Erdogan Pledges ‘No Revenge’ as Turkish Press in Spotlight

January 29, 2012 § Leave a comment

Ayla Albayrak, January 27, 2012, Wall Street Journal

Turkey’s economy may have made giant leaps forward in 2011, but press freedoms appeared to take a significant step back. Scores of arrests and high-profile firings have fanned a growing international outcry that media freedoms here have been heavily compromised.

Late on Wednesday, Reporters Without Borders confirmed in its annual report that perceptions of freedom of expression in Turkey fell sharply in 2011. According to the Paris-based NGO, Turkey — an EU candidate country — sunk 10 places to 148th of 179 countries ranked; six places below Russia and followed by Mexico and Afghanistan.

Agence France-Presse/Getty Images
Newspapers are displayed at a newsstand in Istanbul.

The tide of negative publicity appears to be of growing concern to Ankara. Just hours after the report Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan offered his response, denying accusations that his ruling AK Party has restricted freedom of expression and pledging to drop cases against a number of journalists accused of crimes that could not result in more than five years in prison.

“Turkey does not deserve the negative image portrayed to the world by the main opposition and some journalists and writers,” Mr. Erdogan said late Wednesday, speaking at the 25th anniversary of a pro-government newspaper, Zaman, in Ankara. The AKP government has “never sought revenge” against hostile media, he added.

The prime minister stressed that journalists were heavily involved in a failed attempt to overthrow his party in 2008. Evidence used in court case seeking to ban his ruling party leaned heavily on newspaper reports and coverage of AKP members’ public speeches.

“We practically fought with (newspaper) headlines… They (coup plotters) made journalists write those stories, and then put the clips into the dossier and opened a closure case against our party,” he said. “God knows that we never sought revenge, and we never will,” Mr. Erdogan said.

The speech marks one of the prime minister’s most detailed attempts to defend his government against charges that press freedom is Turkey has declined. But his comments stand in stark contrast to the Reporters Without Borders report.

“At a time when it is portraying itself as a regional model, Turkey (148th) took a big step backwards and lost 10 places. Far from carrying out promised reforms, the judicial system launched a wave of arrests of journalists that was without precedent since the military dictatorship,” the report stated.

Turkey’s low ranking confirmed what many already knew in Turkey: that despite the government’s promises of wider freedom of expression, media freedoms decreased rapidly in 2011.

Last year was marked by the arrests of journalists and the beginning of a trial, in which 10 journalists are charged with aiding an alleged antigovernment terrorist organization named Ergenekon. Among the arrests were investigative journalists Nedim Sener and Ahmet Sik, who both were working on sensitive topics that are the basis for criminal charges against them. Messrs. Sener and Sik have now been detained for almost 11 months, which has drawn criticism from human rights groups and the EU.

Currently, Turkey has close to a hundred journalists in jails, many charged with Turkey’s tough antiterrorism laws and awaiting trials in detention. At the same time, self-censorship is a reality of the job, according to many reporters working in the Turkish media. Recently a number of outspoken journalists, among them publicly well-known figures as writer Ece Temelkuran and TV reporter Banu Guven, who held a critical stance in issues such as press freedom and Turkey’s Kurdish minority, lost their jobs and have publicly criticized self-censorship under government pressure.

A prominent lawyer in Turkey’s high-profile media freedom lawsuits said the prime minister’s intervention would not free Messrs. Sener and Sik, nor solve problems that are at the root of Turkey’s deteriorating press freedom record.

“As long as the articles in Turkey’s Penal Code, which restrict freedom of expression, are not touched, we cannot speak of any improvement at all,” the lawyer said.


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