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Turkey: Journalism behind bars

Nedim Şener: Photo by IPI/David Reali.

In a study released in early April, the OSCE (Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe) representative on freedom of the media, Dunja Mijatović, reported that fifty-seven journalists are currently in prison in Turkey, mostly on the basis of the country’s anti-terrorism laws.

With eleven more Turkish journalists also facing charges, the total number could soon double the records of Iran and China, each of which reportedly held thirty-four journalists in prison in December 2010. Indeed, Mijatović estimated that another 700-1000 proceedings against journalists remain ongoing.

Such a situation is intolerable anywhere, but particularly in a democracy that seeks European Union membership, and that recognises freedom of expression as a fundamental right. Turkey’s behaviour thus calls into question not only its desire but also its ability to commit to the values underlying the EU.

Journalists linked to Kurdish or Marxist organisations have regularly been targeted under Turkey’s anti-terrorism laws, and the OSCE study found that they have faced some of the harshest punishments. One Kurdish journalist was sentenced to 166 years in prison. Others currently face – wait for it – 3000-year sentences if convicted.

The relative lack of scrutiny of Turkey’s treatment of journalists by many in the West has changed, however, owing to the recent waves of arrests in the so-called Ergenekon case. Numerous military officers and academics have been implicated in that case, which involves an alleged plot by secular ultra-nationalists to overthrow the Turkish government. The probe has now turned increasingly towards journalists.

One of those accused of participating in the plot is the daily newspaper Milliyet’s investigative reporter Nedim Şener, whose work includes a book about links between security forces and the 2007 murder of Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink.

The International Press Institute (IPI) named Şener a World Press Freedom Hero in 2010. Incarcerated following his arrest in March, he reportedly stands accused of belonging to an armed terrorist organisation seeking to overthrow the government.

Another journalist under fire is Ahmet Şık, who already faced prosecution for co-writing a book criticising the government’s crackdown on the Ergenekon plot. Şık was said to be working on a book about the alleged influence of an Islamic group within Turkey’s police force, which authorities ordered confiscated before it could be printed.

A common thread in all of the cases targeting journalists is that the alleged facts are shrouded in secrecy, and the authorities have declined to release any evidence of crimes or criminal organisations. Worse still, they have declined even to inform those brought before courts – sometimes in secret – or their attorneys of the charges they face.

Indeed, journalists caught in this Kafkaesque affair can expect to spend years behind bars before being allowed to respond to the accusations against them. A climate of fear escalates with each raid and arrest.

Meanwhile, Turkish authorities affirm the country’s commitment to press freedom, even as they impugn the motives of those who exercise it. Given that so many journalists have been jailed, and that all of them have been critical of the government, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that journalists are being targeted because of their work.

Such concern has been voiced not only by press-freedom groups such as IPI, and journalists, like the Freedom for Journalists Platform (an umbrella group representing local and national media organisations in Turkey), but also by respected international institutions.

The United States’ Mission to the OSCE and the European Commission have joined Mijatović in calling on Turkey’s authorities to stop their intimidation of the media immediately, and to uphold basic OSCE media freedom commitments. The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has called on Turkey to guarantee freedom of opinion and expression.

Even Turkey’s president, Abdullah Gül, recently called for “prosecutors and courts to be more diligent in pursuing their responsibilities, and to act in a way that does not harm the honour and rights of the people.”

Turkey plays a pivotal, bridge-building role between East and West, and the country has been praised for demonstrating that democracy can coexist with Islam. But the arrests of so many journalists are eroding this image.

The right of journalists to cover sensitive topics, including national security, is fundamental. Those who do not engage in criminal activity should not face arrest, imprisonment, or any other form of harassment or intimidation for doing their job. Those accused of criminal activity must be given due process and a fair trial. Evidence must be provided, and the accused must be presented with the charges they face and the opportunity to defend themselves.

Far from being defamatory subversives, journalists who investigate and criticise their government’s actions demonstrate true patriotism, because no democracy can survive without the open and independent assessment of public policies that journalists provide.

If Turkey, a major regional power with an ancient cultural heritage, truly wishes to be welcomed into Europe, to take its rightful place on the world stage, and, indeed, to remain a democracy, its leaders must not hold freedom of the press in contempt.

—–

Alison Bethel McKenzie is director of International Press Institute.

Steven M Ellis is press freedom adviser of International Press Institute.

© Project Syndicate.

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