The International Press Institute (IPI), the global network of editors, media executives and leading journalists for press freedom, today demanded that imprisoned journalists not be excluded from the Turkish government’s plan to release thousands of prisoners as part of the response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

On March 24, the ruling coalition AKP and MHP submitted a draft law on criminal enforcement regulation for parliamentary discussion. The new law proposes the release of around one-third of Turkey’s 300,000 prison inmates by accelerating early release on probation in order to ease capacity in the overcrowded prisons.

According to local rights groups, Turkey’s prisons are 121 percent over capacity, posing a serious threat to prisoners’ health. The proposed law, however, excludes those convicted of terrorism-related offenses.

Yet of the 92 journalists in jail, over 50 percent of them are there on terrorism charges, the result of politicised targeting of journalists for their critical reporting. Dozens of journalists have been jailed for “terrorist propaganda” or “membership of a terrorist organisation” by a subservient judiciary, as part of the government backlash against political opposition in the wake of the 2016 failed coup.

“The independence and courage of these journalists has already cost them their liberty. Now it may cost them their lives”, Oliver Money-Kyrle, IPI Head of Europe Advocacy and Programmes said. “Continued imprisonment would almost certainly reduce access to urgent medical care. We demand all journalists be released immediately.”

In the meantime, groups of local journalists and rights organizations have also started a campaign with the hashtag #GazetecilerDeEvdeKalsın (Journalists must also be allowed home) calling for the release of jailed journalists as part of the worldwide #StayHome campaign for self-isolation.

In Turkey, prisoners receive medical services from nearby public hospitals. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, hospitals and medical services are overrun, creating serious concerns over medical care of journalists and other prisoners in case of infection. Therefore, it is of the highest importance that the new law be expanded to include journalists.

IPI Turkey National Committee Chair and Executive Board member Kadri Gürsel criticized the draft law stating that it is as if “the lives of journalists are expendable”. “Journalists just as everyone are at clear risk of being infected and prisons are not isolated from COVID-19,” Gürsel said.

On March 17, IPI made a global call on all governments to respect press freedom and journalists’ rights while taking necessary measures to protect public health. IPI Executive Director Barbara Trionfi said: “In this age of disinformation, the public needs news that it can trust. It is critical at this stage that governments support the work of independent media, which are crucial allies in the fight against COVID-19.”