Saturday

8th May 2021

Opinion

Is Turkey's crackdown on journalists starting to crack?

  • Since the failed coup against Recep Tayyip Erdogan in July 2016, at least 180 media outlets have been shut down and scores of journalists have been jailed on baseless "terrorism offences" - many charged as a result of posts they have shared on Twitter (Photo: Flickr)

"Accusing journalists of aiding terrorists because they do not toe the regime's line is the first step to a totalitarian state," journalist Sue Turton told me a few years ago.

Turton - the force behind the #FreeAJStaff campaign which helped release three Al Jazeera journalists jailed in Egypt in 2013 – was offering thoughts on how to secure the release of more than 100 journalists unjustly detained in Turkey.

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  • Joe Biden meets Erdogan as then US vice president. His new administration has taken a much harder line on human rights in Turkey, calling out a series of 'significant human rights issues' (Photo: tccb.gov.tr)

The country is among the world's biggest jailers of journalists for the fifth year in a row, and was ranked 153 out of 180 countries in the newly-published World Press Freedom Index, between Belarus and Rwanda.

Since the failed coup attempt in July 2016, at least 180 media outlets have been shut down in Turkey and scores of journalists have been jailed on baseless "terrorism offences" -many charged as a result of posts they have shared on Twitter, cartoons they have drawn or opinions they expressed.

Covid-19 has brought additional fears for journalists behind bars.

Last week, Turkey entered its second lockdown - but overcrowding and unsanitary facilities has been a concern long before the pandemic that already posed a serious health threat to Turkey's prison population.

So how can we help get them out of jail?

"My advice is to build international solidarity," Turton tells me. "When my colleagues were convicted in Egypt, we knew our best weapon was the solidarity of the media all over the world".

So we did just that. On World Press Freedom Day 2017, Amnesty International together with several other prominent human rights organisations launched the Free Turkey Media campaign.

Four years on, more than 250,000 people have signed an online petition calling for the immediate release of Turkey's journalists. Thousands of others have posted 'solidarity selfies' on Twitter, and leading journalists, politicians and celebrities have joined the call too.

Exile, or pre-trial detention

And yet, the situation for journalists in Turkey remains dire.

Some of the country's most respected journalists – Turkey's equivalent of Christiane Amanpour, Medhi Hassan and Anderson Cooper - are exiled, facing investigations or are behind bars. Some are serving absurd life sentences, many others are held in pre-trial detention on baseless charges.

According to international human rights law and standards, pre-trial detention must be an exceptional measure only to be applied if other alternatives are not suitable to prevent a substantial risk of flight, harm to others or interference with the evidence or the investigation.

Whereas deprivation of liberty should only occur as a last resort, it is applied routinely and punitively in Turkey. Its impact is devastating to the media scene in the country.

Despite the elevated risks, brave journalists across Turkey continue to do their job in a climate of fear as the authorities attempt to curtail all independent journalism and silence critical voices.

"Working under the constant threat of arrest and conviction makes life extremely difficult but journalism is our profession. We have to carry it out," says Çağdaş Kaplan, editor of the online news portal Gazete Karınca.

"There is a plainly visible truth in Turkey, but there is also an attempt to hide it from society. Somebody has to speak about it, and that's what we are trying to do."

'For journalists, Turkey is a dungeon'

"For journalists, Turkey has become a dungeon," says journalist Hakkı Boltan. His organisation - the Free Journalists Association – was ironically shut down in November 2016.

Indeed, those who used to observe court cases from the press gallery, now watch them from the dock.

But there is hope.

The new Biden administration in the US has taken a much harder line on human rights in Turkey.

A month ago, the US called Turkey out over a series of "significant human rights issues", ranging from allegations of arbitrary killings and torture to the jailing of tens of thousands of critical voices, including political opponents, lawyers, journalists and human rights defenders.

There are also signs that human rights are making their way back on to the agenda in moves to reset EU-Turkey relations.

Last month, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen met with president Recep Tayyip Erdogan and stated that "Turkey must respect international human rights rules and standards".

Is this diplomatic pressure – together with the support and solidarity of journalists and campaigners around the world – starting to have an impact?

It is too early to say, but last month, Ahmet Altan – the prominent author and former newspaper editor who was serving a 10.5-year sentence on ridiculous charges – was released following the decision by the top appeals court to quash his conviction.

In 2018, two years into his unjust imprisonment, Altan wrote: "I may never see this world again".

Although he still faces the ever-constant threat of re-arrest, the fact that today he is back home with his family offers us a light of hope amid the darkness.

Now is the moment to push back against the growing trend among governments that are locking up journalists and enacting laws used to criminalise their legitimate work.

And it is a time to make clear to governments – including in Turkey – that stifling a nation's media is a wilful act of self-harm that we, as journalists, will keep writing about until the day they come to take away our pens.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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