May 1, 2015

Democracy hits rock bottom in a Turkey without press freedom

While the rest of the world marks this year's World Press Freedom Day on May 3, journalists in Turkey are facing the most severe forms of repression: a number of them are either in jail, losing their jobs or dealing with legal charges rained down on them by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party).

Despite Turkish officials' claims that the press in Turkey is freer than in most countries, Turkish journalists are feeling an increase in government pressure every day.

Samanyolu Broadcasting Group General Manager Hidayet Karaca was taken into custody on Dec. 14, 2014, as part of a government-backed police operation. Karaca was later arrested and still remains in jail on suspicion of being a member of an armed organization. The charges against him are based on a fictional TV series that was broadcasted a few years ago.

Sedef Kabaş, a TV presenter, is facing a prison sentence of up to five years for posting a tweet about a corruption probe involving high-profile individuals. Another journalist, Mehmet Baransu, is being held under arrest for publishing state documents, with the charge of revealing secret documents that are important for national security.

Karaca and Baransu are deprived of their freedom due to the prosecutor's reluctance to prepare indictments for them. Columnist Mümtaz'er Türköne is facing legal charges due to his criticism of President Erdoğan and ruling AK Party members. Osman Özsoy was fired from the pro-government Yeni Şafak daily last year due to his critical stance against the government in the wake of a graft probe implicating a number of AK Party officials and their relatives, which went public on Dec. 17, 2013. Özsoy announced on his Twitter account on Wednesday that he had been detained by counterterrorism police officers while disembarking a ferry in İstanbul for remarks he made on a TV show on Tuesday.

Lawsuits have been launched against dozens of journalists after they had posted individual messages on the popular micro-blogging site Twitter.

Following the implementation of an arbitrary accreditation system for journalists who cover the Turkish Presidency, the Prime Minister's Office and the ministries, Parliament also recently started to implement accreditation tools to screen out certain journalists known to be critical of the government. Journalists Ali Aslan Kılıç and Uğur Telli were banned from asking questions in Parliament after asking critical questions of an AK Party deputy in the parliament area. Cüneyt Özdemir, a TV presenter and journalist, recently posted a tweet saying that Turkish journalists are under tremendous pressure, adding that journalists are targeted and intimidated by material or moral means. Özdemir pointed out that the government is worried about the effect of an objective media ahead of the June 7 general election.

Turkey started to mark officially World Press Freedom Day in 1997, but this year's World Press Freedom Day found Turkey deprived of many media freedoms. World Press Freedom Day, adopted by the United Nations in 1993, provides a good opportunity to publish the statistics showing countries' performance in the democracy league.

The reports announced ahead of World Press Freedom Day indicate that press freedoms have degraded considerably. Freedom House's 2015 report referred to Turkey as a country where the press is "non-free." According to the report, last year was when Turkey's poorest performance was observed during the past 10 years. It stressed that many journalists were targeted, threatened and arrested.

In the 2014 report, Turkey had been demoted from the "partially free countries" to the "non-free countries" category for the first time in its past. The 2015 report noted that Turkey is among the countries where the rate of degradation of press freedoms was the highest. Turkey is now the only country in Europe where the press is not free. Freedom of the press is more restricted compared to Bangladesh, Indonesia, Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya.

Ertuğrul Yalçınbayır, one of the founders of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party), expressed his regret for the AK Party's poor performance regarding press freedoms. "If the press is not free, democracy hits rock bottom. There is virtually no institution that hasn't hit rock bottom in Turkey," he told Today's Zaman on Thursday.

Yalçınbayır indicated: "We have established this party so that it abolishes the bans. But today the country has become a place where the press is banned everywhere. The reason for this is that the ruling party thinks it will be called to account for its actions. The factors that have lured them into this form of thinking are equally important.”

He also said that World Press Freedom Day is actually the day when the ruling party is held accountable to the public. “On this day, governments explain to the public their actions regarding freedom of the press during the year. Transparency and accountability -- the principles esteemed all around the world -- are indispensable criteria for social life. The ruling party is not inclined to be accountable for anything, so it won't explain its actions concerning freedom of the press on May 3. The people who are not voters of this party should realize this and call on the government to account for its actions," said Yalçınbayır.

