As Turkey prepares for presidential and parliamentary elections, press freedom and human rights groups demand that, whoever forms the next government, unwinding a decade of restrictions on media freedom must be a central priority for the country.
The extent of the media freedom crisis facing Turkey is outlined in the International Press Institute’s (IPI) report ‘Turkey: Throttling the Media in Crucial Election Year’ to be presented on World Press Freedom Day, 2023. The report is based on the results of the international media freedom mission led by IPI in October 2022.
According to the report: Turkey’s journalists are facing a perfect storm of physical, judicial and regulatory threats designed to silence independent reporting and muzzle public debate.
The passing of the disinformation law in 2022 was the latest effort to bring the digital space to heel and ensure the social media platforms either submit to a role as conduits for government censorship, or resist and risk enormous financial penalties and ultimately their closure.
Media regulators continue to fine broadcasters for critical programming and the courts continue the prosecution of journalists. Meanwhile a febrile atmosphere generated by political hostility to journalists, backed by a police force that beats up journalists with impunity, has created a tinderbox that could ignite into violence and further suppression at any moment.
In the months since the mission, journalists have been fearful of falling foul of the disinformation law which criminalizes ‘disinformation and fake news’ which is loosely defined as news intended to instigate fear, panic, endanger the security, public order or the health of society. The law establishes a framework for extensive censorship of online information and the criminalization of journalists. While we are aware of only a handful of cases where the law has been cited when detaining individual journalists to date, it provided a legal basis for the throttling of Twitter in February which the government initially justified as necessary to stop the spread of fake news following the earthquake. Public reaction forced the government into a swift U-turn.
We call on the new government to immediately abolish the disinformation law.
During 2023 the broadcast regulator, RTÜK, has continued to issue fines against independent broadcasters on an almost monthly basis for criticizing the government. This evidence reinforced the mission report’s conclusions that the regulator has been weaponized to silence legitimate criticism and that this crucially undermines the electoral process.
We call on the new government to ensure that all media regulators are fully independent of government and that they operate without prejudice and in full respect of media freedom.
In the year since May 3, 2022 the Mapping Media Freedom database records 34 physical assaults on at least 72 journalists. This unacceptably high level of violence reinforces concerns expressed in the report about prosecutors’ failures to adequately punish those who perpetrate violence against journalists including the lack of accountability for police officers who assault journalists.
We call on the new government to reform the judicial authorities’ approach towards journalists’ safety.
The April 25 dawn raids on Kurdish media which saw first the detention of at least 10 journalists of which five have since been charged with membership of an illegal organization, underline the relentless suppression faced by Kurdish journalists. The report records the mission’s meeting in Diyarbakir with journalists to discuss their plight following similar raids in June 2022 that saw the arrests of 20 journalists.
We call on the new government to end the decades-long suppression of Kurdish journalism.
The mission met with representatives of the Constitutional Court which has issued some important rulings including the August 2022 ruling that the arbitrary and consecutive bans on public advertising in independent newspapers by the Press Advertising Agency (BIK) violated freedom of expression and press freedom. However, there remain major challenges on the implementation of its rulings by lower courts and the delays in addressing important freedom of expression violations underscoring that justice delayed is justice denied.
We call on the new government to reinforce the independence and capacity of the Constitutional Court to pursue and speed up justice for journalists and ensure its rulings, and those of the European Court of Human Rights are followed by the lower courts.
The mission report further notes how, under the conditions, the survival of Turkey’s journalism can be attributed to some incredible and courageous individuals dedicated to their journalistic mission, backed by networks of journalists’ organizations, nationally and internationally, ready to support their members and colleagues wherever possible. It is also a result of a public thirst for independent reliable news that cannot be quenched. Turkey’s journalists still have a pivotal role to play in this election year and the building of a strong democratic society to come.
The mission was led by the International Press Institute (IPI) and included ARTICLE 19, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF), Reporters Without Borders (RSF), Osservatorio Balcani Caucaso Transeuropea (OBCT) and Amnesty International Turkey (AI). It was organized as part of the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) programme.
International Press Institute (IPI)
European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)
Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ)
Osservatorio Balcani Caucaso Transeuropa (OBCT)
Reporters Without Borders (RSF)
Amnesty International Turkey (AI)