Watchdog blasts Turkey’s record on press freedom

Conditions for the news media have deteriorated in Turkey during the 13 years that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s political party has been in power.
Conditions for the news media have deteriorated in Turkey during the 13 years that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s political party has been in power. AP

Turkey remains the top jailer of journalists in Europe and should “reform the laws criminalizing freedom of expression” as well as the way courts implement those laws, the leading European human rights watchdog said Thursday.

Turkish jails currently hold 21 media representatives, according to the report from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. That number appears to be a significant improvement on 2012, when 95 journalists were being held.

But in addition, “many more journalists and social media users face trials that could result in prison sentences,” said Dunja Mijatovic, the OSCE representative on Freedom of the Media. And many journalists are now on trial – “so many that it would be hard to oversee,” she told McClatchy in a separate interview.

Azerbaijan, with 12 journalists in prison, comes in second place in Europe, OSCE officials said.

The OSCE, based in Vienna, is an organization of 57 countries that signed a code of human rights including media freedom at a conference in Helsinki 40 years ago last week

The timing of Mijatovic’s latest report coincides with a political upheaval in Turkey following June 7 elections, in which the governing Justice and Development party, or AKP, lost its majority in Parliament.

As they entered formal coalition talks that began this week, each of the other three parties said they would demand an end to restrictions and curbs on media freedom that have steadily grown during the AKP’s 13 years as the sole party in power.

Mijatovic cited a raft of laws that curb media freedom in Turkey. For example, Article 125 of the Criminal Code allows prosecution for “insulting politicians and public officials.” At least 11 editorial cartoonists, editors-in-chief, reporters, writers and contributors to satirical magazines have been prosecuted for violating the article, she said in the report.

Eight journalists have been prosecuted under Article 285 for “violating the secrecy of an ongoing investigation,” and five journalists have been prosecuted under Article 299 for an “insult against the president,” she reported. Some have been prosecuted under two or three different articles.

Many . . . journalists and social media users face trials that could result in prison sentences.

Dunja Mijatovic, OSCE media monitor

Then there’s Article 301, which criminalizes “denigrating the Turkish nation.” While the implementation of the article has decreased, “its mere presence continues to chill . . . journalistic work,” she said.

Mijatovic also criticized Turkey’s anti-terror law, which in the past had been used mainly against pro-Kurdish or Kurdish media outlets but now is being used against a much wider group of journalists. Among those accused in the past year are Can Dundar, the editor-in-chief of the Cumhuriyet, an independent daily, and Frederike Geerdink, a Dutch reporter based in Diyarbakir, a mainly Kurdish city.

Of the 21 journalists now in prison, the majority are Kurds, Mijatovic said.

Mijatovic also criticized Turkey’s Internet law of 2007, under which the Turkish government has denied access to more than 80,000 websites, including hundreds of news sites. Under changes made in the past two years without public debate, the telecommunications minister, even without a court order, can demand that content be removed from a website within four hours or the website can be closed altogether. And it can take up to 72 hours for a court to approve or reverse the move.

Even the Press Code, which is supposed to protect the confidentiality of journalists’ sources, has been used by law enforcement to limit journalists’ rights, she said.

A journalist found guilty of violating the Penal Procedural Code has no appeal – making it a tool to encourage self-censorship, she said.

Under a law titled “Protecting the Memory of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk,” anyone criticizing the policies and practices of the founder of modern Turkey is under threat. The country’s intelligence law calls for a sentence of three to nine years for anyone who reveals information about the functions and activities of intelligence agents.

The most likely partner in a coalition with the AKP, the Republican People’s Party, said media freedom is a condition for establishing a government with any party. But it also wants the government to give up its domination of the state broadcaster, TRT. “If we are part of a coalition, for sure freedom of expression and media freedom will be our priority,” Sezgin Tanrikulu, deputy president of the party, told McClatchy.

Perhaps the least likely party to join AKP in a coalition is the mostly Kurdish People’s Democatic Party, now in Parliament for the first time. It has called for Turkey to revise its laws to bring them in line with international standards and to abolish the anti-terror law.

The most conservative of the three other parties voted into Parliament last month, the Nationalist Movement Party, calls for “freedom of the media as a priority.” But its party program stipulates one condition for prosecuting journalists, harm to Turkish nationalism, which it defines as “the integrity of the motherland,” the “principles of the republic,” national security and public order.

To charge a journalist like Cumhuriyet’s Dundar with insulting the president “is unacceptable,” Oktay Vural, the Nationalist Movement Party’s deputy president, told McClatchy. Likewise, for a government minister to ban a website without a court order “is unacceptable.”

Mijatovic said it is not clear if the political shifts will open the way to media freedom. “I don’t think I would be doing this job if I were not hopeful,” she told McClatchy. But at this stage, “it is very early to say if we can expect changes.”

McClatchy special correspondent Duygu Guvenc contributed from Ankara.

Roy Gutman: @roygutmanmcc