The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is one of the leading globally structured organizations which promotes press freedom worldwide and defends the right of journalists to report the news without fear of reprisal.
Wherever journalists are attacked, imprisoned, killed, kidnapped, threatened, censored or harassed, it is CPJ, a nongovernmental international advocacy group, which takes the initial actions and steps in getting justice for journalists all over the world.
It is correct that journalists and media figures all over the world, especially in countries where the rule of law, justice and democracy are replaced by authoritarian, corrupt governments, are targeted simply because they have enough courage to challenge government brutality and seek and unearth the truth whatever it takes. It sometimes costs them their freedom, sometimes their lives. In these turbulent times for journalists all over the world, CPJ is doing its best to be their voices.
Nina Ognianova, the coordinator of CPJ's Europe and Central Asia Program, says that Turkey is the leading jailer of the press across the world, with 17 journalists in jail for their work.
“We are seeing individuals being targeted by the current authorities through all-encompassing anti-terror and insult laws. We are seeing people from all walks of life being prosecuted, incarcerated for social media postings or comments in forums and publications. We have seen cases of academics being detained, bloggers, students and philosophers and even a former Miss Turkey was prosecuted under that insult law for tweeting,” she said, adding that the situation is absolutely critical, the crackdown intense.
“I'm sure that is not a record that Turkey is happy to hold, and we are looking forward to engaging with the current government to help them get out of that dubious honor,” she said, adding that all the journalists who are in jail for their work must be released without delay.
When CPJ released the list of the imprisoned journalists in Turkey last week, Hidayet Karaca, the executive director of the Samanyolu Media Group was not listed.
Ognianova said: “It is an absolutely politically motivated, retaliatory case. We condemn it in the strongest terms. We will continue to poll for due process to be observed in the case of Hidayet Karaca whenever he gets a trial. Based on what we have seen, we could not make the conclusion that the politically retaliatory action was in retaliation for specifically journalistic activities. In the indictment, we only saw excerpts of the scripts of the television dramas being cited as evidence. Television dramas do not constitute newsgathering in journalism.”
She also mentioned the fact that just because this case is not part of their list of people imprisoned for journalistic activities in Turkey, it does not mean that they are not absolutely protesting the incarceration. “We believe it is politically motivated and a human rights violation. If he is not immediately released, due process must be observed. We will be monitoring this trial very carefully.”
Please, tell us about your organization.
We are a press freedom advocacy group. We have a long history covering Turkey and covering Turkey's press freedom issues. As you know we have made headlines with our field missions in Turkey. We consider it to be one of our countries of focus because of the deep concerns we have with the way media freedom is being cracked down on there. We have made regular visits to the country, twice a year in fact, since 2012, when we published our big reports on Turkey's press freedom crisis, which concluded that Turkey was the leading jailer of journalists globally. Turkey held that dubious record for three years in a row, after which Turkey had a couple of years where journalists were released in great numbers. But of course our concerns about the developments there and with the violations of press freedoms did not stop with the release of journalists. Now, of course, we are seeing a resurgence in incarcerations. Just over the past three weeks, three Kurdish journalists were arrested and are now imprisoned in Turkey. In fact, we have a news alert coming up today on our website.
What about the other focus areas of your organization?
It is a global news organization, and it covers the entire world. The imprisonment of journalists is only one type of attack on the press that we cover. We report daily on any number of issues that concern journalism, from physical attacks to prosecution in retaliation for ones work, to incarceration and, of course, the ultimate censorship, murder. We report on journalists who are being kidnapped for their work, on journalists who go missing, journalists who are regularly harassed or prosecuted on a variety of seemingly non-press-related charges. But once we verify the details, we understand that the attacks were conducted in response to their work.
What are the similarities between the charges for the Turkish journalists and other journalists in different countries?
We have just released our global survey of journalists imprisoned for their work worldwide, and our conclusion is that anywhere in the world journalists are being prosecuted and jailed in large numbers on anti-state charges. So, in that way, Turkey is, unfortunately, very much in the same line as many other countries, but the big difference is that Turkey is a country that is aspiring, at least nominally, to democratic development. It is aspiring to enter the EU and is now vying to re-energize the accession negotiations with Brussels. Of course, that is one issue we find to be very timely, the global community, including press freedom of mediations, having an opening to put positive pressure on the EU to engage with Turkey more constructively, particularly on press freedom issues, and to ask the current authorities to consider releasing all journalists from jail as a precondition for re-energizing those accession talks. In fact, on Dec. 15 we released our global survey on imprisoned journalists, and we held a press conference in Brussels, focusing particularly on Turkey and on the crackdown that has intensified there. We held that conference in Brussels for a reason. We wanted to bring global attention to the fact that the EU has been lenient on Turkey, particularly recently, and to call on Brussels institutions to reengage in a meaningful negotiation with Ankara about press freedom issues, to put press freedom on the agenda for accession talks and to make it a focus of negotiations with Turkey. We believe that it is a fundamental issue, that it is an urgent issue and it has to be addressed at the EU level. We held that press conference at the Press Club in Brussels along with other international press freedom organizations, including Reporters without Borders and the European Federation of Journalism, and the fact that we joined forces on this issue shows just how seriously the international press freedom community is taking this. We believe the EU must take that very seriously as well.
