Turkey's Problem With Media Freedom

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An exiled journalist talks about the prospects of bringing a free press to a country whose government has imprisoned scores of his colleagues.

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Journalists and activists participate in a rally calling for press freedom in central Ankara on March 19, 2011. (Umit Bektas/Reuters)

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) says a record 232 journalists are currently imprisoned around the world, with Turkey being the worst offender. In a report released December 11, the U.S.-based media watchdog says 49 journalists are behind bars in Turkey -- a NATO member and EU candidate country -- compared with 45 in Iran and 32 in China.

The CPJ says most of the imprisoned Turkish journalists are Kurdish reporters and editors held on terror-related charges and in connection with alleged antigovernment plots. Turkey was already subjected to harsh criticism in an EU progress report in October, which listed freedom of expression, as well as the right to a fair trial, as areas of particular concern. I talked to exiled Turkish journalist Dogan Ozguden, the head of the Brussels-based Journalists' Association of Turkey, about the report's findings.

There is still an arrest warrant in your name in Turkey, the country which you left decades ago to escape jail. You risk being thrown in jail for insulting the Turkish military by calling for the democratization of the country after years of military dictatorship. How would you rate press freedom in Turkey?I am a 76-year-old journalist, and from the beginning of my career I have not seen anything else than [journalist] prosecutions. Turkey is now an EU candidate, and it has promised to fulfill all the obligations in the democracy and liberty fields. In the beginning, [Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's] Islamist government said it will respect all the criteria. But unfortunately for the past three or four years, the pressure on the opposition -- and particularly on the press -- increased.

The Committee to Protect Journalists said in its report that broadly worded antiterrorism and penal code articles allow Turkish authorities "to conflate the coverage of banned groups and the investigation of sensitive topics with outright terrorism or other antistate activity." How accurate is this statement?[The Islamist government is] using the pretext of supporting terrorist movements to arrest all the journalists who are not considered "reasonable" by Erdogan's government.

Prime Minister Erdogan's government has pushed forward with the prosecution and conviction of hundreds of army officers accused of plotting a coup. Prosecutors have said that what they called Operation Sledgehammer was a conspiracy by the army to trigger a coup against Erdogan's elected government, an accusation sharply rejected by the army, which has long seen itself as the guarantor of the country's secular constitution. The country is also in the grips of a decades-long Kurdish insurgency. Could these be reasonable arguments for a harsher attitude toward those suspected of supporting the alleged conspirators or Kurdish terrorists?  

Under the pretext of combating the military putchists, they've arrested many people who have nothing to do with the military conspirators' movement. Most important, in terms of Kurdish journalists -- they are in different prisons in Turkey under the accusation of supporting the PKK. Any declaration, any criticism, or any call for Kurdish rights is considered support for the terrorist movement.

Many journalists, even not Kurdish journalists who are defending the fundamental rights of the Kurds or other minorities -- Assyrians, Armenians, and Greeks -- are considered terrorists or defenders of terrorism.

What are the most prominent cases of journalists currently imprisoned for exercising their profession?

The most spectacular one is about 16 journalists -- among them, Mustafa Balbay, from the daily "Cumhuriyet," [and] television journalists Tuncay Ozkan and Soner Yalcin, who have been in prison for more than two years [for allegedly supporting the army plotters] and [whose] trial is continuing.

After that, there are many Kurdish journalists -- particularly from the "Azadiya Welat" Kurdish newspaper or Dicle News Agency. They are subjected to prosecution continuously.

Do you think that the international community is doing enough to bring about a change in the way the government deals with freedom of expression?

I am very thankful to the international professional organizations like the Committee to Protect Journalists, or the International Press Institute, or the International Federation of Journalists, or Reporters Sans Frontieres. They are always very attentive at defending the imprisoned Turkish or Kurdish journalists. They have accepted that these people are accused and prosecuted and condemned because of ideas, not for their political activities or terrorist activities. All these organizations are unanimously defending all journalists in Turkish prisons.

Turkey is an important player in the Middle East and its contribution to regional stability is substantial, especially during this period of growing instability in places like Syria or Egypt. Is the balancing act by NATO and the EU in their relations with Turkey successful enough?

As for the international institutions like NATO, the European Union, the Council of Europe, even the United Nations, unfortunately they are not so attentive toward these burning questions [on human rights and freedom of expression]. For example, the relations with the Turkish regime are maintained without taking into consideration all these violations of press freedom. These institutions and organizations should change their attitude and put more pressure on the Turkish government.

But the EU on October 10 issued a very critical progress report on candidate Turkey...

Yes, critical, I agree. But there is no practical pressure. They say that these, these, and these [rights] are not respected. OK, but what is the result? The result should be sanctions against the Turkish government. But such sanctions are not being applied. Why? Because of geopolitical and strategic issues, the problems with the Middle East countries, and for all these reasons, despite their criticism, they are not applying sufficient pressure on the Turkish regime.

You yourself have been subjected in absentia to an arrest warrant under the notorious Article 301, whose abolition has been demanded by many rights watchdogs. Can you describe Article 301?

For example, insulting the president of the republic or the prime minister or the Turkish Army. If you criticize one of these institutions, there is always the Article 301 of the Turkish penal code. And naturally, there are many private trials opened [under Article 301] by Prime Minister Erdogan against many journalists demanding very high fines for insulting [him].



This post appears courtesy of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

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