Turkey’s War on Journalists

The Turkish war on journalists is, by this time, well documented.  Reporters without Borders has called Turkey “the world’s biggest prison for journalists.” And imprisonment is only one of the ways that authorities have worked to silence journalists in Turkey.

Dexter Filkins hinted at this dark reality when he wrote last year:

Remember, too, that when you start arresting journalists, the freedom for those not in jail shrinks, too. One of the journalists I interviewed while I was in Turkey was Nuray Mert, a brave and outspoken columnist for Milliyet, a daily newspaper. Last year, after Erdogan publicly criticized Mert, her public-affairs television show was cancelled. Two weeks ago, she told me that her editors at Milliyet had fired her.

Amnesty’s recent report on Freedom of Expression in Turkey highlights the variety of tools that Turkish authorities utilize to silence critical voices in the press.

AmnestyThese attacks, Amnesty notes, are part of a larger pattern of criminalizing dissent. “Freedom of expression is under attack in Turkey. Hundreds of abusive criminal prosecutions are brought every year against political activists,human rights defenders, journalists, lawyers and others.”

Defamation cases, under Article 125, for example are often used to silence journalists.

Article 125 is frequently used to prosecute criticism of the actions of politicians and other public officials, despite authoritative interpretations of international freedom of expression standards that require public officials to withstand greater public criticism than private citizens. Journalists exposing human rights abuses and commenting critically on the actions of public officials are particularly at risk of prosecution.  Prosecutors typically initiate investigations following complaints by public officials, who later bring civil claims for damages in addition to seeking a criminal conviction. The Prime Minister in particular has brought a number of cases under this provision.

Other journalists have been prosecuted under Article 215 (praising a crime or criminal), Article 318 (alienating the public from military service), and, especially, under an array of broadly written, vaguely worded anti-terrorism statutes.

But, as the case of Nuray Mert, noted above, makes clear, Turkish authorities have other, more subtle ways of targeting journalists.  Indeed, a long line of the most prominent journalists in Turkey have lost their positions over the past few years as government officials increase pressure on newspapers to keep criticism to a polite minimum.

Amberin Zaman: "As a Turkish journalist the dilemma one faces is increasingly that of having to choose between your pay check or your professional integrity."

Amberin Zaman: “As a Turkish journalist the dilemma one faces is increasingly that of having to choose between your pay check or your professional integrity.”

Nuray Mert, Ece Temelkuran, Hasan Cemal… the most prominent journalists in Turkey have either been “forced to step down” or were unceremoniously sacked by their employers for engaging in serious journalism that occasionally embarrassed the government. Political pressure is brought to bear and the newspapers, fully aware of the vigor with which authorities pursues its “political enemies,” quickly fold.  It all happens with remarkable speed and disturbing frequency.

The most recent example of this is Amberin Zaman, the Turkey correspondent for The Economist and, until last week, a star columnist at Haberturk.  As she writes in this week’s Economist, “[First] comes the phone call, usually from a prime ministerial adviser. Displeasure over the critical writings of a columnist is relayed. He or she is admonished. ‘Tone it down,’ bosses plead. The columnist stands firm and is then sacked.”

While some journalists have resisted the pressure to tow the line, the real danger, Zaman notes, is the growing tendency to self-censorship that has rendered much of the Turkish press incapable of serious criticism or indeed, of even reporting the news.

A growing number of journalists are resorting to self-censorship to survive. Coverage of alleged corruption scandals linked to the government is a no-go area. So is Turkey’s covert support for Syrian rebels. A recent investigative piece in the New York Times in which it was claimed that Ankara’s Esenboga airport has become a big hub for Qatari and Saudi arms flowing to the rebels was dutifully ignored….

In the bad old days of weak coalition rule, Kurdish journalists were tortured by the dozens or even killed. Then media bosses would bend before the army. But after ten years of AK rule such arguments are wearing thin. Pity the reckless hack who dares say so.

In an e-mail this week, Zaman made clear her frustration at the ways in which government pressure have effectively silenced the press, writing,  “[as] a Turkish journalist the dilemma one faces is increasingly that of having to choose between your pay check or your professional integrity.”

These are profound problems without easy solutions.  But the first step is judicial reform to end the legal harassment of journalists and others voicing critical opinions.  The time is now to make a stand against the silencing of dissent in Turkey.

How to take action:

Click here for information on the campaign in English!

Click here for information on the campaign in Turkish!

Howard Eissenstat, St. Lawrence University

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