Turkey has made no progress toward restoring press freedom after ending emergency rule last July, the International Press Institute (IPI) said today in a report summarizing a three-day visit to the country in December.
The report, “Progress Arrested”, concludes that “rather than repealing the emergency decrees that the government had put in place to suppress media freedom, Turkey has been developing laws and other tools to further extend restrictions imposed on the media” since the July 2016 coup attempt.
A high-level delegation led by IPI Executive Board Chair Markus Spillmann and IPI Executive Director Barbara Trionfi traveled to Ankara and Istanbul to meet with journalists, civil society organizations, foreign diplomatic missions, representatives of opposition parties and representatives of the Turkish foreign and justice ministries.
Government officials insisted that most of the over 150 journalists behind bars in Turkey were jailed because they were “criminals” and not because of their professional work. Officials described Turkey’s media environment as “good and vibrant” and characterized the media crackdown as a legitimate state response to the coup attempt, which Turkey blames on the movement led by exiled Islamic cleric Fethullah Gülen and has taken as carte blanche to persecute not only allegedly Gülenist-affiliated media but also secular, Kurdish, leftist and any other media that dare to challenge official narratives. Representatives of both the justice and foreign ministries defended the Turkish justice system as fair and independent.
Those statements clash dramatically with research conducted by IPI and other press freedom groups. The vast majority of Turkey’s jailed journalists are charged with terrorism-related offenses for which prosecutors routinely produce only journalists’ critical articles and social media activity as “evidence”. Moreover, journalists also face routine violation of their rights as defendants in criminal proceedings, including extended pre-trial detention ruled illegal by Turkey’s Constitutional Court and the European Court of Human Rights. IPI observation of court proceedings has revealed flagrant violations of the right to a fair trial, with courts in some cases denying journalists’ right to appear in court, ignoring rules on deliberating in private and obstructing the work of defense lawyers.
At the same time, the Turkish government has – through the forced closure of over 170 media outlets and printing houses and a combination of market distortion, economic pressure and friendly media ownership – brought an estimated 95 percent of the country’s media under its influence.
Trionfi said that while IPI acknowledged Turkey’s security concerns, “the mass, arbitrary incarceration of journalists and the criminal procedures brought against hundreds of others as well as the complete control over the country’s media landscape cannot in a way be justified by any level of security concerns and represents a serious breach of international standards that Turkey has ratified”.
The report found independent journalism to be under extreme pressure in Turkey. “The media domination by Turkey’s ruling party is such that numerous journalists that IPI met in the course of the mission described an unprecedented level of censorship and self-censorhip, to the point that many feel that the content of most mainstream media has little to do with the journalism they used to practice”, it concluded.
A key theme of IPI’s visit was Turkey’s failure to return to the rule of law following the end to a two-year state of emergency in July 2018. Officials suggested – despite the lack of any visible change – that Turkey was returning to normality and “focusing on reform”. In this context, officials highlighted a Reform Action Group whose primary focus was said to be the judiciary and increasing its efficiency, which in turn would have a positive effect on journalists’ cases.
IPI’s meetings with independent media and civil society, which described the lack of any clear improvement in Turkey’s repression of media freedom, provided numerous grounds for scepticism of the Reform Action Group.
“The creation of the Reform Action Group appears today as a glimmer of hope for restoring some level of respect for the rule of law in the country”, the report said. “Nevertheless, the process so far has been extremely slow, and the lack of transparency has effectively prevented opposition parties and civil society from contributing to the process. As long as Turkey fails to give a clear sign that it seriously intends to implement the necessary reforms to ensure that its laws are in line with international and European standards and that the judiciary can operate independently from the ruling party, there will remain a high degree of scepticism that even the Reform Action Group is nothing else than a useful façade to please international observers.”
Since IPI’s visit to Turkey in December 2018, press freedom has continued to decline. In January, investigative journalist Pelin Ünker was sentenced to prison for “defaming” former Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım and his sons for exposing their links to offshore companies in Malta as part of the Panama Papers investigation. Ünker faces several other pending cases. On February 5, Kurdish journalist Nedim Türfent spent his 1,000th day in prison in a trial marred by outrageous violations of Türfent’s right to a fair trial and devoid of any credible evidence to support the charges against him.
Founded in 1950, IPI is a global network of editors, media executives and leading journalists for media freedom. It conducts detailed monitoring of the press freedom situation in Turkey as part of its Free Turkey Journalists campaign, regularly observes journalists’ trials and advocates for change. IPI has members in more than 100 countries around the world.