Turkey’s press freedom attack is a disgrace
December 21, 2011 § Leave a comment
6 April 2011
Those journalists working in the liberal democracies of the West generally enjoy the luxury of going about their business without the threat of prosecution or prison.
There are odd exceptions, such as the occasional jail terms handed out in theUnited States to those who refuse to reveal their confidential sources and those in Britain who dare to hack into mobile phone messages.
Elsewhere around the world, in countries where there is no respect for freedom of any kind, let alone press freedom, the situation is very different. One conservative estimate of the number of journalists in jail across the world at the end of 2010, compiled by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, put the total at 145.
I say conservative because it did not mention Belarus where, in December alone, it was reported that 25 journalists had been taken into custody. Though some were released, several remain in prison.
Other press freedom watchdogs – such as the Paris-based Reporters Sans Frontières and the Vienna-based International Press Institute – have reported many individual cases which suggest that the number of journalists in jail is at an all-time high.
Some of the countries with the worst records are unsurprising. In China, for example, journalism is undoubtedly thriving – despite print and internet censorship – but it nevertheless remains a dangerous activity. There were 34 in prison up to February, when the wave of uprisings in the Arab countries began. Since then, there has been a round-up of reporters, bloggers and assorted online writers.
We might regard these countries with totalitarian governments as “the usual suspects” because they do not subscribe to any notion of human rights. The same cannot be said, however, for the country that emerged this week as the globe’s leading jailer of journalists: Turkey.
According to a detailed and comprehensive report by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, Turkish prisons at present are holding 57 journalists.
Again, this is a conservative figure. At an Istanbul protest rally staged last month by concerned Turkish journalists it was claimed that 68 were in detention. There was a similar demonstration a week later in Ankara. Turkey, you will immediately note, is anxious to become part of the European Union. To that end, its prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, talks continually of his country’s commitment to human rights.
But there is precious little sign of that in practice. It does not help his case to point out that, in December, he visited Libya to hold talks with Colonel Muammar Gaddafi and became the delighted recipient of “the prestigious” Al-Gaddafi International Prize for Human Rights. Yes, you read that correctly. On receiving the award, Erdogan said: “The only thing we want in our region and in the globe is peace and justice.”
The jailing of so many journalists in Turkey raises questions about how genuine Erdogan’s claims and his country’s stated desire to promote a democratic image actually are.
It cuts no ice with the IPI – a global network of editors, media executives and leading journalists – which illustrated its deep scepticism about the nature of the charges against one particular journalist, Nedim Sener, by naming him last year as a World Press Freedom Hero. He was also honoured with a freedom of expression award by International PEN.
But Sener is one among so many who have been charged and tried under Turkey’s pernicious anti-terror laws. Under its widespread provisions, some journalists, politicians, human rights defenders and trade unionists have been convicted simply for having used the word “Kurdistan“.
The conflict between Turks and Kurds – some of whom have taken violent action in order to press their case for either independence, or autonomy within the Turkish state – is one of the underlying reasons for the clamp on journalistic freedom.
It is not the only one, however. There was official hostility towards Sener, who is noted for his investigative reporting, after he wrote a book that implicated the Turkish security forces in the 2007 murder of the Turkish Armenian newspaper editor, Hrant Dink.
On March 3, Sener was arrested along with another investigative journalist, Ahmet Sik, and accused of belonging to the Ergenekon organisation – purportedly an ultra-nationalist group, that is alleged to be engaged in undermining the moderate Islamist government.
Their arrests caused an outcry among Turkish democrats who maintain that the Ergenekon affair is just an excuse for settling political scores.
It appears that both Sener and Sik were inquiring into the Ergenekon investigation, which has led to 200 people being tried on charges of involvement in coup plots. The pair were accused of divulging state secrets and, like so many others, they face scores of charges.
Other writers arrested on the same day included Yalçin Küçük, a prominent academic historian, and Dogan Yurdakal, author of a book on the Turkish intelligence services. Six journalists who work for a single television channel, Oda TV, were also detained.
If convicted, they face incredibly long sentences. Two journalists from the newspaper Azadiya Welat were sentenced to 166 years and 138 years in prison, while two from the Atilim newspaper got 3,000 years each.
These were among the 57 named in the OSCE report, which was commissioned by its representative on freedom of the media, Dunja Mijatovic. In a letter to the Turkish foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, she explained that the survey was intended to show the need for reform to the country’s media legislation. She acknowledged that governments have a legitimate right to fight terrorism but argued that national security should not be used as grounds to curb press freedom.
In issuing a statement of agreement, the IPI’s director Alison Bethel McKenzie did her best to understate the case against Turkey.
“The country is also often held up as an example of a healthy Muslim democracy,” she said. “But for Turkey to step away from this history and to jail more journalists than any other country in the world is damaging.”
Damaging? It’s a disgrace. If the EU welcomes this country to its bosom while these journalists remain in jail it will bring discredit to every member country that professes to value press freedom.