Thursday

22nd Feb 2018

Opinion

EU must press Turkey on press freedom

  • Erdogan: Jails people who 'insult' him or who report on Kurds (Photo: Carmen Alonso Suarez)

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s visit to Brussels earlier this month came at an exceptionally challenging time for both Turkey and the European Union.

As hundreds of thousands of refugees continue to cue up at Europe’s borders, fleeing atrocities in their homelands and encountering a continent unprepared (or unwilling) to admit their staggering numbers, the EU needs to work with Turkey toward a sustainable solution to this humanitarian crisis.

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  • Laws also target bloggers and users of social media (Photo: mx.)

Turkey, in turn, needs the EU’s help with strengthening its border controls and hosting the 2 million Syrian refugees already in the country.

But Erdogan did not go to Brussels to only discuss this international emergency.

He has to contend with the war in Syria raging at Turkey’s border, which has become further complicated by Russia’s military involvement.

He also has to contend with: the flare-up in violence between Turkish security forces and armed militants from the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, in the southeast; a slowing economy; and an early parliamentary vote scheduled next month, prompted by a slump in the popularity of his AKP party.

In this context, the Turkish leader asked the EU to move ahead faster on Turkey’s accession process and to lift EU visa restrictions for Turkish citizens.

The EU clearly needs Turkey at this crucial time. But Turkey, too, needs the EU. It is in this moment that leaders in Brussels have the unique leverage to influence Turkey on its domestic policies and to press for a reversal of its authoritarian tendencies.

The EU must not let that moment pass.

Opportunity

Turkey’s EU entry bid has been on ice for years, in part due to its crackdown on independent and opposition journalists, which reached a peak in 2012 with the jailing of, at one point, more than 60 media workers in retaliation for their professional activities.

For two years in a row, in 2012 and 2013, Turkey was the leading jailer of journalists in the world, according to research by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), holding more reporters behind bars than either Iran or China.

Even though Turkey has since then released a large number of those jailed, the environment for critical voices has gotten more repressive than ever.

Since the mass anti-government rallies of summer 2013, known as the Gezi Park protests, Turkey has accelerated its crackdown on press freedom and Internet speech.

The crackdown involves the dismissal of dozens of journalists and columnists from their jobs, the public chastising of critics by top government officials, and the multiple prosecutions - and several new cases of jailing - on spurious anti-terror charges.

It targets reporters, bloggers, commentators, and social media users.

It also involves the raiding of newsrooms on grounds of suspected wrongdoings; the censoring of the coverage of sensitive news stories, particularly the Kurdish issue and Turkish military action along the Syrian border; the blocking of access to social media and news websites; and the passage of new laws aimed at censoring freedom of expression online.

CPJ has documented multiple cases of such acts of censorship, and we have repeatedly raised these issues with Turkish government officials, including when we visited Ankara and met with Erdogan and with prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu a year ago.

Back then, Erdogan made it clear that he does not tolerate criticism and he did not hide his hostility to media outlets that veer off the government-approved line in covering current events.

This attitude has not changed since then. If anything, official actions to stifle opposing views have intensified.

Insult

In the first seven months of Erdogan’s presidency, 236 people were investigated - and 105 were indicted - for allegedly insulting the president, under the archaic Article 299 of Turkey’s penal code, according to a BBC report that cited Turkey’s justice ministry statistics.

The defendants have included journalists as well as students, civil activists, scholars, artists, and even a former Miss Turkey.

Erdogan has used Article 299, which carries a prison term of more than four years and dates back to 1926, more than any of his predecessors in the job.

CPJ monitors Turkey daily and in recent weeks we have been taking note of new defamation cases filed by Turkey’s top officials against journalists literally every day.

Some of the cases have been dismissed, but most have become pending, awaiting further investigation or trial.

In the meantime, the journalists sued have gotten used to making frequent trips to the courts as part of their routine.

Eight international press freedom organizations, including CPJ, carried out a joint mission to Turkey this week, finding a toxic climate for journalists ahead of the November 1 general elections.

This must not be allowed to continue.

As part of the accession process, the EU ought to demand from Turkey a fundamental, meaningful reform of its laws, particularly its criminal, insult, and anti-terror codes, to remove vaguely worded articles that enable intolerant government officials and overzealous prosecutors to sue journalists on the job.

In our new report, Balancing Act: Press freedom at risk as EU struggles to match action with values, which we launched in Brussels on September 29, CPJ emphasized how important it is that the EU press for substantive changes in the candidate-countries for EU membership.

The EU, the report found, can influence democratic reforms in accession states, as was the case, for instance, with Croatia.

As Marc Pierini, a Carnegie Europe scholar and a former EU ambassador to Turkey, told CPJ: “Press freedom was indeed an explicit requirement in the Croatian membership discussions. Therefore, the Croatians took the measures that were expected - mainly, changes in their legislation - because they knew that was the indispensable key to their acceptance in Brussels”.

Similar pressure must be applied on Turkey.

Urgency

The urgency of the issue is palpable.

As we write, an Iraqi journalist by the name of Mohammed Ismael Rasool languishes in a high-security prison in the southern Turkish city of Adana, on vaguely worded charges of “aiding a terrorist organization”.

Rasool was arrested on 27 August, along with two British journalists, while reporting in Diyarbakir province for the US-based global news channel Vice News.

While the British nationals were released, Rasool remains in prison and Turkish authorities are yet to present evidence of his alleged crime.

Another journalist, Bulent Kenes, the prominent editor-in-chief of the English-language daily newspaper Today’s Zaman, was arrested earlier this month for allegedly insulting the president in a series of tweets.

Even though he has been released pending trial, the charges against him stand and he is banned from traveling abroad.

A third journalist, Dutch freelancer Frederike Geerdink, is appealing her September 9 deportation from Turkey - the country she had lived and worked in for nine years - on vague charges similar to those against Rasool.

Geerdink, who was often referred to as the “only foreign journalist based in Diyarbakir” had reported on the plight of the Kurdish minority, politics, and human rights - all sensitive topics in Turkey.

For that, she had previously been detained, indicted, and had her home searched by local police.

These cases provide but a snapshot of the grave conditions for doing independent and opposition journalism in Turkey.

Without allowing for press freedom - the very foundation of transparency - Turkey cannot be a reliable international partner, whether in managing Europe’s refugee crisis, handling EU aid funds, or conducting energy negotiations.

The EU must make press freedom a focal point of its relations with Turkey rather than allow geopolitical priorities to push the issue to a back seat.

Making a principled demand for press freedom reform in Turkey today would make a difference for hundreds of journalists on the ground and, ultimately, for EU’s core interests abroad.

Nina Ognianova is the Europe and Central Asia program coordinator at the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. A native of Bulgaria, she has led numerous fact-finding and advocacy missions across the region, including to Turkey. Her commentaries on press freedom have appeared in The Guardian, the International Herald Tribune, the Huffington Post, and EUobserver, among others

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