Yalçınbayır served as the founding secretary-general of the AK Party and a deputy prime minister in the past. He asserted that peace cannot be achieved in a country that does not pay any respect to media freedoms, which are sine qua non ingredients of democracies. "The recent repression and intimidation of journalists has had a negative impact on Turkey's standing regarding freedom of the press. In addition to journalists who are now in jail like Hidayet Karaca and Mehmet Baransu, there are also members of the press who face litigation or who are prevented from performing their journalistic duties,” he said, adding that these unprecedented bans on the press damage Turkey's image at home and abroad.

“This damage to the country's prestige will also pave the way for problems in other areas such as the economy and diplomacy. Parliament is not managed well. The executive is not managed well. The blocking of the court order to release Karaca has showed the world that the judiciary, too, is not managed well. The legal system has collapsed; the system of checks and balance has failed! I am afraid this is an alarm bell for greater danger. The ruling party cannot use excuses to defend itself. No excuse can be produced in defense of the undermining of freedom of the press. If you take refuge in excuses to avoid accountability, you lose the race in the international arena," he said.

Two judges, Metin Özçelik and Mustafa Başer, were suspended after their rulings ordering the release of journalist Karaca and dozens of anti-corruption investigators after months of pre-trial detention without formal charges being laid. Later Özçelik was arrested, confirming that even judges are not immune to the tactics to silence rights defenders.

Press freedoms are withering away

Yusuf Kanlı, the project coordinator of the Press for Freedom (PfF) project of The Turkish Journalists Association (TGC), asserts that journalists are prevented from doing their jobs.

"Detentions, arrests, lawsuits, threats and arbitrary accreditation practices are effectively preventing journalists from doing their jobs. This is obviously an execution of a profession. In Turkey, the death penalty was abolished for terrorists and murderers, but the executions of the professions of journalists have skyrocketed," he said.

Criticizing the arbitrary accreditation bans targeting certain journalists attempting to cover press events, even those held inside the grounds of Parliament, Kanlı said, “This is a sign of the executive's pressure over the legislative branch.”

Emphasizing that the basic indicators of a country's level of democratic development are freedom of expression and freedom of the press, Kanlı stated: “In terms of press freedom our country is in 149th place. Reporters are prevented from covering events and kicked out of meetings. The criteria are the ruling party's categorization of the press members as acceptable or unacceptable. This is discrimination and it should end -- there can be no excuse for such discrimination.”

He admitted that journalists can make mistakes as well, but insisted that imposing arbitrary accreditation bans on certain members of the press is almost equal to killing a journalist professionally. “If a journalist commits a crime, there are more acceptable forms of punishment than rendering them unable to work. Accreditation is professional execution. Journalists should not be punished by dismissing them from their profession. The punishment should be of a corrective nature. Finally, Parliament's practice of accrediting certain journalists is unacceptable, and is indicative of the level of pressure applied to the legislature,” Kanlı attested.

Supporting the statement made by the Association of Parliamentary Reporters (PMD), Kanlı pointed out that the Parliament speaker has a legal background and that there is no excuse for him closing the doors of Parliament to reporters. “The Prime Ministry also cannot close its doors to reporters. Arbitrary accreditation is not only a form of censorship, but also a form of discrimination that must be condemned. It is a form of alienation. It is a breach of human rights. It is a crime against humanity. I condemn the practice of accreditation. Silence in face of these accreditation practices makes those who are silent as guilty as those who implement them," he added.

Drawing attention to the fact that the practice of accreditation has polarized journalists, Kanlı explained that some journalists who are close to the government have started to act as “hitmen” for the ruling party. Kanlı states that some pro-government journalists have gone as far as to accuse other journalists of attempting to overthrow the government. "We have witnessed despicable acts by some of our colleagues, who accuse certain journalists of trying to overthrow the government. Sometimes, we feel ashamed of our profession," he said.

Published on Today's Zaman, 01 May 2015, Friday