September 2015, Sunday