November 11, 2015

Press freedom hits rock bottom in Turkey ahead of G-20 summit

Despite calls in a recently released European Union's progress report for the elimination of restrictions on media freedom in Turkey, the country's journalists continue to be prosecuted and discriminated against for their critical views more than ever ahead of a G-20 summit to be held in Turkey on Nov. 15-16.

In its annual progress report on Turkey released on Tuesday, the EU called for counter measures against intimidation of journalists and for investigations into threats and attacks against journalists. However, restrictions on the freedom of the press continue to be a major challenge for journalists to perform their profession in the country, with many having to go to court for their writings or views.

In one recent examples of such restrictions, veteran journalist Ahmet Altan, an outspoken government critic, testified to prosecutors on Wednesday as part of two investigations launched into him on charges of insulting the president and “inciting hatred and animosity among the public." One of the investigations was launched following a complaint by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's lawyer while the other was launched by the Justice Ministry's General Directorate of Penal Affairs.

Altan faces the accusations due to an interview he gave to in April and interviews he gave to Bugün TV and Samanyolu TV in September.

Speaking to reporters in front of the İstanbul Courthouse, Altan said if a president is violating the Constitution so many times in the country, he will definitely be criticized.

Two separate investigations have also been launched into prominent journalist Cengiz Çandar over claims that he insulted President Erdoğan in seven of his columns in the Radikal daily. Radikal reported that Erdoğan's lawyer Ahmet Özel had submitted a petition to the İstanbul Public Prosecutor's Office and said Çandar had attacked Erdoğan's personal rights by insulting him in the media. In a written notice sent to Çandar, the prosecutor's office cited seven of Çandar's columns published on between July 26 and Aug. 19 as the reason for the investigation.

Under the presidency of Erdoğan, it has been an almost daily occurrence in Turkey for journalists and public figures to face legal action on charges of insulting the president or the government and some even receive prison sentences. Several columnists including Ertuğrul Özkök, Hasan Cemal and Perihan Mağden are already facing investigations for insulting Erdoğan while Özkök, a columnist for the Hürriyet daily, is facing a 30-month prison sentence on charges of insulting a senior Justice and Development Party (AK Party) official.

Today's Zaman Editor-in-Chief Bülent Keneş was convicted of insulting the president and handed a suspended prison sentence of 21 months earlier this year on grounds that he insulted the president in a Twitter post. Keneş did not even mention the president's name in his tweet and his sentence has attracted worldwide condemnation.

Last month, TV producer and journalist Uğur Dündar and Sözcü daily columnist Necati Doğru were also sentenced to 11 months and 20 days in prison by an İstanbul court for insulting former Minister Binali Yıldırım and President Erdoğan, respectively, though the court allowed them to pay a fine in lieu of serving their sentences.

These developments are widely considered to be a new method of intimidating political opponents and critical voices. Dozens of others including journalists Sedef Kabaş, Hidayet Karaca and Mehmet Baransu as well as high school students, activists and even a former Miss Turkey, Merve Büyüksaraç, have been prosecuted for insulting Erdoğan in print and on social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook.

Accreditation used as discrimination

Another method used by the AK Party government and Erdoğan to silence critical journalists and hinder their work is the implementation of an accreditation ban against them, as a result of which these journalists and news outlets cannot cover events attended by Erdoğan or government officials.

There are claims that Erdoğan and the AK Party government aim to avoid being asked tough questions by critical journalists on a range of controversial issues by preventing independent journalists from covering the events they attend. Before the accreditation ban, there were instances in which journalists cornered Erdoğan and other government officials at news conferences with questions on corruption and allegations about the government or Erdoğan's direct meddling in the media. In most cases, Erdoğan rebuked the journalists and failed to give them accurate answers.

Today's accreditation ban faced by some journalists means that they are prevented from covering events that take place in a public area. Journalists in Turkey have even faced an accreditation ban for an event held in the courtyard of a mosque during the funeral of a slain prosecutor in April.

The accreditation ban is now being taken to the international level with the exclusion of some journalists and media organs from the G-20 summit to be held in the Mediterranean resort of Antalya on Sunday and Monday, where the leaders of the G-20 major economies including the United States, China, Japan, Russia, Canada, Australia and Brazil are set to meet to discuss global economic issues.

Many media organizations, including Today's Zaman, have not yet been granted accreditation by the Turkish government to cover the summit. Despite most other media organizations having received confirmation from the Office of the Prime Minister's Directorate General of Press and Information (BYEGM) about a month ago, the Zaman daily, Today's Zaman, the Cihan news agency and the Sözcü daily have still not been granted accreditation to cover the summit.

The exclusion of a number of journalists and media organizations from the summit has attracted widespread criticism and press organizations in the country have said that the extent of government censorship in Turkey has reached such a point that it is being done in front of the whole world.

