Not many countries would wish to be ranking worse than Iran or Eritrea in their treatment of journalists. Turkey, an American ally, member of NATO and showcase Muslim democracy, is not particularly worried to carry the label of most oppressive country. Our union in Turkey, the TGS, has compiled a detailed list of 94 journalists in jail, more than half of them Kurds, tried on terrorism or other anti-state charges.
Kurdish journalists who report on the widespread oppression of their identity or the 28-year-old conflict between the Turkish army and the PKK have for decades borne the brunt of Turkey's intolerance including the current government. Turkish authorities see Kurdish journalists as no different from PKK fighters and often label them as terrorists or supporters of terrorism. As for non-Kurdish journalists who are brave enough not to toe the government’s line on this issue, their employers (often mainstream newspapers) are often pressurised to terminate their contracts which happened to many journalists.
Turkey has always had a chronic problem with tolerating a free press. From 1959 to 2011, out of 479 cases brought to the European court of human rights under freedom of expression, 207 originated from Turkey. Until recent years, it would have been much easier to press Turkish authorities on their human rights and press freedom deficit in view of their effort to join the European Union. It looks now as if Turkey is not bothered anymore to be seen to be playing by the rules of the European club.
Since Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan came to power in 2002 he started representing an epochal shift throwing out the secular minority leading the country since its foundation and creating more of a one-party democracy. The arrest of journalists seems to be part of a wider campaign by Erdogan to crush any opposition to his rule, creating an extraordinary climate of fear not only among journalists but anyone contemplating criticising Erdogan’s government. This is why beyond journalists there are also members of parliament, army officers, university rectors, and heads of aid organisations being targeted.
Today’s Turkey’s press freedom situation has reached crisis point characterised by the routine prosecution of journalists on criminal charges related to news gathering, government’s pressure to instill self-censorship in the media and the failure to reform vaguely worded penal and anti-terror legislation that is applied regularly against the press.
The jailing of dozens of journalists would have put the most authoritarian goverments on red alert, ready to deflect criticism and putting out their own narrative to justify their action. For some reason, the Turkish authorities decided no to put any line of defence, except to deny that those arrested were journalists at all.
I participated on November 5th with my union, the NUJ in UK and Ireland, to the day of solidarity with Turkish journalists in jail by attempting to open a dialogue with Turkish diplomats in London. The Ambassador Ahmet Ünal Çeviköz refused to meet the delegation and when we turned up at the embassy to deliver a letter addressed to his Prime Minister, his staff refused to open the door.
This can only be a sign that they are not prepared to defend the indefensible. We must step up our campaign, in particular to adopt journalists in jail, and perhaps make new openings in Arab countries where Turkey is working hard to become the new superpower leading the newly elected Islamist governments in the region.