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25th Oct 2021

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Let Turkey's journalists report freely

  • When lawmakers passed a parole law earlier this year to ease overcrowding in prisons, they excluded those convicted under Turkey's anti-terror law - the main instrument of choice to jail journalists (Photo: Scott McKiernan)

Last month, the International Press Institute (IPI) published Turkey's Journalists on the Ropes, the latest report on the dramatic press freedom situation in Turkey.

The report, which summarises the outcome of a press freedom mission carried out by 11 international groups in October, paints a depressing picture of the environment for journalism in the country.

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According to IPI's figures, 79 journalists remain behind bars in Turkey.

While this is down from a high of over 160 in 2018, the figure still makes Turkey one of the world's leading jailers of journalists.

Meanwhile, numerous reporters continue to face arbitrary prosecution and detention. Indeed, any public criticism of topics that are sensitive to the government risks being met with criminal charges.

This year, the most prominent example was the March 2020 arrest of six journalists for allegedly revealing the name of an intelligence agent – whose identity had already been made public in parliament.

Meanwhile, the country's judicial system remains under the sway of the executive branch, with predictable consequences for the rule of law.

Journalists targeted for their reporting face severe breaches of their right to a fair trial.

Troublingly, the government recently took aim at the independence of the Turkish Constitutional Court, a key remaining bulwark for fundamental rights, threatening to "restructure" the court in line with Turkey's presidential system.

These problems are not new.

2020, however, has seen the emergence of new challenges to the free flow of news and information in Turkey. Key among these has been the co-opting of nominally independent regulatory bodies.

Turkey's television and radio regulator, RTÜK, has repeatedly fined or issued short-term bans on major television broadcasters for their critical content.

Several broadcasters now face the revocation of their licence. Likewise, the Press Advertising Agency, or BIK, has taken to issuing state advertising bans on independent media, depriving these outlets of a crucial source of revenue amid an economic crisis.

Online censorship, too

Digital censorship is on the rise, too. Between 2015 and 2019, Turkey's telecommunications regulatory body blocked over 21,000 websites, including 2,000 news websites and 669 specific news articles, based on one specific legal provision introduced in 2015, according to EngelliWeb.

This year, the authorities took a step further toward online content control by passing a social media law that will effectively allow the government to force social media companies to remove unwanted content.

This law would turn these companies into an arm of Turkey's censorship apparatus.

As everywhere else, journalism in Turkey has been severely impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.

In Turkey, the consequences have been especially stark: when lawmakers passed a parole law earlier this year to ease overcrowding in prisons, they excluded those convicted under Turkey's anti-terror law - the main instrument of choice to jail journalists.

In the face of this continued repression, IPI launched the campaign "Let Turkey's Journalists Report Freely" last week with a series of newspaper advertisements.

The campaign coincided with Human Rights Day on December 10. The choice of Human Rights Day reflects the fact that press freedom is not only a right unto itself, but also supports all other rights, including those of Turkey's minority communities.

The lack of political will in Turkey to reverse the years-long crackdown on press freedom, which began in earnest following the July 2016 coup attempt, is evident.

But the EU's approach to the violations of fundamental rights in Turkey, including free expression and press freedom, remains highly inconsistent.

In its most recent progress report published in October, the European Commission highlighted systemic human rights abuses in Turkey and a "serious backsliding" on freedom of expression.

On the other hand, the European Council has not made a bettering of relations with Turkey contingent on concrete progress in freedom of expression and human rights more generally.

In October, the European Council offered Turkey significant improvements in economic and diplomatic relations, repeated at the summit of December 10 and 11, in return for a resolution in the dispute over drilling rights in the Eastern Mediterranean.

The offer was not coupled with a demand for human rights improvements. This is unfortunate.

The EU, EU citizens and EU businesses have an interest in a stable Turkey governed by the rule of law. Moreover, Brussels must not give up on all those in the country who believe in basic rights as well as a European future.

By failing to give priority to human rights in its dealings with Turkey, the EU abandons the very people in Turkey who believe in what the Union stands for.

IPI's #FreeTurkeyJournalists campaign provides exhaustive documentation of the violations of journalists' rights in Turkey. We keep regular data on the jailing of journalists and journalists' trials, conduct regular in-country trial monitoring, and advocate for an end to the crackdown in Turkey and respect for watchdog journalism.

Author bio

Scott Griffen is deputy director of the International Press Institute.

Disclaimer

This article is sponsored by a third party. All opinions in this article reflect the views of the author and not of EUobserver.

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