journalists say press freedom has declined under Erdogan’s rule
Amberin Zaman, fired after
writing outspoken columns in a Turkish newspaper, is one of a dozen
columnists dropped from their priviliged perches in the past year. | Roy
Gutman | McClatchy Newspapers
Veteran journalist Hasan Cemalwas forced out of his job in March for
defending his newspaper’s decision to publish secret protocols that
embarrassed Turkey’s ruling party.
Zaman lost hers in April following a succession of outspoken columns that
criticized the government’s Syria policy and its treatment of the large
Mert criticized Turkey’s Kurdish policies and voiced concern that Recep
Tayyip Erdogan, the powerful prime minister, risked becoming an
authoritarian leader, she was dismissed from her job as a television show
host with NTV and then fired early last year by the newspaper Milliyet.
columnists in Turkish newspapers – royalty in this country’s media
realm – who enjoyed perks, prominence and a modicum of freedom to report
the news and give their views, far more than ordinary journalists. They
are among more than a dozen Turkish columnists who were fired or quit
under pressure in the past year, according to the U.S.-based Committee to
were forced out, Erdogan put pressure on their publications and attacked
them by name or indirectly, raising a multitude of questions about whether
Turkey has the advanced democracy it claims 10 years into Erdogan’s
is journalism, then down with your journalism,” Erdogan declared in a
speech about Milliyet, Cemal’s newspaper, after it published the minutes
of Kurdish politicians’ talks with Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned
leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, a group the government had
previously demonized as terrorists but is now negotiating with.
nation of 80 million, has emerged as one of the most stable Muslim
majority states, and its economy is the second fastest-growing in Europe.
Three visits by Secretary of State John Kerry in his first three months in
office confirm the country’s growing role in regional affairs. On
Thursday, President Barack Obama will receive Erdogan at the White House,
where the topics are likely to be the civil war in Syria and what role
Turkey can assume in Middle East peace talks.
of expression on contemporary issues lags woefully behind progress in
other spheres, stymied by a government that regularly seeks to intimidate
publishers, editors and reporters, as well as columnists. The Carnegie
Endowment, a nonpartisan U.S.-based think tank, concluded early this year
that press freedom in Turkey “is moving backward.”
relations “have always been problematic in Turkey, because political
power groups have always tried to control the media and the community of
journalists,” exerting pressure “through economic, political and legal
instruments,” Cemal wrote in his final column, which Milliyet refused to
publish but which was distributed by the International Press Institute, a
Vienna-based association of news executives that promotes free press
veteran with 45 years’ experience, had consistently supported the
present government, and his departure rocked the Turkish media world.
of this state of affairs include an ownership structure in which media are
held by large conglomerates that often compete for government contracts,
in a conflict of interests; a judicial system that has jailed more people
claiming the label of journalists than any other country, according to
several studies; and finally a general lack of solidarity among
In place of
hard-hitting watchdog reporting, the result is self-censorship. Some
journalists say 30 percent to 40 percent of their reports are never
is the key thing in Turkish media,” Mert told McClatchy. “It has never
been as bad as it is now.”
go undiscussed. Is there a risk of blowback from allowing Islamist
extremists to cross into Syria and join al Qaida-related fighters?
“It’s a huge story. It should be on the front page every day,” Zaman
told McClatchy. But it goes untouched.
government support for the Syrian rebels has failed to topple President
Bashar Assad is another topic that is not addressed. “In Turkey, if you
criticize the policy, they label you as pro-Assad,” Zaman said.
strangely for a country that aspires to be a regional leader, Turkish
media barely covers the war in Syria, relying instead on international
any contracting scandals or government corruption in Turkey? You’d
hardly know from reading the mainstream media.
entailed in the deal between Turkey’s national intelligence agency and
Ocalan, a captive for 14 years, leading him to order the withdrawal of the
PKK armed forces from Turkey? The topic is barely mentioned. Then
there’s the related subject that has many Turks’ heads spinning: How
can the PKK go from being a terrorist group to a trusted negotiating
partner so quickly?
Some of the
answers – or at least the questions – could have been provided by the
likes of Mustafa Gokkilic, a specialist on Kurdish issues. He was one of
few Turkish journalists to go to the scene in late summer 2012 when the
PKK mounted a major operation in the mainly Kurdish town of Semdinli, near
the Iraqi border. But in late March he was fired without explanation from
his job as a reporter for Haberturk TV.
