Turkey's Muzzled Press Corps

Turkish journalists protest in Istanbul in March.

As the 103rd anniversary of the abolition of press censorship in Turkey nears, journalists find themselves in troubling times. Since the official abolition on July 24, 1908, the republic has struggled with fully embracing freedom of expression and press.

Being a journalist is challenging in any country, but with government pressure, intimidation, and the threat of lawsuits and jail time, Turkey proves to be especially unfriendly to journalists. A recent spike in the number of journalists imprisoned or facing trial has called into question the nation's dedication to the democratic process. As a result, its talks regarding membership to the European Union have been stalled.

In its 2010 progress report on Turkey, the European Parliament stated it "is concerned about the deterioration in freedom of the press, about certain acts of censorship and about growing self-censorship within the Turkish media, including on the Internet [and] calls on the Turkish government to uphold the principles of press freedom."

The Turkish Journalists Association reported earlier this year that 60 journalists were being detained in prison with more than 2,000 cases currently open against reporters and editors.

"It's very hard to be a journalist in Turkey," said Özgün Özçer, an editor at Taraf's foreign news desk. Özçer claims that many lawsuits are opened simply as a means of harassing journalists and intimidating newspapers into censoring opinions in opposition to official government stances.

Although Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has made leaps and bounds in growing the nation's economy, it has taken considerable steps back in terms of press freedom. Over time, Prime Minister Erdogan has cracked down on journalists, writers and critics, raising multiple lawsuits against them while continuing to deny he wishes to silence government criticism.

Article 28 of the Constitution of the Republic of Turkey states that "the press is free, and shall not be censored" and that "the state shall take necessary measures to ensure freedom of the press and freedom of information." But the article goes on to restrict the freedom of the press through loosely interpreted declarations, such as "anyone who writes or prints any news or articles which threaten the internal or external security of the state or the indivisible integrity of the state … which tend to incite offence, riot or insurrection, or which refer to classified state secrets … shall be held responsible under the law."

Despite a supposedly free press, Reporters without Borders ranked Turkey 138 out of 178 countries in its "2010 World Press Freedom Index"—a blow for a country hoping to set a democratic example for neighbors just emerging out of the Arab spring. Since the AKP came into power in 2002, Turkey has plummeted 39 spots—falling from the 99 position.

"Press freedom has always been an important topic in Turkish history," said Deniz Ergürel, secretary general of Media Association, a Turkish organization aimed at raising the quality of the press. "It's a complicated issue. Right now in Turkey there are more than 2,000 trials against journalists in the Istanbul area."

In Turkey, risk of imprisonment, threats and lawsuits against journalists seems to remain highest for those reporting on minority rights, such as the Kurdish issue, or writing critically about secularism or the government.

Journalists imprisoned due to the Ergenekon trial

Since its start in June of 2007, an increasing number of journalists have been arrested in relation to the ongoing Ergenekon trial. The trial is an investigation into the members and activities of the alleged Ergenekon terrorist organization, charged with attempting to overthrow the government by stirring up a military coup.

Many high-profile Turkish journalists and editors, including Ismail Saymaz, Serkan Ocak and Ertan Kiliç, have been arrested and tried for their work in relation to Ergenekon. Most are charged under Article 285, relating to "violating the secrecy of an investigation," and Article 288, on "attempting to influence a fair trial," of the Turkish Penal Code.

Investigative reporters Ahmet Sik and Nedim Sener were arrested in early March, not for their writings, but for suspected involvement in the Ergenekon plot. Both journalists have, however, published controversial books, which surely helped them gain a few enemies. Sik was set to publish a book on the influence of the Fethullah Gülen movement within the Turkish police, while Sener is well known for his writings on the controversial murder in 2007 of Turkish journalist Hrant Dink. In 2010, Sener was named an International Press Institute world press freedom hero. Charges have yet to be filed against either journalist, although they remain imprisoned.

One of the founders of Özgür Gündem, a pro-Kurdish Turkish newspaper, Kanaltürk television journalist and book author Merdan Yanardag was taken into custody on October 28, 2008, in relation to the Ergenekon trials. Yanardag was detained in prison for three days and subjected to intense questioning regarding his book, "How Was Turkey Beseiged: Behind the Curtains of the Fethullah Gülen Movement." The book describes how the Gülen movement has infiltrated the Turkish government.

"They tried to put me in jail because I tried to show everybody that the AKP and the Fethullah Gülen movement have a cooperation between them," said Yanardag through an interpreter. "I wasn't tortured, but the questioning itself was a torture for me. For three days [I was kept] in a cell under bad conditions with no sleep."

