February 6, 2015

In Washington, Turkish minister highlights press freedom, bans critical journalists

Turkey's infamous press ban has been extended to Washington this week, as a Turkish minister imposed a press ban on critical journalists while stressing the press freedoms that Turks enjoy back at home.

"Am I free to cover your briefing?" Ali H. Aslan, Washington representative of Zaman daily asked, minutes after Turkey's EU Affairs Minister Volkan Bozkır explained to Americans how much press freedom Turkey has in a talk he delivered at the German Marshall Fund (GMF) on Thursday. "It is a conversation with selected journalists," the minister replied.

The minister's refusal to allow journalists from the Zaman daily, Bugün daily and Cihan news agency to cover his briefing at the Turkish Embassy in Washington is the latest in a series of press bans that characterized the past year and a half, when the crackdown on the outspoken media has picked up momentum.

Freedom House has ranked Turkey as "not free" in its latest Press Freedom Index, while other press advocacy bodies listed Turkey as a country where doing journalism is dangerous. Only this week, a prominent journalist from the Taraf daily, Mehmet Baransu, was detained for the fifth time, while Dutch journalist Frederike Geerdink was indicted and is facing five years in prison.

Along with Aslan, Adem Yavuz Arslan from Bugün daily and İhsan Denli from the Cihan news agency were also told that they are not welcome at the minister's event at the embassy. The journalists, however, had a rare chance to ask the minister at the GMF why.

During his speech at the GMF, Bozkır spoke about press freedoms in Turkey and asserted that journalists are free to say or write whatever they want. When quizzed by Aslan about jailed journalists and intimidation of the critical media, Bozkır dismissed what he called a "wrong perception."

He argued that the numbers do not tell the whole picture and that arrested journalists are incarcerated not because of what they wrote, but what crimes they committed. He then started listing the alleged crimes of the arrested journalists, but avoided mentioning Hidayet Karaca, chief executive of Samanyolu Media Group, who was arrested in December last year for airing an episode of a soap opera six years ago that allegedly included an "encrypted order" to target a group with al-Qaeda sympathies.

When the minister argued that he is holding a conversation with "selected journalists," Arslan from the Bugün daily asked what the criterion is for him to select the journalists for his talk.

"It is up to me to decide," Bozkır replied. "It is my call."

Aslan told Today's Zaman that he has been doing journalism in Washington for almost 18 years and that this was the first time that he has not been allowed into the embassy for a press event. He described the incident as "saddening" and said it illustrates to what extent the discriminatory and unfair treatment of the media has reached in Turkey.

In addition, Aslan said, it is noteworthy that the embassy, which is tasked with polishing the image of Turkey, has become a tool for injustices based on political considerations. "I believe the minister won't be able to explain this discriminatory approach to his European interlocutors," Aslan added.

Denli from the Cihan news agency said the minister's argument that the embassy talk is for "selected journalists" is "not a satisfactory response" and that it is absolutely wrong for authorities to prevent the work of journalists with such "arbitrary decisions."

Published on Today's Zaman, 06 February 2015, Friday