Committee to Protect Journalists generated a storm of reaction last year
when it said Turkey had jailed 61 journalists in direct connection with
their work. The Turkish Justice Ministry disputed CPJ’s tally, saying
that some of those convicted had committed “grave crimes such as
membership of an armed terror organization, kidnapping, possession of
unlicensed weapons and dangerous substances, bombing and killing.”
Ministry’s claims underscored harsh laws that ascribe membership in a
terrorist organization to anyone who writes an article promoting its
analysis of the Committee to Protect Journalists’ list and government
indictments shows that 52 of the 61 indicted or imprisoned for their
writing or reporting report for Kurdish news outlets, and most appear to
have a connection with the PKK through an affiliated “popular front”
organization, the Union of Communities in Kurdistan.
But many of
the cases are paper thin, said Dunya Mijatovic, a Bosnian who is the
representative for freedom of the media of the 57-nation Organization for
Security and Cooperation in Europe. “There were cases of people simply
reporting things connected with the PKK,” she said.
nine cases involved charges growing out of Ergenekon, one of several
mammoth cases alleging a military conspiracy to overthrow the elected
civil government. But some of those cases appear to be completely baseless
– such as the charge against reporter Ahmet Sik that two books he wrote
exposing the conspiracy made him a part of it.
another leading investigative reporter, Nedim Sener, spent more than a
year in detention. “There is nothing that connects me with Ergenekon. I
see myself as an outsider,” Sik told McClatchy in an interview.
“It’s not possible” to have been a part of the conspiracy, he said.
“I would never be a friend of them, let alone enter into an alliance.”
But he expects a jail sentence in June.
signs of possible change, in the form of judicial reforms, the latest of
which has just been signed into law and redefines terror, decriminalizing
speech in support of a terror organization if it does not incite to
But no one
knows the implications for journalists in jail of what is known as the
Fourth Judicial Reform, because the government has largely avoided
discussing it. McClatchy made more than half a dozen attempts by phone and
in writing to obtain a comment from the Ministry of Justice, without
the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said the newest
reform could be a change for the better, but “only if it is
weeks, the Turkish judiciary has released four Kurds from pretrial
detention, according to Committee to Protect Journalists. All had been
charged with membership of a terrorist group based on articles they wrote.
The Turkish media have given the case minimal coverage.
still makes Turkey among the least hospitable nations for journalists in
Europe, Mijatovic said.
not only by far the highest number of journalists in prison among OSCE
participating states; the sheer number of imprisoned journalists –
either convicted or in pretrial detention – raises fundamental questions
on the legislation governing media freedom in Turkey,” she told
greatest irony of the latest crackdown, against columnists, is that they
have long been one of the few sources of news on controversial topics in
the largely docile media in which they appear. Columnists here also have
enormous perks. Zaman said she earned “a fat salary” as a columnist,
supplemented by well-paid television appearances, and Mert said she earned
as much as $20,000 a month, 15 times the average reporter’s salary.
system is corrupt,” said Zaman, who has international credentials as the
Turkey reporter for the Economist weekly and as a past special contributor
to the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post.
“take up all the room in newspapers, and very often, they’re the ones
chatting with ministers and officials. They double up as news
reporters,” Zaman told McClatchy. “They get so-called scoops from
high-level sources and they don’t check the facts.” To maintain that
access, she notes, the columnists write little that would anger their
saying we previously had such a great free press and a fantastic
democracy, and lo and behold, these guys came along and it all fell
apart,” Zaman said. But today, she said, “there is only one power, and
it is Recep Tayyip Erdogan.”
Previously, and particularly under coalition governments, “there were
spaces for criticism.” Today, “we have a very strong one-party
government, a monopoly of power,” she said.
Jenkins, a writer and analyst based in Turkey since 1989, said one reason
for the weakness of the media was the lack of solidarity among
he said, if a journalist says something critical that the government
doesn’t like, “other journalists go after them.” He paraphrased
Pastor Martin Niemoller’s famous summing up of the duck-for-cover
mentality in Hitler’s Germany. “People remained quiet when lunatic
nationalists got banged up in prison. People kept quiet when those with
whom they disagreed were under pressure. Now their turn has come.”
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