Turkey: Media Watchdog Warns of a Press Freedom "Crisis"
Late last year, when Ankara was coming under severe attack for the growing number of journalists that were being jailed in Turkey, the government was able to call an unlikely witness in its defense: the press freedom watchdog Committee to Protect Journalists.
While press freedom advocates and government critics in Turkey put the number of jailed journalists in Turkey at the time at well over 70, CPJ, in its annual census of jailed journalists around the world, implausibly put the number at eight. The backlash to the group's report on Turkey was immediate and strong, strong enough that CPJ realized it needed to take a closer look at what's going in Turkey and issue a followup study.
That study was issued today, making it clear that CPJ got things quite wrong in last year's census. According to the group's new report (full disclosure: I was interviewed for the study), there are currently 76 journalists in jail in Turkey, making the country the world's leading jailer of journalists. From the report's summary:
The government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has waged one of the world’s biggest crackdowns on press freedom in recent history. Authorities have imprisoned journalists on a mass scale on terrorism or anti-state charges, launched thousands of other criminal prosecutions on charges such as denigrating Turkishness or influencing court proceedings, and used pressure tactics to sow self-censorship. Erdoğan has publicly deprecated journalists, urged media outlets to discipline or fire critical staff members, and filed numerous high-profile defamation lawsuits. His government pursued a tax evasion case against the nation’s largest media company that was widely seen as politically motivated and that led to the weakening of the company.
In written responses to CPJ and in public comments, Turkish authorities have said independent assessments of the country’s press freedom problems are exaggerated. They dispute the numbers of imprisoned journalists, asserting that most of the detainees are being held for serious crimes that have nothing to do with journalism.
In all, CPJ identified 76 journalists imprisoned as of August 1, 2012. After conducting a detailed, case-by-case review, CPJ concluded that at least 61 of these journalists were being held in direct relation to their published work or newsgathering activities. The evidence was less clear in the cases of the 15 other journalists being held, but CPJ continues to investigate. Time and again, CPJ’s analysis found, the authorities conflated the coverage of banned groups and the investigation of sensitive topics with outright terrorism or other anti-state activity. CPJ’s review also found alarming use of detention prior to trial or verdict. More than three-quarters of the imprisoned journalists in CPJ’s survey had not been convicted of a crime but were being held as they awaited resolution of their cases.
In the 27 years CPJ has compiled records on journalists in prison, only Turkey itself has rivaled the extent of the current anti-press campaign. In 1996, Turkish authorities jailed as many as 78 journalists, CPJ research shows. Today, Turkey’s imprisonments surpass the next most-repressive nations, including Iran, Eritrea, and China.
As CPJ makes clear, the majority of jailed journalists (some 70 percent) are Kurds who have been imprisoned under vague anti-terrorism laws that give the government to equate reporting on illegal Kurdish activity with supporting it (for more, take a look at this previous post). But the report also makes clear that the other large group of detained members of the press, those charged with supporting alleged efforts to topple the government, are also in jail thanks to: "broadly written articles in the penal code give the authorities wide berth to use journalists’ professional work to link them to banned political movements or alleged plots. These provisions include 'committing a crime on behalf of an organization,' 'aiding and abetting an organization knowingly and willingly,' and 'making propaganda for an organization and its objectives.'"
CPJ's report comes out on the heels of the most recent European Union progress report on Turkey membership bid, which sharply criticized Ankara for stalling on its once robust reform drive. Among the problems the EU report noted were an “increasing tendency to imprison journalists, media workers and distributors”, noting that “freedom of the media continued to be further restricted in practice”.
The EU report, meanwhile, came out only a few weeks after the release of an interesting study by Marc Pierini, the EU's ambassador to Turkey between 2006 and 2011 and currently a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe. Pierini's paper, which also looked at the question of press freedom in Turkey and drew on extensive interviews with members of the media and civil society organizations and other recent reports, came to a conclusion similar to CPJ. Writes Pierini:
The overall diagnosis emerging from these reports and interviews is rather bleak when contrasted with the successes of Turkey in other fields. Virtually all reports point to a deteriorating trend in press freedom and identify specific causes. This trend is illustrated inter alia by forced resignations of journalists who have displeased the political echelons, self-censorship, excessive zeal and serious flaws in the judicial system, widespread and unpredictable banning of websites, and, more generally, a culture of fear instilled in the media system. These authoritative reports and statements speak for themselves.
Turkish government officials have previously brushed off any criticism about the country's press freedom record, saying those that have been imprisoned are in jail not because of what they wrote but because they have been linked to criminal activity. In a speech given earlier this month in response to the latest progress report from Brussels, Egemen Bagis, Turkey's Minister for EU Affairs, paid little heed to the criticism it contained. “Turkey has attained the most transparent and liberal atmosphere in its history in the fields of freedom of expression and individual freedoms,” Mr. Bagis said.
As the CPJ's study and other recent reports make abundantly clear, that's not the case at the moment. The question now is whether these new reports will have an impact on how Ankara treats the press and whether it will take steps towards amending some of the problematic laws that allow it to jail journalists so easily.