Yanardag's trial, like all of the Ergenekon investigations, has yet to produce a verdict. "I've been on trial for three years now and I don't know when it will finish," said Yanardag. "The trials themselves have turned into a psychological torture practice. They told me I was a member of a terrorist organization but in reality [the state] was the terrorist, if you ask me." As a result of his trial, Yanardag finds it difficult to gain employment, citing government pressure on print and television media to blacklist those professionals involved in Ergenekon.

"The government acts like they don't use censorship, but they did to me," said Yanardag.

Semra Pelek, former Aksam newspaper page editor, is currently facing charges under Articles 285 and 288 due to her work editing an article on the Ergenekon trials that ran on January 5, 2010. Aksam editors decided in a group meeting to add a quote from General Ibrahim Firtina's court testimony that had appeared in an online article from another media outlet. Lawsuits were filed against Pelek and Aksam Managing Editor Mustafa Dolu for the addition of Firtina's quote. Pelek does not believe charges were filed against the media outlet that originally published the quote.

"These trials are so common in the Turkish Media," said Pelek through an interpreter, dark circles prominent around her eyes. "There are lots of tragic points in this event." If convicted, Pelek faces eight years in prison.

Criticism of the Ergenekon investigation comes from both local and foreign organizations who argue against the way the investigation is being conducted—long drawn-out indictments, illegal collection of evidence, and a possible conflict of interest between the ruling AKP and the Ergenekon trials.

"This has had a chilling effect on press freedom in Turkey," said Robert Mahoney, deputy director of the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York. "Although overall since the 90s the situation for journalists in Turkey has improved, journalists still come under lots of pressure for what they write. The fact that they have so many cases open against them is proof of that. It's all a way of harassing journalists."

On a more local level, according to an article published June 25, 2010, by Bianet, Ahmet Abakay, the president of the Contemporary Journalists Association, has gone so far as to denounce charges of "violating the secrecy of an investigation" against journalists in the Ergenekon trials as illegal. He further criticizes the use of unwarranted raids on journalist's houses as a tactic to create an atmosphere of fear among the Turkish media.

Self-censorship: a regular part of the job?

Due to fear, government intimidation of journalists, and conflicts of interest in media ownership, auto-censorship remains prevalent in Turkey. "There is a climate of intimidation in certain areas of the press in Turkey," said Mahoney. "There are a lot of subjects not covered in Turkish media as well as they should be, particularly the Kurdish question."

Pelek argues that auto-censorship is sadly a must for Turkish journalists. "If you want to stay in the mainstream media, you have to use your auto censor because everybody knows that if you're a part of the opposition [the government] will destroy you," said Pelek. Turkish journalists must self-censor not only to protect themselves but in some cases to also guarantee job security and get their work published in the mainstream media.

"The media has lots of responsibilities to society," said Pelek. They "must say the truth, but lots of newspapers in Turkey are the watchdogs of government interests."

Last May, the Constitutional Court decided to amend the Press Law and allow prosecutors to file criminal cases against journalists years after the article in question is published. Previously, under Article 26 of Turkish Press Law, prosecutors were limited to filing charges within two months of publication for daily newspapers and six months for other print media forms. The new ruling encourages journalists to self-censor due to the more permanent threat of legal repercussions for expressing oppositional views.

"The laws are written in such a vague language," said Rana Senol, project director for Media Association, who argues that this kind of language allows for loose and easily manipulated interpretations of the law.

One of the more controversial articles in the Turkish Penal code, Article 301, which makes insulting Turkishness a punishable crime, has been heavily debated and criticized since its creation. It was later amended to criminalize insulting the Turkish Nation but still remains easily manipulated through its ambiguous wording.

Turkey has a long history of struggling with freedom of the press, moving from times of draconian restrictions to an almost liberal press freedom. Negotiations for Turkey's candidacy to the European Union have helped to make the issue of a free press into a higher priority for the state, resulting in legal reforms aimed at increasing press freedom. Media broadcasts can now be conducted in languages other than Turkish, and prison sentences for crimes relating to journalism have been replaced with heavy fines.

In the eyes of the European Union and many Western countries, however, Turkey still has a long way to come in terms of establishing a free press—a necessity for maintaining a successful democratic process.

"Being a reporter in Turkey is not something like being a reporter in the United States," said Zeynep Nuhöglü, head of Taraf's foreign news desk. "It takes more bravery to be a journalist in Turkey."

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