The state of press freedom in Turkey
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) in its latest ranking, “World Press Freedom Index”, places Turkey in 149th position. In 2005 he was 98th. According to RSF, civil society and the world of associations are the two important elements fighting in Turkey to try to defend freedom of the press.
The restriction of this fundamental right manifests itself in four main ways in Turkey. The first, the most widespread and well-known, is the path of complaints and lawsuits, which can end either by pre-trial detentions or arrests.
Often “anonymous witnesses” are used and false evidence is produced after the arrest of the journalist. The most common charges are transgression of anti-terrorism laws or insulting the President of the Republic.
The case of the journalist Serife Oruc of the Dicle news agency is an example. Oruç is accused of “belonging to a terrorist organization”, and among the “evidence” in support of this accusation are the statements of an anonymous witness made at the beginning of the trial during an interrogation, but never repeated before the court. judge despite 19 hearings held over five years.
Finally, long periods of pre-trial detention pending not only the final verdict but also the indictment are very common. The most emblematic and well-known case is that of Turkish-German journalist Deniz Yucel, who was forced into solitary confinement for a year in the special prison of Silivri without charge or warrant. The case of Yucel and so many of his colleagues makes us realize that detentions against journalists are highly political.
According to the Expression Interrupted platform working for the P24 association, 67 journalists were detained in Turkey between May and July 2022. For the month of June alone, 22 journalists had been placed in pre-trial detention in the city of Diyarbakir, and 16 between them the arrests have been confirmed. Also in the same report, it is reported that in the second half of 2022, a total of 168 journalists appeared before a judge because they had been prosecuted or were already on trial. During the same period, a total of 9 journalists were sentenced to 17 years in prison.
On the other hand, in the similar report prepared by the main opposition party, the CHP (People’s Party of the Republic), still in the first six months of 2022, a total of 350 journalists appeared before a judge, 56 journalists remanded in custody, and for 23 of them the arrest was confirmed.
The second method used against opposition voices is that of aggression and intimidation. The most recent example concerns the journalist Ebru Uzun Oruc who brings on her YouTube channel the voices of the citizens she interviews on the streets of different regions of Turkey.
Oruç released a video in early August asking for citizens’ opinions on Devlet Bahçeli, the leader of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and parliamentary ally of the ruling AKP.
After a series of threats received on social networks by party activists, Oruç and her husband were victims of an attack in Istanbul on August 13. The Association of Progressive Journalists (CGD) condemned the attack, calling on the authorities to investigate and find the perpetrators immediately.
RSF also commented on this incident, which fortunately resulted in few injuries, pointing out that similar cases are widespread in Turkey and are the result of collective or individual lynching campaigns initiated by certain prominent members of political parties.
Instead, in the case of Gungor Aslan, there was not much to do. Aslan was the owner of a local news portal, Ses Kocaeli, and was murdered outside his office on February 19.
During the first interrogation, the alleged murderer, after admitting his guilt, stated that he had decided to murder Aslan because he disagreed with one of his articles. Instead, according to Aslan’s colleagues, it was an organized murder, the result of a collective effort.
The third method of restricting press freedom in Turkey is economic pressure which often voluntarily pushes journalists out of work or paves the way for lawsuits for media closures. Once a lawsuit is concluded with a media outlet shutting down, the bidding route is on, and often the new buyer is a business that has a political, ideological, or familial connection to the ruling party.
In its report published at the end of 2021, the Association of Journalists of Turkey (TGC) specifies that in 10 years around 12,000 journalists and reporters have been unemployed because they were fired because of the content of their work or because the media they worked for were shut down due to political or economic pressures. The report contains numerous testimonies that speak of widespread poverty among the workers but also of widespread censorship and self-censorship that led to their dismissal or resignation.
