Freedom of press in Turkey – Mehmet Yilmaz (alias), Turkey

Just exactly how free is Turkey’s press? The answer to this question depends heavily on who you ask.

In order to understand the intricacies of the current situation in Turkey one must go back in time… way back. I will instead try to, as briefly as I can, summarize the turbulent history of media freedom in Turkey.

Turkish newspapers, usually a part of larger corporations, are always sided with one government or another. The nation has already experienced  newspaper editors playing an important role in political party conventions and turning their publication into an election pamphlet for their party of choice. In 2002, when the Justice and Development Party first came to power, the total circulation of a handful of publications supporting their cause was around 100,000. Up until 2008, the mainstream media deliberately referred to President Erdoğan as “Tayyip.”

However, regional censorship was in place even before the founding of the Republic of Turkey. On 15 February 1857, the Ottoman Empire issued laws governing printing houses; books first had to be shown to the governor, who forwarded them to commission for education and the police; if there was no objection then the Sultanate would inspect them; without censure from the Sultan, books could not be legally issued. On July 24, 1908, at the beginning of the Second Constitutional Era, censorship was lifted; however, newspapers publishing stories that were deemed a danger to interior or exterior State security were closed. Between 1909 and 1913 four journalists were killed: Hasan Fehmi, Ahmet Samim, Zeki Bey, and Hasan Tahsin.

Following the Turkish Independence War, the Sheikh Said rebellion was used as a pretext for implementing martial law on March 4, 1925; newspapers, including Tevhid-i Efkar, Sebül Reşat, Aydınlık, Resimli Ay, and Vatan, were closed and several journalists arrested and tried at the Independence Courts.  During World War 2 many newspapers were ordered shut, including the dailies: Cumhuriyet, Tan, and Vatan.

When the Democratic Party, under Adnan Menderes came to power in 1950, censorship entered a new phase. The Press Law changed, sentences and fines were increased. Several newspapers were ordered shut, including the dailies Ulus, Hürriyet, Tercüman, and Hergün. In April 1960, an investigation commission was established by the Grand National Assembly of Turkey. It was given the power to confiscate publications, close papers and printing houses. Anyone not following the decisions of the commission was subject to imprisonment for between one and three years.

Freedom of speech was heavily restricted after the 1980 military coup headed by General Kenan Evren. During the 1980s and 1990s, broaching the topics of secularism, minority rights, and the role of the military in politics risked punishment. According to international media watchdogs, 83 journalists were imprisoned between the 1980 military coup and the transition to the multi-party system three years later. With the abolition of certain laws that placed severe restrictions on the freedom of thought, the number decreased to 28 by 1990

The period between 1991 and 1996 marked a particularly dark chapter in the history of journalism in Turkey. Under the pretext of anti-PKK campaigns, state-sponsored death squads murdered at least 28 journalists; these people were mostly Kurdish reporters whose murders cases remain “unsolved”. In 1993, the number of imprisoned journalists was 55. Four years later, the number had climbed to 78. Article 8 of the Anti-Terror Law, slightly amended in 1995 and later repealed, imposed three-year prison sentences for “separatist propaganda.” Despite its name, the Anti-Terror Law punished many non-violent offences. Pacifists have been imprisoned under Article 8; by 1998, 58 journalists were in prison.

A 1999 amnesty decreased the number to 13 by 2002 when the AK Party rose to power. In the wake of legal changes within the context of EU harmonization, the CPJ reported in 2006 that only one journalist was in prison. Again, the same organization established that there were no imprisoned journalists left in the country. The situation remained the same the following year.

According to the CPJ, four journalists were detained in 2009, all of whom worked for media outlets affiliated with armed leftist organizations. The organization, for instance, did not include Mustafa Balbay and Tuncay Özkan on their list, since they did not associate their pre-trial detention with their journalistic activities. The following year, the number remained the same.

Since 2011, the AKP government has increased restrictions on freedom of speech, freedom of the press and internet use, and television content, as well as the right to free assembly. It has also developed links with media groups, and used administrative and legal measures against critical media groups and critical journalists.

In 2011, the number climbed to eight after Nedim Şener and Soner Yalçın, among others, ended up in jail during the Oda TV trials. The following year, the number peaked at 49. It was the same year when pro-PKK media outlets and journalists accused of collaborating with the organization became the target of the Kurdish Communities Union (KCK) operations. In 2013, the government took steps to decrease the number to 40.

Turkey’s Journalists Union estimated that at least “72 journalists had been fired or forced to take leave or had resigned in the past six weeks since the start of the unrest“, the word “unrest” referring to the Gezi Park protests, in late May 2013 due to pressure from the AKP government. Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, head of the Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi (CHP) party, said 64 journalists have been imprisoned and “We are now facing a new period where the media is controlled by the government and the police and where most media bosses take orders from political authorities.” The government says most of the imprisoned journalists have been detained for serious crimes, like membership in an armed terrorist group, that are not related to journalism.

