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5th Mar 2021

Free press on trial in EU aspirant Turkey

  • Turkish newspapers: Columnists are allowed to air gripes, but investigative journalists are being put in jail (Photo: Carmen Alonso Suarez)

The trial of 11 journalists - including Turkey's "last investigative reporter" - begins on Tuesday (22 November) in a country which says it wants to join the EU.

Nedim Sener, Ahmet Sik and nine other journalists will face the court after spending six months in pre-trial detention on charges they support Ergenekon - an alleged conspiracy against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan named after a fairy tale palace.

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If convicted, they will join the 63 newspaper men and women who are already in prison or the 50 journalists who live under threat of prison due to suspended sentences.

The trial comes one month after Turkey arrested Ragip Zarakolu, an eminent intellectual and free speech campaigner, on charges that he collaborates with an illegal Kurdish movement, the KCK. It also comes the same day the government launches a Chinese-style Internet filter designed to block access to thousands of websites containing pornography or Kurdish "separatist propaganda."

Delegates from international pro-free-media NGOs - the AEJ, EFJ, IPI and RSF - and two MEPs plan to join protesters outside the Caglayan court in Istanbul on Tuesday.

EU enlargement commissioner Stefan Fuele last week also complained about the clampdown. He told press in Istanbul that a purely military solution will not stop Kurdish unrest in the south-east and that "Turkish anti-terrorism legislation and its interpretation do not adequately protect freedom of expression."

Turkey gave no sign it is listening, however.

Its EU affairs minister, Egemen Bagis, sitting alongside Fuele at a business congress, instead accused EU countries of sheltering parts of the Kurdish militant group, the PKK. A former Turkish ambassador to the EU, Volkan Bozkir, said the EU is too weak to make demands because of the financial crisis. "The EU dream has come to an end," he noted.

With Turkey presenting itself as a model Islamic democracy for the Arab Spring, two Turkish trade union leaders told EUobserver that Erdogan is systematically gagging critics and opposition groups.

Ercan Ipekci, the president of the Turkish Journalists Union, said the Sener trial is "the last straw" in a "terrible situation."

He noted that "all journalists believe their phones are wire-tapped", that you can go to prison for years for interviewing a KCK contact, for filming a pro-PKK demonstration, for reading pro-PKK websites as part of your research or for not deleting reader comments deemed "insulting" to Erdogan on your own website.

Ferai Tinc, the president of the Press Institute in Turkey, said columnists are more free these days to write about Turkey's persecution of Armenians in World War I. But the government will sue you if you call it "genocide".

She added that Erdogan has created a climate in which judges fear to make anti-government rulings and in which "dark forces" in society - such as the people who murdered pro-Armenian writer Hrant Dink in 2007 - feel they have a moral mandate.

"It is very difficult to understand what are the limits of free speech, what you can write and what you cannot write. The main problem is self-censorship. I can very clearly say that our journalistic instincts are being eroded ... We have had no real investigative journalism in Turkey for years now - you can say that Sener was the last one."

EU commission to confront Turkey on free press

The European Commission in its 2011 enlargement report will tell Turkey to stop attacking investigative journalists and mark "limited progress" on pro-EU reforms in many Western Balkan countries.

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