*This blog post is part of the Jean Monnet Chair of European Media Governance and Integration series
Renowned Turkish author Elif Shafak joined the campaign of Amnesty International by tweeting: ”Where media is not independent, diverse & journalists are not free there cannot be democracy”, under the hashtag #FreeTurkeyMedia.
Shafak lives in London, and can therefore freely express her opinion, unlike dissident journalists in Turkey, such as well-known novelist and journalist Ahmet Altan, his academician and journalist brother Mehmet Altan or celebrated novelist and journalist Asli Erdogan who was imprisoned for five months because she wrote for the now-closed Kurdish newspaper Ozgur Gundem.
In Turkey it is almost entirely impossible for dissidents to raise their voices. More than 150 journalists, according to Amnesty International. “One third of all imprisoned journalists in the world are being held in Turkish prisons,” a statement from the human rights group said.
A total of 21 journalists, including ex-singer Atilla Tas, who tweeted or retweeted, their opinions or expressed them in the form of columns mainly in Gulen-linked media, now all closed by governmental decree, are currently awaiting a second period of detention to which they were sentenced just 12 hours after being released from eight months’ pre-trial detention.
Following their release, Turkish fora on Twitter were dominated by pro-government supporters and government journalists with hate speech directed at the released journalists and harsh criticism of the court decision. As a result, some prosecutors and judges took steps to re-imprison the freed journalists.
This process has been repeated. ”Pro-government journalists and AKP trolls promote and practice attacks on journalists and others perceived to take critical stances on matters related to the Turkish state, politics and terrorism”.
Initially, they were accused of being members of a terrorist organisation. However, the prosecutor then realised what the journalists actually did and that he would need time to collect new evidence, namely journalistic comments in newspapers or on social media. Now, they have been accused of seeking to dissolve the Turkish republic and its legitimate government by creating certain “perceptions” through their comments. The punishment for tweets deemed to fit this context would be life imprisonment. By the way, the ex-prosecutor who demanded the journalists be released and the ex-judges who decided to release them were promptly suspended.
The Turkish justice system appears to serve the best interests of Erdogan and his the AKP government. After the failed coup attempt, the AKP government implemented emergency rule, under which they fired more than 135,000 government employees, and closed nearly 2,000 educational institutions including schools, dormitories and even 15 universities. Around 50,000 people are waiting in prison to appear before the courts.
Journalism is among the most affected fields. More than 160 media outlets were shut down. Many journalists remain jobless. Anyone who raises their voice faces charges ranging from insulting the president, which carries a possible jail term of a few years, to encouraging a coup through tweets, which can mean life in prison. Deniz Yücel, a reporter for German newspaper Die Welt, is the latest high-profile victim of the media crackdown. Amnesty International called has called its campaign “FreeTurkeyMedia”.
President Erdogan claims that none of the journalists arrested is a journalist. He has called them “thieves, killers, child abusers, and terrorists”. Many international institutions disagree. “Jail terms should be reserved for those who commit crimes, not those who report on them,” said the Right Livelihood Award Foundation’s executive director, Ole von Uexkull.
Nina Ognianova, program coordinator for Europe and Central Asia for the Committee to Protect Journalists, said: “Turkey’s international partners must press the country’s leaders on the issue of press freedom and freedom of expression as a matter of urgency. Turkey’s crackdown on the press threatens to destroy any remnants of critical independent media in the country to devastating effects not only for Turkey, but also for Turkey’s international partners”. In addition, a joint international emergency press freedom mission of six international free expression watchdog organisations expressed ”severe concern about media freedom and respect for human rights” and warned that “the country’s democracy is under threat”.
The mission reported that:
”Hundreds of thousands have been dismissed from jobs or detained under wide-ranging emergency powers granted after the coup attempt. This includes some 155 journalists and media workers behind bars, 125 of whom have been arrested since the coup attempt. Most were detained for alleged support of terrorists on shifting, contradictory and illogical accusations that relate to their criticism of government officials or policy. Journalists held for months in pre-trial detention are punished without conviction, having been presented with no indictments illuminating the charges or evidence against them. Instead, they face arbitrary limits on outside contact and interference with the right to mount a legal defense. These developments cast doubt on judicial independence and rule of law, and are compounded by the Constitutional Court’s failure to review detentions and remedy rights violations.”
Recently, it was reported that journalists from Cumhuriyet newspaper, a historic flag-bearer of secularism, have been accused of supporting various terrorist organisations simultaneously. A board member of the International Press Institute (IPI), Kadri Gursel, is among them. According to the indictment, as reported by IPI, Cumhuriyet is accused of “concealing the acts of terrorist organisations” and running an intense operation to create certain “perceptions”, designed through criticism of government policies to target the government and President Erdoğan with “asymmetrical war tactics”.
Believe it or not, that is the name of the journalists’ alleged crime: An “intense perception operation”.
The wife of one of the detained Cumhuriyet journalists, Ahmet Sik, said: ”Ahmet’s imprisonment is a message to others, those who are still outside: question us if you dare, speak out if you dare”.
Novelist and journalist Aslı Erdogan said: ”Since my release, I am not writing and I don’t think I will go back to writing a column any time soon. I am trying to get better. While in prison I kept going, once I came out I really felt the physical impact it had on me”.