November 1, 2015

Top int’l press body says pressure on media threatens democracy in Turkey

The International Press Institute (IPI) has said in a report released on Saturday detailing the findings of the Joint International Emergency Press Freedom Mission to Turkey -- which was undertaken last week by a broad coalition of international free expression and press freedom groups -- that the growing pressure on the media threatens Turkish democracy.

A statement also released by the IPI on Saturday said the report, titled “Press Freedom in Turkey's Inter-Election Period,” builds on the mission participants' finding that escalating pressure on media in the period between the parliamentary election in June and the repeat polls set for Nov. 1 significantly impacted journalists' ability to report on matters of public interest and is likely to “have a significant, negative impact on the ability of voters in Turkey to share and receive necessary information, with a corresponding effect on Turkey's democracy.”

From Oct. 19 to 21, mission participants met in İstanbul and Ankara with journalists, political representatives and foreign diplomats to demonstrate solidarity with their colleagues in the news media in Turkey and to focus attention in Turkey and abroad on the impact the growing pressure on independent media is likely to have on the Nov. 1 election.

“It does so through 10 brief chapters by mission participants that set forth details on main areas of concern that the participants identified in a joint declaration last week following the close of the mission. The report also contains an evaluation of the degree to which authorities in Turkey have heeded recommendations that the IPI set forth six months ago in its report, 'Democracy at Risk, IPI Special Report on Turkey, 2015,' concluding that authorities have largely failed to take necessary steps to remedy ongoing threats to media freedom,” the statement said.

“Pressure on media has continued to increase following our mission and we remain extremely concerned about the deteriorating state of press freedom in Turkey and its impact both on the Nov. 1 elections and beyond,” IPI Director of Advocacy and Communications Steven M. Ellis said. “We again call for an immediate end to all efforts to hinder or prevent journalists from giving voters in Turkey the information they need to make an informed decision about their future.”

The unprecedented mission brought together representatives from eight leading international press freedom and free expression groups, including the IPI, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Reporters Without Borders (RSF), the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ), Article 19, Index on Censorship and the Ethical Journalism Network. Delegates were also joined by members of the Turkish Journalists Union (TGS) and the IPI's National Committee in Turkey.

The mission participants authored each chapter in the report, with concerns raised during the mission being highlighted in specific detail.

In the introduction section of the report, IPI Executive Board Vice Chair Markus Spillmann said the mission highlighted a number of problems, including a lack of solidarity among journalists in Turkey that, unfortunately, has served them poorly. However, he writes that in order to comply with European and international standards, it is first and foremost the responsibility of the presidential palace, the government and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) to change the situation for the better.

Spillmann warned that if the upcoming election is to be viewed as a democratic exercise, authorities must refrain from any politically or personally motivated intimidation of the free press. “This includes bringing legal cases against journalists for criticism of the president, applying anti-terror or criminal defamation laws to silence journalists, or using financial and economic pressure against media companies,” he said.

Europe and Central Asia Program Associate of the CPJ, Muzaffar Suleymanov, examined the problem of impunity in Turkey, which he defined as the government's inability or unwillingness to conduct a swift and transparent investigation and bring perpetrators to justice in violent attacks on the press. He recalled recent assaults on the press in İstanbul, including two consecutive attacks on the newspaper Hürriyet and an assault on Ahmet Hakan, a Hürriyet columnist and host at CNN Türk. Suleymanov said no one has been held accountable in either case, “so they linger as a stark reminder to journalists of the potential price of doing their job.”

In another chapter, David Diaz-Jogeix, director of programs at Article 19, discussed hundreds of cases filed against journalists and news agencies by senior state officials based on insult and defamation laws.

Stating that “the examples of journalists or news agencies charged with defamation in recent months are too numerous to outline” in the report, he said a prominent recent example is the blocking of the website of Nokta magazine on Oct. 20 due to an article which allegedly defamed the president. Hasan Cemal, a veteran journalist at the T24 news agency and a former Cumhuriyet editor-in-chief, also faces several criminal defamation charges for articles he has written criticizing the president.