In a statement on Wednesday, Media Ethics Council (MEK) President Halit Esendir said the "accreditation shame" at the G-20 summit is an insult against Turkey.

"It should be known that the most important criteria for a developed state is the presence of the freedom of the press and the freedom of expression. The accreditation shame, which means restriction of freedom of expression at a meeting attended by the most developed nations of the world, does not befit our country," said Esendir, while he called on the authorities to allow all journalists and press outlets to cover the event.

Meanwhile, İbrahim Varlık, a reporter from the Cihan news agency, voiced his surprise in a Twitter message on Wednesday that while he was able to follow Erdoğan at the G-20 summit under Mexico's presidency, he is banned from doing so in his own country. Varlık also posted a photo of his accreditation card for the Mexico G-20 summit.

When Rifat Hisarcıklıoğlu, the chairman of the Union of Chambers and Commodity Exchanges of Turkey (TOBB), was asked on Wednesday about his views concerning the accreditation ban against some journalists and media organizations at the G-20 summit, he said the accreditation issue has nothing to do with him and he does not know who is responsible for the controversial move.

Media ban at G-20 taken to Parliament's agenda

The issue of the arbitrary exclusion of a number of journalists from the G-20 summit has been raised in Parliament by main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) deputy Sezgin Tanrıkulu, who submitted a 21-point question to Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu on Wednesday.

Tanrıkulu asked why reporters from the Zaman, Today's Zaman and Sözcü dailies were not allowed to cover a meeting that will be attended by 3,000 journalists. He added that Turkey is currently the only country in Europe that does not have freedom of the press.

In the question, Tanrıkulu asked if the accreditation list had been prepared by the Prime Ministry and what “censorship of media” means to the AK Party. He also asked if Davutoğlu thought banning journalists from Zaman, Sözcü and other newspapers critical of the government from covering the G-20 summit constituted “media censorship.”

Davutoğlu's personal redline

In a bid to ease growing concerns about dwindling press freedom in Turkey, Prime Minister Davutoğlu said during an interview with CNN International's Christiane Amanpour on Nov. 9 that freedom of the press and intellectual freedoms are a "personal redline" for him.

“First of all, when I was an academic in the 1990s, I was also working as a columnist. So freedom of the press and intellectual freedom are redlines for me,” Davutoğlu said. “If there's an attack on any intellectual or columnist or a journalist, I will defend them. I give assurances for this,” he added.

The prime minister's remarks came in response to a question about a crackdown on critical media by the AK Party government and Erdoğan.

Just several days before the Nov.1 election, Turkey saw the taking over of the management of Koza İpek Holding by a group of trustees appointed by the government in an apparently politically motivated move. Koza İpek Holding comprises 22 companies, including the Kanaltürk and Bugün TV channels, the Millet and Bugün dailies, İpek University and a number of other subsidiaries.

The trustees have not only fired dozens of journalists from the news outlets of the İpek Media Group, but they have also turned the group's TV stations and newspapers, which used to have a critical stance, into government mouthpieces.

In yet another development on Wednesday, a detention warrant was issued for journalist Tuncay Opçin as part of an investigation into the irregularities in the trial into Sledgehammer, a 2003-dated coup plot.

The detention warrant for Opçin was issued based on the testimony of journalist Mehmet Baransu's ex-wife, who told prosecutors that Opçin used to give documents to publish to Baransu in return for money and Baransu used to write "important news reports" after meeting with Opçin.

Baransu, who is currently behind bars, was the journalist who in 2010 broke the story about the Sledgehammer coup plot that aimed to topple the AK Party government.

In another development, one of the suspects, Kamuran Ergin, who was detained and then released under judicial supervision in connection with an attack on journalist Ahmet Hakan in October, has been released once again by a penal court of peace where he was referred to for arrest because he did not show up to sign on Friday at the police station.

According to a story in the Hürriyet daily on Wednesday, since Ergin was placed under judicial supervision, he was required to sign at a police station every Monday and Friday. Since he did not go to the police station for a signature on Friday, he has been referred to court for arrest because he violated the requirements of judicial supervision. The court has decided for his release on the grounds that it could not be proved that he did not go to the police station with a special purpose. Ergin claimed that he was extremely ill and that was the reason for his failure to go to the police station.

Only one of the seven suspects had been arrested in connection to the attack on Hakan that took place in front of the journalist's house in İstanbul on Oct.1.

Meanwhile, the Press Council on Wednesday released a statement concerning the threats and harassment faced by journalist Cüneyt Özdemir, who is also a critical journalist, and called on the judicial authorities to take the necessary legal action to find those behind.

Published on Today's Zaman, 11 November 2015, Wednesday