In terms of press freedom violations, which countries would you compare with Turkey?
We don't do that kind of ranking. We don't do the sort of rankings that, for example, Freedom House does or Reporters without Borders do, so I can't really make that comparison. Suffice to say that with 17 journalists in jail for their work, Turkey is the leading jailer of the press across the world.
You said 17, right?
Yes, as of Dec. 1 when we had a tally there were 14, but now with the three new arrests it is 17. That just cements Turkey's position as Europe-Central Asia's leading jailer of the press. I'm sure that is not a record that Turkey is happy to hold, and we are looking forward to engaging with the current government to help them get out of that dubious honor. And it is very easy to do that, it is plain and simple: all the journalists who are in jail for their work must be released without delay. We have been repeatedly calling for that.
How do gather your data? Do you have any representative in Turkey?
We do not have a representative in Turkey, but we do have a part time correspondent in Istanbul, who is doing most of our work on the ground reporting for us. Of course, our team in New York are confirming that information and working to verify the reporting done on the ground from Istanbul.
What is your methodology when examining the indictments? How do you evaluate these indictments?
We make efforts to gain first hand access to any available data, first and foremost. Not only the indictment, but also press reports available both in Turkish and English. We do interviews with legal representatives of the journalists who are incarcerated or being prosecuted at the time, and we speak with their colleagues. So we gather a variety of information to make sure our assessment is based on information about each case which is as complete as possible and is publicly available.
How do you determine whether the case is journalistic or not?
How do we determine whether a case is journalistic or not? We always compare the charges or the stated charges or accusations in case a charge has not become official yet but is being investigated. We compare the accusations with the evidence or purported evidence that the authorities are putting forward against every journalist whose case we are looking at. We compare the accusations against what the government says is evidence of that accusation. If the charges say anti-state, we want to see what kind of crime and what kind of evidence there is to back the stated or purported crime. We look piece by piece at what the government and authorities say they have: Is it evidence of weapons? Is it tangible evidence of criminal activity? What are the forensics showing? What are the clues, what are the key pieces of evidence that the authorities have? In many cases with Turkey, anti-state charges or accusations are not backed up by any tangible evidence. When the indictment is ready and available, we look very hard at what is inside it. It takes time to examine that indictment, of course, but we don't rush our conclusions, and we don't jump to justifying a case, probably, as fast as other groups sometimes do. We take a journalistic approach, a reportorial approach, so we can be solid and say that this is what the evidence says, this is what we believe (backed up by the evidence), and these are our conclusions based on what is available.
In many of the cases with the anti-state charges, it is journalistic activities that are stated as evidence of criminal activity, and this is the biggest problem in Turkey. The current legal framework in Turkey allows authorities to interpret legitimate journalistic activities as terrorism or as an act of extremism. We have repeatedly called for the meaningful and wholesale revision of those pieces of legislation that allow this because, even if the current authority decided not to use those kind of charges, the next government could abuse those same charges. We want the legislation to be rid of this vaguely worded, broad, all encompassing language, that allows legitimate reporting activities to be interpreted as an act of terrorism, terrorism propaganda or as aiding a terrorist group. The language of these legislative pieces is completely vague, all encompassing and ripe for abuse by authorities because it's the authorities that interpret these laws.
The government is very smart to make the cases seem irrelevant to journalism. Turkish Minister of Justice Bekir Bozdağ has already stated that the imprisoned journalists are not in prison because of their journalistic work. But they don't state journalism in the charges.
I disagree. They are not that smart because the indictments that are available and that we have been able to look at do not state journalism; they do not state criminal activities. But they do put forward legitimate journalism gathering activities, such as speaking to sources or talking on the phone with sources. Now, who are these sources? They might be, indeed, leaders of so-called banned organizations, but to talk to all kinds of sources and to gather information from all kinds of available interviewees is a legitimate journalistic exercise. By our standards, it is not a crime to talk to someone like Ocalan because that someone is someone that we should hear from. The covering of a terrorist organization does not constitute terrorism itself. The way that the Turkish authorities are interpreting journalistic activity, talking about or covering the PKK [Kurdistan Workers' Party] equals being part of the PKK or being guilty of terrorism, which is really unacceptable by any international standard.
They can also seize or shut down any newspapers by claiming that the news organizations support the PKK.