In a very detailed book (“Cross-Ownership of Media in Turkey”) prepared by Dergi Park magazine, it is shown that with the rise to power of the fundamentalist AKP party in 2002, a number of , or existing small companies have become large , and slowly took most of the media market. Calik Holding and Es Medya are just two excellent examples of this strong transformation. Two companies that operated mainly in the world of energy and infrastructure now hold around 50% of the media market. Calik Holding and Es Medya are just two excellent examples of this strong transformation. Two companies that operated mainly in the world of energy and infrastructure now hold around 50% of the media market. The former CEO of Calik Holding is Berat Albayrak, i.e. the son-in-law of the current President of the Republic and former Minister of Energy and later former Minister of Treasury. In 2021 thanks to the Pandora Papers scandal, Turkey discovered how Calik Holding systematically evaded tax by opening tax identities in four tax havens.
Calik Holding bought media giant Merkez Medya at auction in 2007, paying $1.1 billion. Later in 2013, she sold it to the Kalyon company. The latter according to the report published by the World Bank in 2020 is one of the ten companies taking the most government contracts in the world. In fact, among Kalyon’s works are many airports, dams, hydroelectric plants, bridges and state universities.
Es Medya, on the contrary, belonged to the entrepreneur Ethem Sancak, an eminent figure in the fundamentalist movement and a close friend of the President of the Republic. Until 2017, Sancak controlled 24 national newspapers and 360 local and national TV channels, and that same year he decided to sell everything to Hasan Yesildag. The sale was confirmed by Sancak himself in an interview with Bloomberg. The new owner is a little known name in Turkey but for some journalists he is a very important person, the former cellmate of the President of the Republic, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. According to some journalists, Yesildag worked as a guard for Erdogan while he was detained for 4 months in 1997.
Another example of the transformation of media profiles in Turkey is the case of Turkuaz Medya. In 2017, Turkuaz Medya purchased at auction 2 TV channels and 5 radio channels previously belonging to the Gulen community or close to its ideological line. The religious and business community of Gulen is that reality, a former ally of the government, accused of being behind and implementing the failed coup of 2016. During the state of emergency, from 2016 to 2018, various media belonging to or close to Gulen were shut down, confiscated and auctioned off.
In 2003, lawyer Fikret Ilkiz in his detailed article published on the news portal BiaNet, and in 2017 university professor Burak Celik in an academic research article, explained in detail how the media in Turkey was controlled by some companies. Instead, with a 2017 report by journalist Abdullah Köktürk, he showed how the political and ideological positions of the mainstream media controlled by the companies mentioned above were now definitely and obviously aligned with those of the central government. Thus, in such a situation, the voices of the opposition find little room to express themselves and to employ themselves.
The last element often used in Turkey to restrict freedom of the press is the law. In recent years, the ruling coalition has introduced a number of legislative changes under the pretext of “protecting the serenity of the people, defending family values and national security”.
However, in reality, these changes have resulted in additional censorship and restricted expression in the media. The latest example is the bill “against disinformation” that the government coalition is trying to pass. Under this law, making disinformation would be defined as a crime, punishable by up to 3 years in prison. The definition of the crime is very general and broad: “Dissemination of information for the purpose of creating panic, fear and anxiety, of endangering national security and of disseminating information harmful to health and public order”. The bill would also cover websites and the convicted journalist would lose their accreditation.
Finally, to be more effective, the law would require social media to have a representative office in Turkey and a representative of Turkish nationality. In the event of an investigation for “misinformation”, social networks would be required to provide the contact details of one or more users, and in the event of non-response to the request, the bandwidth they use can be reduced by up to 90%, and finally their service could be prevented for up to 6 months.
This scenario, briefly illustrated and with some example elements, helps to understand that Turkey is not an easy and safe country for those who work in the information world. The situation described in this article is the result of a politico-economic conception aimed at the independent world of information, which can, if necessary, call into question the work of the administrative power. Although the most popular tool seems to be detention, there are many alternative methods to prevent labor and intimidate the thousands of journalists and reporters who don’t end up in jail and try to do their job properly and honestly.