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Turkey's Media Weighed Down by Lawsuits


FILE - Members of Reporters Without Borders hold stencils representing portraits of imprisoned Turkish journalists, during a demonstration in front of the Turkish Embassy, in Paris, Jan. 5, 2018.

In Turkey, the number of journalists facing lawsuits is in the thousands, with more than 40 members of the media currently in jail.

In the past two weeks alone, authorities detained two journalists covering a court case; charged Deniz Yücel, who used to report for Germany's national daily Die Welt, with "publicly degrading" Turkey; and the Research and Monitoring Network reported that five arrest warrants had been issued for its director and investigative journalist Abdullah Bozkurt, who lives in exile in Sweden.

FILE - A handout picture released by German newspaper Die Welt shows German-Turkish journalist Deniz Yucel at the newspaper's headquarters in Berlin, July 16, 2020.
FILE - A handout picture released by German newspaper Die Welt shows German-Turkish journalist Deniz Yucel at the newspaper's headquarters in Berlin, July 16, 2020.

Since a failed coup in 2016, Turkey has gained a reputation for being one of the world's leading jailers of journalists, ranging from a high of 86 behind bars in December 2016 to 37 imprisoned last December, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. The group conducts a census of those behind bars each December.

Media and press freedom advocates say the arrests are often retaliatory and made in response to critical reporting, or as part of a wider crackdown following the coup attempt.

In most cases, journalists are charged with anti-state activities such as supporting or providing propaganda for terrorist organizations — commonly Kurdish groups — or for alleged connections to Gulenists — followers of U.S-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom Ankara says orchestrated the coup. Gulen strongly denies the claim.

Turkey has disputed claims that it is cracking down on press freedom. The justice minister was quoted last year as saying in an interview that media arrests are related to "criminal acts" and not journalism.

The Turkish Journalists Association, one of the country's largest media rights groups, said that a new threshold was crossed in media repression when police tried to forcefully obtain footage from media covering May 1 Labor Day rallies that later turned into protests.

The annual gathering was banned this year as part of measures to contain the pandemic. The day before, the Interior Ministry issued a decree banning all audio-visual recordings of law enforcement officers in public events, such as rallies or protests.

Media and civil rights group have criticized the measure, which the government says was introduced to protect the privacy of police.

Despite the ban on the gathering, people attended the May Day event in large numbers. The Turkish Journalists Association says some media covering it had equipment confiscated and footage deleted by police.

Sibel Gunes, secretary-general of the Turkish Journalists Association, said that when it comes to Turkey, it is impossible to speak of improvements in press freedom.

"Turkey continues to hemorrhage in terms of democracy and press freedoms," Gunes said. "One of the pillars of a democratic society is a free press that strives for the public's right to be informed. We cannot speak of a free press in Turkey."

Gunes said the ruling Justice and Development (AKP) party and its coalition partner, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), are being permitted to hold political rallies despite the COVID-19 restrictions on gatherings. At the same time, authorities are trying to prevent media from covering events.

Overall, the situation for media in Turkey is hard, Gunes said.

"Close to 12,000 of our colleagues lost their jobs. Journalists face tens of thousands of lawsuits brought against them just because they do journalism. Currently, 43 journalists are in jail. 95% of Turkish media is under government control. The remaining 5% are being crushed by the Press Advertising Authority (BIK) and Radio and Television High Council (RTÜK)," she said.

International rights groups including Human Rights Watch have criticized the broadcasting watchdog RTUK, accusing it of issuing arbitrary and disproportionate fines and sanctions against stations that report critically on the government.

Declining freedoms

Turkey has a poor media freedom record, ranking 153 out of 180 countries, where 1 is the freest, on the annual index compiled by media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

Erol Onderoglu, the Turkey representative for RSF, said Turkey's ranking falls in the same category as countries in conflict or under authoritarian or corrupt rule.

FILE - Turkish-French journalist Erol Onderoglu, Reporters Without Borders representative in Turkey, speaks to the press before his trial for "terrorist propaganda," in front of Istanbul's courthouse building, Feb. 3, 2021.
FILE - Turkish-French journalist Erol Onderoglu, Reporters Without Borders representative in Turkey, speaks to the press before his trial for "terrorist propaganda," in front of Istanbul's courthouse building, Feb. 3, 2021.

"Maybe the number of journalists jailed has decreased in comparison to previous years. But now there is another method of repression: releasing detained journalists on the condition of an international travel ban," Onderoglu said.

"Due to judiciary control, journalists' passports are being confiscated. This has led to the imprisonment of journalists' minds. While at work, at home or on the street, your mind is not free. This is as desperate as being physically imprisoned."

The press freedom advocate knows firsthand the risks for media.

Onderoglu is currently on trial facing up to 14 years in prison if convicted for his role in a solidarity campaign with the pro-Kurdish newspaper Ozgur Gundem.

Onderoglu was originally acquitted, but the Court of Appeals in Istanbul ordered a retrial on charges of propagandizing for a terrorist organization, incitement and "praising the crime and the criminal," according to RSF.

His trial has been postponed from May to September.

Faruk Eren, head of the press union Confederation of Progressive Trade Unions of Turkey (DISK), told VOA Turkish it has become impossible to follow all the lawsuits because of the sheer number.

"We as a workers union, as well as NGOs, follow the lawsuits filed against journalists, but there are so many it is not possible to compute," Eren said. "We follow Ankara, Istanbul and Izmir where we have our organizational structure, but local press in many places … face pressure as well."

The union head said legal action doesn't come just from the central government. Local and regional administrations also take action against media.

"Access to news coverage online is easily restricted. We are facing a very grave situation," Eren said.

Gunes, of the journalists association, said that members of the media working in democracies should not be targeted or attacked for critical reporting.

In one incident in March 2020, a group of about 25 unidentified assailants attacked journalist and government critic Levent Gultekin outside the studio where he works, breaking several of his fingers.

In free societies, "journalists are not attacked outside their homes or work," she said. "If we live in a democratic country, which the ruling party claims we do, then they should quit targeting journalists. As the government issues new judicial reform packages, injustices against journalists grow."

Mehmet Toroglu and Alparslan Esmer contributed to this article, which originated in VOA's Turkish Service.

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