According to Freedom House, “an independent watchdog organization dedicated to the expansion of freedom around the world”, the press in Turkey is not free; they have changed their rating of Turkey’s freedom of press in their annual Freedom of Press index from “partly free” to “not free” In 2014; the state of press freedom in Turkey is worse than Kuwait. Reporters Without Borders similarly indicates that Turkey ranks 154th out of 180 countries, which means that journalists in Iraq and Ethiopia are offered more freedom than their Turkish colleagues. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) maintains that Turkey is among the 10 worst offenders of press freedom.

However those who invalidate these rankings offer a different set of statistics. They say that there are currently 38 national newspapers remain active in Turkey compared to 15 publications in Germany and 20 papers in the UK and that out of these 38 publications, at least 21 oppose the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. They say that out of roughly 4.7 million copies sold every day, approximately 3 million belong to opposition newspapers and that, similarly, four out of Turkey’s five best-selling newspapers support the opposition.

And to be fair to them, the word “opponent” is an understatement when referring to the positions of some journalists these days. A number of opposition papers make sure to address the president by his first name, Recep, on their front pages every day. Sözcü, which has a circulation of 344,000 copies, pays particular attention to referring to the president as a thief, a murderer, a supporter of Sharia, a sponsor of the so-called Islamic State or a dictator.

“Again, some columnists have reached a point where the term “opposition” does not quite cover the degree of their dislike for the government. A particularly popular contributor once even suggested that police officers will watch guard near Erdoğan’s grave so that people do not spit on it. Every day, at least 20 columnists like to call the president a thief, a murderer, a fascist, a dictator, mentally-ill or ignorant. Now please take a moment to imagine a journalist in Kuwait, which experts think is freer than Turkey, engaging in such vivid criticism of their government.” (Sabah Daily, 2015)

Over the past few years, all illegal wiretappings were leaked by Gülenist law enforcement officers via Twitter. Thus far, they have not become the subject of a judicial investigation with the exception of brief periods of being held in custody. Most recently, a former AK Party politician was arrested after tweeting about taking the president’s wife away from his bed, and suggesting that killing the president would be a perfectly legitimate act.

Even though many in the international community criticize Turkey for its track record regarding Freedom of Press, statistics show that, compared to just a few decades ago, Turkey’s press is very free. On December 17, 2014, which marked the anniversary of the operations, 20 national newspapers covered the corruption allegations on their front pages; almost all international news agencies and major media companies have established offices in Turkey. Back in 1990, the number of foreign journalists stationed in Turkey was only 70. Twelve years later, the number soared to 164. By 2012, 327 foreign journalists were permanently based in the nation. Currently, the number stands around 350. Obviously, this does not mean that journalists and the profession of journalism are not without problems, or that there is infinite freedom either; there is of course censorship, and the government and media tend to clash on a regular basis. However, are there really counties in which the government and the press have a healthy relationship? Where is there infinite freedom for journalists to publish as they wish?

According to the CPJ, 59 journalists lost their jobs over the 2013 Gezi Park protests. The Union of Turkish Journalists, however, puts the figure at 22 since 37 people decided to leave their places of employment for not providing enough support to the protesters, then placed the blame on the government for pressuring them into resigning. At least that’s what the government says.

What really dragged Turkey’s media freedom score down over the past years has been the large number of arrests. Freedom House writes the following as their explanation for Turkey status change from “partly free” to “not free” from 2013 to 2014:

“Turkey’s status declined from Partly Free to Not Free as a result of a sharp deterioration in the press freedom environment in 2013. Journalists were harassed and assaulted while attempting to cover the Gezi Park protests that broke out in Istanbul in May, and dozens were fired or forced to resign in response to their reporting on the demonstrations. Throughout the year, other prominent journalists were fired over their coverage of sensitive issues like negotiations between the government and the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) or corruption scandals involving Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his associates that emerged in December. The firings highlighted the close relationship between the government and many media owners, and the formal and informal pressure that this places on journalists.”(Freedom House, 2014).

“Again, some columnists have reached a point where the term “opposition” does not quite cover the degree of their dislike for the government. A particularly popular contributor once even suggested that police officers will watch guard near Erdoğan’s grave so that people do not spit on it. Every day, at least 20 columnists like to call the president a thief, a murderer, a fascist, a dictator, mentally-ill or ignorant. Now please take a moment to imagine a journalist in Kuwait, which experts think is freer than Turkey, engaging in such vivid criticism of their government.” (Sabah Daily, 2015)

Over the past few years, all illegal wiretappings were leaked by Gülenist law enforcement officers via Twitter. Thus far, they have not become the subject of a judicial investigation with the exception of brief periods of being held in custody. Most recently, a former AK Party politician was arrested after tweeting about taking the president’s wife away from his bed, and suggesting that killing the president would be a perfectly legitimate act.

