April 29, 2015

Freedom House ranks Turkey ’Not Free,’ cites deteriorating media freedom

The Washington-based rights watchdog Freedom House has ranked Turkey among the "Not Free" countries in its latest press freedom report, noting that Turkey's media environment deteriorated further as the government has moved more aggressively to close the space available for dissent through new legal measures and intimidation.

"Conditions for media freedom in Turkey continued to deteriorate in 2014 after several years of decline," the “Freedom of the Press 2015” report says. The organization said that conditions for the media deteriorated sharply in 2014 worldwide, reaching their lowest point in more than 10 years, as journalists around the world encountered more restrictions from governments, militants, criminals and media owners.

“Journalists faced intensified pressure from all sides in 2014,” Jennifer Dunham said, project manager of the report, as Freedom House released the report on Wednesday. “Governments used security or antiterrorism laws as a pretext to silence critical voices, militant groups and criminal gangs used increasingly brazen tactics to intimidate journalists, and media owners attempted to manipulate news content to serve their political or business interests,” she added.

The report says the Turkish government enacted new laws that expanded both the state's power to block websites and the surveillance capability of the National Intelligence Organization (MİT). Journalists faced unprecedented legal obstacles, the report notes, as the courts restricted reporting on corruption and national security issues. According to the findings, the authorities also continued to aggressively use the penal code, criminal defamation laws, and the antiterrorism law to crack down on journalists and media outlets.

It highlighted verbal attacks on journalists by senior politicians -- including President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan -- that were often followed by harassment and even death threats on social media against targeted journalists. The report added that the government continued to use financial and other leverage it holds over media owners to influence coverage of politically sensitive issues. Several dozen journalists, including prominent columnists, lost their jobs as a result of such pressure during the year, and those who remained had to operate in a climate of increasing self-censorship and media polarization.

Freedom House said constitutional guarantees of press freedom and freedom of expression are only partially upheld in practice and are generally undermined by laws that effectively leave the punishment of normal journalistic activity to the discretion of prosecutors and judges.

The report said since the anti-government protests linked to Gezi Park in 2013, Erdoğan has accused the foreign media and various outside interest groups of organizing and manipulating unrest in the country. The report mentioned how Erdoğan publicly denounced The Economist reporter Amberin Zaman during a public rally and how New York Times reporter Ceylan Yeğinsu suffered a similar verbal attack over a photograph caption.

It said new laws enacted in 2014 significantly eroded freedom of expression. In February last year, the Internet Law expanded the power of the Telecommunications Authority (TİB) to order the blocking of websites. Since the law was enacted, courts twice ordered a ban on access to Twitter and YouTube as well as Google and Facebook. Over 60,000 websites are blocked in Turkey, with TİB reportedly blocking 22,645 websites without prior court approval during 2014, the report said.

Freedom House also mentioned the deportation of this reporter from Turkey last February after Erdoğan filed a criminal complaint against him for posting links on Twitter to articles on a corruption scandal that had surfaced in December of 2013.

Reporters Without Borders ranked Turkey 149th out of a total of 180 countries in its annual press freedom report released last month. At least 10 journalists remain behind bars in Turkey, including STV network executive Hidayet Karaca. Karaca is accused of airing an episode of a soap opera six years ago that sent an encrypted message to police officers to arrest the leader of an al-Qaeda-linked group in eastern Turkey.

Press advocacy groups have highlighted deteriorating press freedoms in the country, noting that the crackdown on the media has only intensified since a corruption scandal broke a year-and-a-half ago. The latest press victim was Taraf daily columnist Mehmet Baransu, who is known for publishing secret military communications and documents that exposed an alleged coup plan against the incumbent Justice and Development Party (AK Party).

Almost daily, Turkish journalists are slapped with criminal charges over what they write, including what they write on Twitter. Turkey's courts dole out sentences in response to any type of criticism under the country's widely exploited defamation law.

Freedom House said media outlets were raided and journalists detained in 2014, as part of an ongoing crackdown on supporters of exiled Turkish Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen. It noted that security forces conducted raids across the country against outlets suspected of affiliation with the Gülen movement, such as the newspaper Zaman. Several media workers and journalists were arrested, including Ekrem Dumanlı, Zaman's editor-in-chief, under suspicion of “establishing and managing an armed terror organization” with the intent of seizing state power.

The report said Dumanlı and the majority of the other detainees were later released pending trial, but that Karaca was still in jail.

The Turkish state media regulatory watchdog, the Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK), is frequently subject to political pressure, the report warned, and its board is currently dominated by members affiliated with the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party). It said in 2014 RTÜK issued 78 warnings and 254 fines to television channels, and 12 warnings and seven fines to radio stations. Print outlets can be closed if they violate laws restricting media freedom. The report stated that media outlets are sometimes denied access to events and information for political reasons.

Published on Today's Zaman, 29 April 2015, Wednesday