IPI Guest Blog: Press freedom in Turkey
Former IPI Executive Board chair shares his thoughts on current situation
By: IPI Executive Board Member Prof. Dr. Carl-Eugen Eberle
An estimated 76 journalists* are currently imprisoned in Turkey. They are victims of anti-terrorism legislation and of a criminal justice system that does not differentiate between terrorists and journalists who write about terrorism. As a result, fear among the media has spread and journalists practise self-censorship to avoid being thrown in jail — all of this to the dismay of the reporters already behind bars.
These developments prompted the Vienna-based International Press Institute (IPI) to take action. IPI is a global network of leading publishers, editors, and journalists working to safeguard press freedom wherever it is in danger. In early December 2012, IPI undertook a press freedom mission to Turkey in order to become better acquainted with the current state of press freedom in the country and, through conversations with government officials, advocate for change. Taking part in the mission were: Peter Preston (The Guardian), Milton Coleman (The Washington Post), Ravi Narasimhan (The Hindu), Ismail Isa (former president of the Nigerian Publishers Association), Michael Lake (former EU ambassador to Turkey) and Alison Bethel McKenzie (IPI executive director), as well as the author of this contribution.
Conversations with publishers, journalists, family members of imprisoned journalists and leading officials from parliamentary parties painted a bleak picture of press freedom in Turkey. Illustrative of the situation is the tax demand in the amount of $3.2 million levied against a publishing group, probably because of critical reports that appeared in its newspapers. Though the bill was later reduced through a compromise with tax authorities, the group nevertheless was forced to sell two newspapers and one television station. The new owners of the television station — who completed the purchase with help from, among others, the state bank — let go the critical yet admired host of the main news program, who has yet to find another position within television. Many print and television media are owned by larger companies active in other economic sectors and whose success in those sectors depends upon state contracts. This has an effect upon the media’s work and leads to subtle forms of self-censorship: critical reports are supppressed, in order not to put jobs in danger.
The anti-terror law has particularly problematic consequences for the work of critical journalists. Vaguely-formulated offences are used by state-affiliated judges to arrest and charge reporters. Trials take place, in part, in special courts; on several occasions, prosecutors who on account of thin evidence wished to abandon such cases against journalists were removed and replaced by another prosecutor who proceeded with vigour. Often, neutral reporting on acts of terrorism or the activities of terrorist organisations is seen as support thereof and is punished accordingly. This practice has been condemned by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg and has led to three reforms to the anti-terror law. The few journalists who were released from prison due to these reforms nevertheless remain fearful that they could be returned to prison for the offence of which they have in theory been absolved, should they not act in compliance with the law for the next three years. In light of this Sword of Damocles hanging over their heads, it is understandable that these journalists practise self-censorship or give up their profession completely.
Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arinc admitted, in a meeting with mission participants, that the reforms have not yet led to the promised results. He nevertheless holds out “hope” that some of the 76 imprisoned journalists will be released after the passage of a fourth reform bill currently being prepared. The fourth reform to the anti-terror law, which would comply with the demands of the Human Rights Court in Strasbourg, is to be approved in Parliament by the end of this year. However, substantial parliamentary deliberation on the measure is not expected: Opposition politicians told IPI that they had not even seen the text of the bill. It also cannot be ruled out that during government deliberations the bill will be weakened and not lead to the effects that Bülent said he hoped for and with which he attempted to reassure the IPI mission participants.
Meanwhile, the trials of the imprisoned journalists are moving relentlessly forward. Judicial authorities have paid little heed to the legal formalities of the continuously-imposed extensions of pre-trial detentions. Of both EU criminal-justice standards and the protection of press freedom, Turkey is falling well short.
*According to IPI’s Turkish National Committee, recent releases of journalists have reduced the number of currently-imprisoned journalists to 69.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and they do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the International Press Institute.