March 27, 2015

Democracy 'at risk' in Turkey, according to IPI special report

International Press Institute, Logo
One of the leading international press freedom watchdogs, the International Press Institute (IPI), has said in a special report on Turkey that Turkish authorities' failure to safeguard -- and, in some cases, their active steps to undermine -- the right to share and receive information has led to serious deficiencies in the country's democracy, placing its future at serious risk.

The Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government and its former leader, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, have been receiving growing criticism from international media watchdogs and independent media circles in Turkey for the tightening of restrictions on freedom of the press in the country. Almost no day passes in Turkey without the prosecution of a journalist on the grounds that they insulted state officials.

The report, “Democracy at Risk,” draws on information collected during numerous IPI visits to the country over the past four years, including meetings with President Erdoğan, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and other top leaders last fall during a press freedom mission conducted jointly with the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

The report highlights and contextualizes major press freedom developments in Turkey since 2003, when Erdoğan, then heading the ruling AK Party, took power as prime minister.

It also identifies broad threats to press freedom, as well as the responses of Erdoğan, Davutoğlu and other officials when questioned directly about those threats.

Those threats, according to IPI Director of Advocacy and Communications Steven M. Ellis, the report's author, include economic pressure on media outlets, a toxic political climate, the manipulation of the legal framework, pressure on speech online and ongoing impunity for attacks on journalists.

“Turkey has seen increased pressure on media in recent years, part of a drift toward authoritarianism that has led to a pervasive climate of self-censorship and one of the most troubling press freedom pictures in Europe...,” Ellis wrote.

“As Turkey approaches parliamentary elections in June 2015, it does so amid an overall erosion of respect for human rights, including free expression and media freedom. Unfortunately, absent a fundamental change in attitude and behavior by those in power, the corresponding weakening of democracy, a cycle which appears to both sustain and increase itself daily, is one for which there is no immediate end in sight.”

The report makes mention of a police raid on the offices of the Zaman daily and Samanyolu TV in December of last year as a result of which top Zaman and Samanyolu executives, Ekrem Dumanlı and Hidayet Karaca, respectively, in addition to dozens of screenwriters, producers and graphic designers, were detained on charges of being members of a terrorist organization. While Dumanlı was released pending trial several days later, Karaca is still imprisoned despite the lack of any evidence against him.

The report draws attention to the irony of Prime Minister Davutoğlu's later participation in a march in Paris to defend freedom of the press in the wake of an attack on French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo that left eight of the magazine's staff dead.

In the report, there is also a reference to the migration of pressure on the traditional media to the online venue in Turkey. Individuals' social media accounts are blocked, particularly those of journalists affiliated with the Gülen (or Hizmet) movement, the report said.

On Wednesday, Twitter blocked access to two tweets posted by two top editors from Today's Zaman daily over Turkish court decisions, which ruled that the posts contained “insults” directed at Prime Minister Davutoğlu.

Davutoğlu recently sued Today's Zaman Editor-in-Chief Bülent Keneş and Managing Editor Celil Sağır over tweets they wrote, the latest in a series of similar cases filed against journalists in Turkey.

The AK Party government and Erdoğan launched a war on the Gülen movement after a graft probe became public in December of 2013 in which senior government members were implicated. They accuse the movement of masterminding the probe, while the Gülen movement strongly denies the accusations.

Giving some statistics, the IPI report revealed that as of Jan. 1, 22 journalists and 10 newspaper distributors were imprisoned in Turkey and that President Erdoğan has brought at least 70 criminal insult cases against journalists, artists, cartoonists, social media users and teenage schoolchildren among others, since his inauguration last August. In addition, at least 126 reporters, including nine from international media, have claimed that they were beaten, injured, obstructed or insulted by elements of the security forces while covering the Gezi Park protests in the summer of 2013.

In the report, there are recommendations for the Turkish authorities to “reverse recent trends” in the field of the freedom of expression that include making legislative amendments to maintain a freer atmosphere for journalists.

Kadri Gürsel, a columnist with Turkish daily Milliyet and the chair of IPI's Turkish National Committee, praised the report and pointed to the need for Turkey's leaders to heed its recommendations.

“In this highly informative, elaborate and objective report, IPI is not only telling us why journalism in Turkey is in its current agonizing state and how it has gotten there, but is also showing ways to get out of it,” he said.

The report is being released in connection with IPI's 2015 World Congress and 64th General Assembly in Myanmar, which is to be held on Friday and Saturday. Both Ellis and Gürsel will be present at the congress, where they will discuss the report and its conclusions.

The Vienna-based IPI is a global network of editors, media executives and leading journalists dedicated to furthering and safeguarding press freedom, promoting the free flow of news and information, and improving the practices of journalism. Formed in 1950 at Columbia University by 34 leading editors from 15 countries on the belief that a free press would contribute to the creation of a better world, IPI today includes members in more than 120 countries and holds consultative status with the Council of Europe (CoE).

Published on Cihan, 26 March 2015, Thursday