Even though many in the international community criticize Turkey for its track record regarding Freedom of Press, statistics show that, compared to just a few decades ago, Turkey’s press is very free. On December 17, 2014, which marked the anniversary of the operations, 20 national newspapers covered the corruption allegations on their front pages; almost all international news agencies and major media companies have established offices in Turkey. Back in 1990, the number of foreign journalists stationed in Turkey was only 70. Twelve years later, the number soared to 164. By 2012, 327 foreign journalists were permanently based in the nation. Currently, the number stands around 350. Obviously, this does not mean that journalists and the profession of journalism are not without problems, or that there is infinite freedom either; there is of course censorship, and the government and media tend to clash on a regular basis. However, are there really counties in which the government and the press have a healthy relationship? Where is there infinite freedom for journalists to publish as they wish?

According to the CPJ, 59 journalists lost their jobs over the 2013 Gezi Park protests. The Union of Turkish Journalists, however, puts the figure at 22 since 37 people decided to leave their places of employment for not providing enough support to the protesters, then placed the blame on the government for pressuring them into resigning. At least that’s what the government says.

What really dragged Turkey’s media freedom score down over the past years has been the large number of arrests. Freedom House writes the following as their explanation for Turkey status change from “partly free” to “not free” from 2013 to 2014:

“Turkey’s status declined from Partly Free to Not Free as a result of a sharp deterioration in the press freedom environment in 2013. Journalists were harassed and assaulted while attempting to cover the Gezi Park protests that broke out in Istanbul in May, and dozens were fired or forced to resign in response to their reporting on the demonstrations. Throughout the year, other prominent journalists were fired over their coverage of sensitive issues like negotiations between the government and the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) or corruption scandals involving Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his associates that emerged in December. The firings highlighted the close relationship between the government and many media owners, and the formal and informal pressure that this places on journalists.”(Freedom House, 2014)

In late 2013, the partnership between the government and the Gülen Movement ended. And this had a lot to do with the number of imprisoned journalists, because Gülenist operatives oversaw both the Oda TV trials and the KCK proceedings. From mid-2013 onward, but more visibly in 2014, the authorities began to force out Gülenists in law enforcement and prosecutors’ offices. At the same time, positive developments associated with the Kurdish reconciliation process resulted in the release of Kurdish journalists.

In other words, the number of imprisoned journalists dropped significantly in the wake of the power struggle between the AK Party and the Gülen Movement, which was probably no coincidence, keeping in mind the love of political discourse journalists in Turkey love and the laws in Turkey, which illegalize actions such as insulting Turkishness, insulting the President of Turkey, for which a 16 year old boy is actually being tried for and who may be facing a sentencing of four years, and so on.

I have asked several friends in Turkey about their opinions on this topic, and below are their responses.

D.B., 16 years old.

Throughout the years the issue of the freedom of press has been increasing in countries all of the world. But one of the countries that recently faced this problem to the fullest is Turkey. Turkey has had issues with the freedom of the press in the past, such as the time of Yaşar Kemal and his fight against saving this country. Recently, there has been another strike against reporters, authors, poets and many other people who were and still are innocent. Despite being “criminals” and “disturbances to the peaceful environment of our nation” these people have been taken in as a result of their opinions on the government and Turkey itself. They chose to portray the truth about the country, and brought about the issues that could be discussed and even resolved that the country is facing.

I believe that freedom of speech and press should not be left aside in any country. Yes, there is a line to everything and that line should not be passed, but stating opinions should not be considered as a major crime. We are living in the modern era where punishment such as torturing and imprisoning shouldn’t even be considered. If any serious harm against the people or the government of a nation is being committed, then these should be approached with the utmost responsible and reasonable solutions.

We all have the right to speak and share our opinions and no man should be allowed to take these rights away from us.

S.E. 15 years old.

Turkey’s voice is relentlessly suppressed by the totalitarian government. There is no freedom of press. The press is either owned by the government or struggles to be heard speaking against it. Major TV channels are owned by the fascist government and receive bribes for broadcasting propaganda. It’s outrageous that the fascists in our country are attempting to suppress the voice of the people, the people who are the future of Turkey. And this government is not only guilty of suppressing the freedom of press, but also freedom of speech in general. Following the Gezi Park protests of 2013, and the corruption scandals that our then fascist Prime Minister, now even more fascist President, was involved in, Youtube and Twitter ended up blocked, teenagers were being sentenced for insulting His Royal Highness Erdoğan, and all the while Erdoğan was calling a boy my age killed by the police, a terrorist. There is not freedom of press in Turkey, and anyone saying otherwise must either be ignorant or delusional.

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