World Press Freedom Day (May 3) was an opportune moment for calling attention to the sorry state of press freedoms in Turkey. Amnesty International – Turkey did so with a protests in downtown Istanbul and flash mobs elsewhere in the city, featuring activists wearing tape over their mouths and marked with the most offensive legal restrictions on freedom of expression.
The plight of jailed journalists in Turkey is, by now, well established. The vast majority of those held are Kurds jailed under anti-terrorism statutes. According to a study by the OSCE, however, a significant number of the jailed journalists were imprisoned in the Ergenekon trials, and nearly 20% are listed as “other.”
“Other” would apparently include those prosecuted for defamation under Article 125 and other statutes, which are routinely used to punish those seen as overly critical of government officials and politicians. For example, Ali Örnek, an editor at Sol, was recently given a suspended 14 month sentence for “publicly insulting the president” on a social media site, where he poked fun of the fact that a school was being named after the president. For Örnek, this means that, if anything he says or writes in the next five years is deemed to be “insulting of the president,” he will do time. For other journalists, it is a clear signal that freedom has its limits in Turkey.
Writing for AL-Monitor, journalist Yavuz Baydar notes that the jailing of journalists is only the most obvious way in which press freedom has come under siege in Turkey:
Regulation of broadcast media is stiffly controlled by the government. The “moral majority” is increasing its pressure to censor content in both the conventional and digital domains…Concentrated media ownership, as well as the large business activities of media proprietors in industries other than media, make the sector totally vulnerable to unholy alliances with the political elites, and keep journalism from its watchdog role. Coverage of any corruption, or power abuse, is almost non-existent, blocked by greedy and power-sensitive proprietors.
Amberin Zaman, writing elsewhere in AL-Monitor, notes the costs of these restrictions on basic journalism:
[the killing of unarmed Turkish civilians by Turkish forces at] Uludere and Turkey’s support for Syrian rebels fighting to overthrow the Assad regime have become taboo subjects in the country’s increasingly repressive media environment. So much so that journalists who offer critical views can be fired by media bosses fearful of endangering their other business interests by incurring the government’s wrath.
Baydar writes that condemnation of these limitations is becoming more wide-spread. The problem is that the Turkish government has a tradition ofengaging in half-measures aimed at stifling criticism rather than bold steps meant to ensure freedom. We need to make sure that, this time, Turkey engages in real reform.
St. Lawrence University