Yes, they have done that. We raised a flag about this with every single case. The takeover of the Koza İpek Holding Media Outlets was a blatant example of press freedom violation. We have repeatedly protested against the shut down of their news broadcast and the confiscation and discontinuation of their press media. These are crude and very heavy-handed acts of censorship. We protested them at the time and we continue to protest them in the strongest of terms.
Did you come to a conclusion about Hidayet Karaca's case?
Based on what we have seen, we could not make the determination that he was incarcerated because of his journalistic activities. But, of course, if there is new information that comes to us, we are open to reevaluate that. We have said the same about all of our cases. We have said the same to the government when we have met with them. We have in fact asked the government to provide us with fresh information about all of the cases listed on our imprisoned roster by Jan. 15. We are hoping to get feedback from them as well. We are really open to feedback from any of the sources and parties that can help us piece together a complete picture of the cases.
Did the legal representatives of Hidayet Karaca reach you and give you any information?
No, we have not been reached by his legal representatives.
When examining the cases of, for example, Hatice Duman, she has been in jail 10 years. She and others were actually accused of being members of Marxist, Leninist terrorist organizations. The accusations are not related to journalistic work.
No, absolutely. And that is the problem, in many cases, the accusations sound absolutely non-journalistic. It sounds serious and it sounds dangerous. But we do make very much an individual effort to go through all these cases one by one to make a determination.
The government is accusing Hidayet Karaca of being a member of a terrorist organization and engineering a conspiracy against another group known as Tahsiyeciler in Turkey.
It is a totally politically motivated, retaliatory case. We condemn it in the strongest of terms. We will continue to poll for due process to be observed in the case of Hidayet Karaca whenever he gets a trial. Based on what we saw, we could not make the conclusion that that the retaliatory action was a reprisal for specifically journalistic activities. In the indictment, we only saw excerpts of the scripts of the television dramas being cited as evidence. Television dramas do not constitute newsgathering in journalism. We have to observe universal standards for all of our cases, and we do observe the same kind of criteria and standards in all our cases across the world. The fact that this case is not part of our list of imprisoned for journalistic activities in Turkey does not mean that we are not absolutely protesting the incarceration. We believe it is politically motivated and a human rights violation. If he is not immediately released, due process must be observed. We will be monitoring this trial closely and very carefully.
When you compare the case of Hidayet Karaca and Füsun Erdoğan, editor of Özgür Radyo you see the similarities, they were not arrested because of their journalistic work, but they are being accused of being members of terrorist organizations.
Really, all of these cases are crude politically motivated and retaliatory. These individuals must be released without delay. Again, if you or your colleagues or legal representatives of Hidayet Karaca have additional information that could help us, that would prompt us to amend our determination about whether this is a journalistic case. We are ready to reexamine that case.
The thing is that not only journalistic work but also journalism itself is a target of authoritarian governments. All media that has a critical voice or idea is a target of governments.
That is absolutely evident. We are seeing that individuals are being targeted by the current authorities through all-encompassing anti-terror and insult laws. We are seeing people from all walks of life being prosecuted, incarcerated for social media postings or comments in forums, for publications and the like. We have seen cases of academics being detained, of bloggers, of students and philosophers and even a former Miss Turkey prosecuted under that insult law because of tweets. The picture is absolutely critical, the crackdown is intense. It is obvious to every observer, and the international community is taking it very seriously. We, as the organization don't go into a country two or three times a year if there is no need for that. And we were in Turkey three times this year. Once I went by myself in May, after that Muzaffar Suleymanov, my research associate was part of an international delegation along with the IPI [International Press Institute], the RSF [Reporters without Borders] and a number of other organizations, and then we also took part of the RSF led emergency mission and press conference in Istanbul, right after the imprisonment of Can Dündar and Erdem Gül. Again, international organizations don't go into a country so many times per year if there is no need. There is a clear need for more engagement in Turkey and there is an obvious escalation on press freedoms attacks.
Do you know the accusations against Can Dündar and Erdem Gül?
They are related to their journalistic work, the investigation during the summer was about reports that the Turkish Intelligence Service had been aiding Islamic fighters in Syria, and these allegations were reported, as far as I understand, with photographic evidence. These are journalists with long standing records; they are veteran journalists. They reported on these serious allegations, as any investigative journalist in any country would do, and instead of the authorities following up on the reports to figure out what actually happened there, they went straight after the journalists, and now the journalists are facing years and years in prison if convicted. These are obviously extremely disturbing cases and some of the latest instances of severe press freedom attacks.
Profile: Nina Ognianova is coordinator of CPJ's Europe and Central Asia Program. A native of Bulgaria, Ognianova has carried out numerous fact-finding and advocacy missions across the region. Her commentaries on press freedom have appeared in the Guardian, the International Herald Tribune, the Huffington Post, and the EU Observer among others.
Published on Today's Zaman, 24 December 2015, Thursday