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October 12, 2012

Ankara Under Fire for Journalists' Treatment

by Marissa Melton

The U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists says Turkey -- long seen as a model of democracy in the Middle East -- is the world's leading jailer of journalists.

A report released Monday says Turkey currently has 76 journalists behind bars. CPJ says it has confirmed that at least 61 of them are detained in direct connection with their work.

Turkey's total puts it ahead of Iran, Eritrea, and China -- three countries more well known for curbing media freedom.

“Turkey has a legal problem,” said Nina Ognianova, an analyst with CPJ. “According to local groups, at the end of last year, 2011, there had been between 3,000 and 5,000 pending cases - criminal cases - against journalists on a variety of charges that stretch from insulting ‘Turkishness’ to trying to influence the outcome of a trial.”

Ognianova said the prosecutions, as well as imprisonment of journalists, are possible because of vaguely written Turkish laws against terrorism that can be misused by authorities.

Last week the European Union strongly criticized Turkey in its annual report on the progress of prospective EU members. The EU said "increasing concerns" about court cases against reporters endanger Turkey's bid for membership.

The rights group International Federation of Journalists, which also tracks the number of journalists in Turkish prisons, says writers are detained mainly because they cover issues deemed by the government to be controversial.

The Turkish government says the journalists are being held for crimes such as supporting conspiracies against the government or “aiding terrorists” by publishing detailed articles on national security issues, such as the Kurdish insurgency.

Government demands

Last month, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan demanded that Turkish media stop covering Kurdish issues, saying coverage of the Kurdish separatist movement turns the media into a platform for separatist propaganda.

Ahmet Şik is a freelance journalist who spent 13 months in prison with a colleague for allegedly plotting to overthrow the government.

After intense international pressure on Ankara to free them, the two men were released in April, although they still face charges. Şik said he and his colleague were jailed because the topics they covered embarrassed the government.

But Şik said detention is not the only method the government uses to curb journalists. Some reporters have been fired, demoted, or subjected to public embarrassment.

“By illegal means, either by sex tapes or phone tapping recordings, they are undermined, made victims of a smearing,” Şik said.

Şik suspects he was detained because of a book he was writing on police corruption.

Şik’s colleague, Nedim Şener, wrote two books detailing the 2007 assassination of a prominent journalist, Hrant Dink.

Şener said his phones were tapped after he published a book in 2009 accusing the government of involvement in the Dink murder. He says that the official reason for his arrest is a trumped up conspiracy charge.

“The stories I covered disturbed the state,” he said.

State pressure

The state pressure also extends to media conglomerates.

The Dogan Media Group, which owns print, online, and broadcast outlets, including CNN Turk and TNT, has been criticized by Erdogan for publishing stories critical of the government.

At two political rallies in February 2009, Erdogan called on the public to boycott Dogan newspapers, saying they carried “incorrect news.”

Days later, the Dogan Group was slapped with a crippling tax fine of more than $3 billion, forcing the company to sell off many of its assets in an attempt to stay afloat.

A representative for Dogan wrote in an e-mail that the tax fine issue has been resolved but added: “We don’t want to talk about it.”

Turkish leaders defend the government's actions against the press.

Questioned by CNN in September, Erdogan said he welcomes criticism, but added he will not tolerate insults toward himself or his family. He said he filed defamation lawsuits against some of his critics but later withdrew them.

US dilemma

The U.S. treads a fine line in dealing with its ally, Turkey, on media freedom issues.

The U.S. ambassador, Frances Ricciardone said that media freedom “remains a mixed picture” in Turkey. He said the number of journalists in jail creates a “chilling effect” that calls the state of freedom of expression into question.

Meanwhile, those pressing for more media freedom in Turkey say international pressure is keeping the government from further crackdowns on journalists.

Sik and Sener said their release was triggered by popular support. Sik said that he has “close witnesses” who say Erdogan issued a special order for their release.

The Turkish government did not respond to requests for comment.

Still, many of Sik and Sener’s colleagues remain detained.

Sik has a fresh indictment issued against him for "threatening and defaming civil servants in their duties."

The Turkish government says Sik's public comments, made as he emerged from prison, contain allegations that could tarnish the honor of the officials he criticized.

Like other Turkish journalists under fire, he appears to have another long legal battle ahead of him.