ANKARA: The challenges facing Turkish journalists came under the spotlight again on May 3, World Press Freedom Day, with experts saying the COVID-19 pandemic had made conditions harder for the media.
The government controls 90 percent of national media and uses its regulatory bodies to stifle dissenting voices, with Turkey ranking 153 out of 180 countries in the Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index.
Last month, 49 journalists appeared in court and 48 received prison sentences. The remaining one was obliged to pay an indemnity of TRY50,000 ($6,042).
The first hearing in the trial of journalist Melis Alphan took place in Istanbul recently. She faces terror propaganda charges and a prison sentence of up to seven-and-a-half years for sharing a picture from the 2015 Newroz celebrations, even though the image was shown across mainstream media at the time.
Turkey’s state-run Radio and Supervision High Council (RTUK) often fines broadcasters as a way of punishment, while dissident journalists are often denied the press cards given out by the Presidential Communications Directorate.
In response to a parliamentary question, the directorate revealed on April 5 that it had canceled or not renewed the press cards of 1,371 journalists in the last two years.
However, Turkey’s top administrative court the Council of State ruled that changes making it easier for the government to cancel press cards violated press freedom and that press cards could not be canceled for arbitrary and vague reasons such as “conduct against the public order or national security.”
RTUK recently imposed heavy fines on Halk TV, Haber Turk, Fox TV, Tele 1, and KRT for content that was critical of the government and its coalition partner the Nationalist Movement Party.
“These latest fines confirm that RTUK has become a means to stifle media content critical not only of the government or president but also of any political allies,” the International Press Institute said.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has worsened the already negative conditions where Turkish journalists were trying to work,” Ozgur Ogret, Turkey representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists, told Arab News. “In addition to their concerns of being arrested or detained, they are now coping with the virus threat.”
Three police officers who physically assaulted a journalist while she was covering a protest recently were charged with violating the freedom to work and labor, a move that was welcomed as ensuring press freedom in the country.
But, with a new circular issued just before May Day rallies, members of the press are now banned from recording and filming police actions against protesters to protect officers’ private lives.
“Trying to ban reporters from recording the actions of the police force is in vain in a world where everybody has their own phone cameras,” Ogret said. “It is impossible to justify such a restriction with privacy of life, and its only target is to restrict the freedom of the press.”
He said the ban on recording police actions while they were on duty also targeted people’s right to be informed.
“It is crystal clear that this ban cannot be implemented on the ground. We all saw it when people recorded police intervention on the journalists when they were exercising their journalism. If you try to stop one camera, you will inevitably draw all other cameras to the field.”
The circular was also criticized by opposition lawmakers.
“Recording of audio and video of disproportionate police interventions, in order to demonstrate the violations of rights before competent authorities, does not constitute a violation of privacy or the right to protect personal data. This circular must be canceled immediately,” said Republican People’s Party MP Utku Cakirozer, who is also a journalist by profession. “There is still a dark landscape for Turkish journalists on May 3.”