He called on Turkey to decriminalize defamation by repealing Article 125 of the Turkish Penal Code (TCK) and to similarly repeal Article 299 of the TCK, which protects the president from criticism.

Turkey: Graveyard of journalism

Ferai Tınç, IPI executive board member and former Hürriyet foreign news desk editor and columnist, also authored a brief article in the report “Turkey: Graveyard of Journalism,” which provides an overview of the deteriorating situation of the media in Turkey.

“Journalists are attacked, beaten and deprived of accreditations to cover government meetings. Media owners are severely threatened and newspapers are seized. Imprisonment has become a common verdict for any criticism against President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.”

“Meanwhile, hundreds of journalists are jobless and have no hope of finding one as long as they do not adopt a pro-government position. Thus Turkey, once a prison for journalists, is now becoming a graveyard for journalism,” she wrote.

In another chapter, Diaz-Jogeix from Article 19 discussed how Turkey abuses its counterterrorism laws, saying that the Turkish Counterterrorism Law (TMK) and counterterrorism provisions in the TCK define terms like “terrorism,” “organized crime” and “propaganda” so broadly that they allow for the prosecution of journalists based merely on the coverage of terrorist activities.

“Individuals are therefore vulnerable to prosecution for advocating non-violent political ideas of legitimate public concern. Offenses within the Penal Code [TCK] are so broad that they allow prosecution of legitimate expression without proving involvement in violent acts or their incitement.”

He recalled that on May 29, just a few days prior to the June election, an investigation was started against the editor-in-chief of the Cumhuriyet daily newspaper, Can Dündar, regarding a front-page news story with photographs and links to a video, which allegedly showed Turkish intelligence service trucks transporting weapons to Syria. The charges against him included spreading propaganda for a terrorist organization, and he is potentially facing two life sentences.

Ceren Sözeri, a Galatasaray University associate professor who works for the Ethical Journalism Network (EJN), discussed media ownership and control in Turkey and how the AK Party has used media ownership to reconfigure the media landscape and to restrict the freedom of the press. She listed the government's tools used to control the media and recent steps it took for this purpose, including bans on critical TV networks which were dropped from several online streaming services. She said the government has in particular been targeting media outlets that are close to Turkish Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen as “being part of a terrorist organization.”

"In just the last few days, the government seized a pro-Gülen holding company, the Koza İpek Group, over its links to the movement and appointed a group of pro-government trustees to oversee its affairs, including at least one who used to work for pro-government media.”

“When economic means have not brought media into line, government officials and supporters have turned to other journalists. Critical coverage of the government has been met with an aggravated response by the pro-government media, where government supporters have used headlines and columns to threaten their counterparts and the owners of other media outlets,” Sözeri wrote.

Prior recommendations not heeded by Turkey

In March the IPI released “Democracy at Risk, IPI Special Report on Turkey, 2015,” highlighting and contextualizing major press freedom developments in Turkey since 2003.

Drawing on information collected during numerous IPI visits to the country over the preceding four years -- including meetings with President Erdoğan, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and other top leaders in October 2014 during a press freedom mission conducted jointly with the CPJ -- the report identified broad threats to press freedom, as well as the responses of Erdoğan and Davutoğlu when questioned directly about those threats.

The March report also set forth a list of recommendations “to remedy the harm to media freedom and free expression that Turkey has suffered in recent years.”

The new report released by IPI examined whether Turkish authorities complied with these recommendations and found that none of the recommendations were heeded.

The report concluded that Sunday's elections will likely determine the course of Turkey's future for at least the next decade -- and that will have a significant impact on the rest of the world.

“A stable, peaceful and prosperous Turkey that upholds democratic values is in the interest of all of us. We therefore hope that any new government formed following the elections will take to heart the concerns raised in this report and work to safeguard the fundamental human rights of free expression and press freedom,” the report said.

Published on Today's Zaman, 31 October 2105, Saturday