ANKARA: Turkey jails more journalists then any other country, according to a new report on the status of press freedom there launched by international press freedom groups on Monday.
The report, “Turkey’s Journalists in the Dock: The Judicial Silencing of the Fourth Estate,” was prepared in collaboration with eight international press freedom and journalism organizations based on their mission visit to Turkey in September during which they met public authorities as well as Turkish civil society groups and journalists.
There are currently 122 journalists behind bars in Turkey, mostly on terrorism-related charges. Those who are released have travel bans. This makes Turkey the top jailer of journalists in the world.
“Critical journalism has been conflated with terrorist propaganda, all part of a campaign to silence opposition voices and close down free speech,” the report said, adding that the politically motivated crackdown against the media also severely damaged the rule of law and people’s right to access critical and balanced information and news.
The report is the fruit of the collaboration between IPI, ARTICLE 19, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), the European Center for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF), the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ), Reporters Without Borders (RSF), Norwegian PEN, and PEN International.
The organizations called on Ankara to release all imprisoned journalists, to end the indiscriminate harassment of the press, to review anti-terror and defamation laws, as well as to end political interference in the judiciary.
“The mission recognizes the terrorist threat in Turkey but rejects arguments made by the Supreme Court of Cassation that this justifies exceptional measures outside ECtHR (European Court of Human Rights) jurisprudence and that fundamental freedoms need to be compromised in the name of security. The state’s actions clearly demonstrate that the existence of a terrorist threat is being instrumentalized to serve an indiscriminate crackdown on critical voices,” the report said.
The latest legislative changes restricting online broadcasting are also criticized in the report as an attempt by the state to regulate all online activities.
The problems in the accreditation of journalists and the government-regulated system of issuing press cards was another point of criticism. Over the past three years, thousands of applications were rejected by officials, while hundreds of press cards were removed over alleged security reasons. This is seen as a move to restrict the work of foreign correspondents in the country.
“The increased use of travel bans to harass journalists and activists, including their family, is a further area of concern. After the lifting of the state of emergency in 2018, the authorities have continued to seize and hold the passports of individuals that oppose or are perceived to oppose the government,” the report said.
In September, two Turkish journalists from US-based Bloomberg News faced up to five years in prison over a financial report about the country’s economic problems.
On Nov. 12, Ahmet Altan, a well-known novelist and journalist who was released from prison only a week before, after being detained for more than three years, was taken back into custody.
Scott Griffen, deputy director at the International Press Institute (IPI), a global network of journalists and editors defending media freedom since 1950, said that independent journalism and press freedom were under attack in Turkey.
“Although press freedom has been under pressure for years, the current crackdown began with the July 2016 coup attempt and the arrests and prosecution of hundreds of journalists. The situation has not improved since then,” he told Arab News.
According to Griffen, this creates a situation not only in which journalists are deprived of their freedom, but also in which many journalists are forced to self-censor to avoid personal, professional and legal consequences.
Under a mainstream media environment that is almost totally under governmental control, Griffen thinks that there is still room for alternative news options in Turkey.
“Many journalists who lost their jobs after their media outlets were bought by pro-government figures are now working for alternative online media or have found a home with foreign media. Up until now, they have represented one of the last remaining sources of free expression in Turkey and reflect a demand among the public for independent news,” he said.
But, Griffen added, as long as these media are doing their role of scrutinizing the government, it makes them a target.
As Turkey is bound by the European Convention on Human Rights, by its own constitution on freedom of expression as well as the case law of the European Court of Human Rights on the application of anti-terror laws, Griffen also noted that courts and prosecutors are not respecting the constitution.
“Turkish officials have claimed to us that the country faces a unique terror threat that justifies a state of exception from international law and standards on freedom of expression. But the case law of the European Court of Human Rights is fully capable of handling this problem, it is simply not being applied by the courts in Turkey,” he said.
“Only speech that directly incites violence or acts of terror should face criminal sanction under anti-terrorism law. But Turkey’s justice system is abusing anti-terror law to punish dissent, in disregard of all international standards,” he said.