ISTANBUL: Turkey’s crackdown on media coverage amid the coronavirus pandemic has been condemned by Amnesty International in a special report ahead of World Press Freedom Day.
The COVID-19 crisis has added a new layer to attacks on media freedom with journalists across the country targeted under the guise of combating misinformation, the human rights group warned.
In its annual report released ahead of World Press Freedom Day on May 3, Amnesty said: “Turkey’s crackdown on real or perceived dissent continued in 2019, despite the end of the two-year state of emergency in July 2018.
“Thousands of people were held in lengthy and punitive pre-trial detention, often without any credible evidence of their having committed any crime recognizable under international law.”
The human rights group highlighted “severe restrictions on the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly,” and said that “people considered critical of the government, in particular journalists, political activists and human rights defenders, had been detained or faced trumped-up criminal charges.”
It added that “there were credible reports of torture and enforced disappearances.”
Turkey is considered one of the world’s biggest jailers of journalists, with many reporters facing criminal investigation and detention over reports or social media posts on the pandemic.
Amnesty International claims that the outbreak has given Turkish authorities another justification for targeting the media “on the basis of vague anti-terrorism and other laws limiting the right to freedom of expression.”
Since last month, about 18 news websites have been blocked by a court order in Turkey, along with a ban on access to dozens of online reports.
In March, two dissident journalists from critical news site OdaTV were detained on charges of violating Turkey’s intelligence laws by disclosing the identity of an operative killed in Libya, although the victim’s identity had been disclosed publicly in Parliament.
The reporters are being held in pre-trial detention and face up to 19 years in prison.
“Lengthy periods of pre-trial detention have become routine,” Amnesty International’s statement said.
“Charges levelled against media workers are often trumped up, and are sometimes patently absurd or wholly lacking any evidence of a recognizable criminal offense,” it added.
Amnesty International’s senior Turkey researcher, Andrew Gardner, told Arab News that the Turkish leadership wants
to avoid criticism and excessive scrutiny over the coronavirus pandemic along with other key issues such as military intervention in Syria or its handling of the Kurdish conflict.
“Journalists covering these in a critical way have been targeted. It is an added layer on the existing situation in Turkey and gives the government another opportunity to step up the crackdown,” he said.
Gardner said that Turkey’s mainstream media lacks diversity of opinion, and there is more interest in online-based alternative media.
“But, again, the risks are clear,” he said. “The government has shown a willingness to investigate people over their posts on social media and has been very aggressive in banning and blocking Internet-based media.”
Turkish prosecutors recently called for leading journalist dissident news anchor Fatih Portakal, from Turkey’s Fox TV channel, to be jailed for up to three years, alleging that he violated banking laws with an online post implying that the state was borrowing from banks to cover up economic difficulties amid the pandemic.
Another journalist, Hakan Aygun, was imprisoned on April 4 for social media posts criticizing Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s nationwide donation campaign against the pandemic.
Aygun is accused of “inciting the public to enmity and hatred.”
Dissident journalists, who face health problems in overcrowded prisons, were excluded from a recently adopted amnesty law that resulted in the release of up to 90,000 prisoners.
Turkey was ranked 154 out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders’ 2020 world press freedom index.