Nuray Mert is a Turkish journalist and political scientist who used to be one of four regular participants on a current affairs show on TV. That program was cancelled after Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan harshly criticized her last year of having “a grudge against the AK Party” and not paying attention to the victims of “PKK terrorism”. In February of this year she was also fired from her job as columnist at newspaper Milliyet.
Is Mert one of the hundreds of examples of reporters, students, academics and activists who are sued, fired or imprisoned because Turkey has turned into a ‘Republic of Fear’ as critics of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) say?
Deterioration of freedom of press and expression
It is definitely true that Turkey’s reputation on freedoms under the mildly Islamist AKP is problematic. Ria Oomen-Ruijten, a member of the European Parliament who writes the annual Progress Report on EU candidate Turkey, is concerned as well. In her latest resolution of 29th of March 2012 she stresses her worries “about the deterioration of the freedom of press and expression in Turkey. Court cases against journalists, pressure on the media and the disproportionate ban of numerous websites are not compatible with a free and pluralistic democratic society.”
Close to 100 journalists are in jail, convicted or waiting trial. On the Press Freedom Index 2011/2012 of Reporters without Borders Turkey dropped to the 148th spot, next to Afghanistan and Pakistan.
But according to the AKP the issue of jailed journalists is one of the tools that the main opposition party, the Republican People's Party (CHP), uses as part of its “smear campaign” against the government.
“The Ministry of Justice has worked on the list compiled by the Turkish Journalists’ Syndicate and The Platform for Solidarity with Imprisoned Journalists, and declared that the names on the list are not actually in the profession and only six of them carry press cards,” says Ömer Çelik AKP Vice Chairman responsible for Foreign Affairs in a press release on July 6.
“Furthermore, when the judicial processes and the accusations attributed to the names on the list are taken into account, it is obvious that none of these names are being persecuted due to their activities related to journalism. They are all standing trial because of crimes that have no connection to journalism activities,” he adds.
Senior correspondent Andrew Finkel, who has been based in Turkey for twenty years, dismisses the assertion that only six of the imprisoned are journalists. “Who is a journalist and who is not is like the medieval scholastic debate of how many angels can sit on the head of a pin", he says in an interview with DCMF. He was himself fired by Today’s Zaman for defending a journalist he didn’t agree with.
The paradox of Turkey is that although it has more imprisoned journalists than repressive regimes like Iran and China, citizens and media have much more rights and freedoms than in those countries.
“If anybody suggests that the media in Turkey lack pluralism or the public is badly informed, that’s obviously not true”, says columnist Yavuz Baydar, who is ombudsman at the newspaper Sabah and member of the Committee of Concerned Journalists.
He stresses that there are at least forty national newspaper titles, more than 250 private TV channels and 1300 radio stations. “Several are virulent anti-government like Sözcü, which quadrupled in circulation from 60,000 to 230,000 in five years”.
Of the 92 journalists in jail, about 75 have a Kurdish identity, mainly activists in publishing and opinion in the pro-PKK domain, says Baydar. “So, this is chiefly an issue related with freedom of expression on minority rights. The rest are accused of co-conspiring with the military to topple the elected government, so it is a story with a lot of twists.
That the ‘Turkish’ section does not care or mention Kurds at all in their campaigns is telling a lot of the paradox too. If the Kurdish rights of free speech are dealt with fairly, we would have reduced our problem with 90 or so percent”, he adds.
There is a relative improvement since the 1990’, says associate professor Doğan Tılıç to DCMF. Tılıç is Vice President of the Association of European Journalists and is teaching at Middle East Technical University in Ankara. “In the 1990’s reporters were killed and newspapers closed. But the political climate now is bad enough as it is. Erdoğan attacks media and journalists that are not friendly to him, all the time.”
Another part of the paradox is that the AKP “simultaneously embraces and abuses democracy”, as Steven Cook and Michael Koplov write in Foreign Affairs Magazine June 27. They also underline that “(...) since the AKP came to power, Turkey’s Freedom House scores for political rights and civil liberties have gone up, putting Turkey close to becoming a ‘free’ nation, the highest ranking that Freedom House assigns.”
Most observers agree that the main reasons why so many journalists are behind bars are the amendments of the Anti Terror Law of June 2006 that were supported by the main opposition party CHP as well. Article 7 foresees punishment of those “making propaganda for a terrorist organization”. This article existed already in the Turkish penal code for decades. These illiberal articles are used by prosecutors and judges to put, mostly Kurdish, journalists in jail.
The AKP government has had time enough to change these draconian laws and improve free speech, but the Prime Minister is reluctant to change them. Why? “The problem is a political hot potato”, says columnist Baydar. “The AKP is unable to draw a clear line between freedom of expression and assembly, and fighting terrorism. They are afraid of losing votes to the nationalists if they ease the anti-terror laws”.
On the one hand there is more freedom to discuss old taboos – like Atatürk, the Armenian genocide, the army and Kurdish nationalism – but on the other hand new taboos have popped up, like criticizing Erdoğan or Fethullah Gülen, a moderate Turkish Muslim scholar with a huge following in Turkey who currently lives in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania, USA.
Turkey is a country in rapid transformation. Developments however often follow the same pattern as the Ottoman military marching band, mehter takım, two steps forward and one step back. Press freedom and freedom of expression are one example of this pattern.
Old structural problems hinder the development of the media as a professional and independent fourth estate as well. Professor Asli Tunç, Head of Media School at Istanbul Bilgi University, says that the “profile of the media owners changed in Turkey in the beginning of the 1990s.
They were no journalists anymore, but businessmen who just cared for circulation and ratings”. She says that there is “an incredible concentration of the media in a few hands. In 2002, pro-AKP businesses owned less than 20 percent of the media outlets. Today, pro-government partisans own more than half.”
The once dominant media of the Doğan Holding were anti-AKP until they were intimidated in 2009 by a record $3.3 billion tax fine. It is also one of the top industrial conglomerates operating in energy, industry, trade, insurance and tourism. Doğan wants to be close to the government too as it participates in state tenders. “That’s very bad for the independence of the press”, says Asli. “Self-censorship has become the norm in newsrooms. Not because they are afraid of the AKP, but of their bosses who will fire them if they are too critical of the government.”
The climate of increasing intolerance of dissent is exacerbated by Prime Minister Erdoğan. He is known for his sharp tongue, but seems to be allergic of criticism towards him. He slammed columnists who had criticized his Syria policy and asked him why the Turkish F-4 reconnaissance jet that was shot down on June 22 was flying close to Syria.
“They ruthlessly act as if they are not citizens of this country,” he said. “Some of these journalists may have been sold,” and added “those who have no idea about the history of Turkish people cannot understand the government’s policies towards Syria.”
Attacking the media has become the norm. Columnist Sedat Ergin used this metaphor as a good illustration in Hürriyet: “For Prime Minister Erdoğan making a speech without mentioning or criticizing the media is like leaving the dinner table without eating desert”.
Marc Guillet is a journalist who has been based in Istanbul since 2006. Follow him on Twitter @Turkeyreport