As the world commemorated May 3 as World Press Freedom Day, Turkey marked the occasion with continuing press freedom violations, attacks against journalists and further limitations on social media platforms, the last bastion of freedom of expression and the press in the country.
The International Press Institute (IPI) recorded nine different incidents of attacks, harassment, or restrictions on the press in Turkey during the week of May 3, underscoring the continued dire situation for press freedom.
Verbal attacks, threats, and cycle of impunity
On Monday (May 3), local news reported that two assailants who attacked Halk TV journalist and Diken columnist Levent Gültekin on March 8 were released from detention. The two were arrested after a group of 25 assailants attacked Gültekin in front of Halk TV’s offices following Gültekin’s critical comments on the deceased ultra-nationalist leader and MHP founder Alparslan Türkeş. IPI previously called on Turkish authorities to open a prompt and thorough investigation into the attack. However, the release of the only two individuals detained in the incident confirms the serious concerns about the lack of political will to hold those responsible for crimes against journalists to account.
On Tuesday (May 4), Habertürk TV economy news manager Ebru Baki hosted her regular programme on the economy, “Money Agenda”, where participants discussed the MHP’s submission of a draft proposal for a new constitution. Following the programme, MHP Deputy Chair İzzet Ulvi Yönter targeted and insulted Baki online, calling her “ill-intended” and a “so-called journalist”. Yönter also accused Baki of choosing her guests among “the MHP enemies”. Following this targeting, Baki’s colleague Bülent Aydemir criticized Yönter and rejected all accusations and underlined the attempt to intimidate Baki on air in their joint news programme the next day. The following day, Aydemir was reported to have been fired and Kürşad Oğuz, Habertürk’s TV editor-in-chief, reportedly resign from his position. Baki’s economy programme recording of May 5 with Aydemir was removed from TV’s YouTube channel and archive. The resignation and firing were widely seen as an act of political censorship in response to MHP’s criticisms.
On Friday (May 7), MHP Deputy Chair İsmail Özdemir, responsible for media and public relations, targeted Emin Çölaşan, a columnist with the critical Sözcü newspaper, after his criticism of MHP’s draft constitution proposal in his column. Çölaşan wrote that this draft constitution was a strategic move built as a “trap” to separate the opposition alliance between the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the Good Party (İYİ Parti). Özdemir targeted Çölaşan online, stating that Çölaşan’s allegations were based on hostility and “sneakiness” and a lack of bravery. Özdemir also accused Çölaşan of taking sides with the “well-known” People’s Democratic Party (HDP), a pro-Kurdish opposition party that the government accuses of having links to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Finally, on Saturday (May 8), Minister of Interior Süleyman Soylu targeted newspapers Sözcü and Karar after they reported his remarks on the most recent investigation opened against İstanbul Mayor Ekram İmamoğlu on spurious charges. An investigation was filed against İmamoğlu after videos showed that he visited a shrine walking with his hand held behind his back. The prosecutor’s office alleged that he being disrespectful to religion and asked the Interior Ministry for permission to open a probe. Following this, Soylu said that “for me, this is a crime … but I wouldn’t give permission for investigation”. Newspapers reported İmamoplu’s comments on Soylu’s remarks, suggesting that by saying “for me this is a crime”, the minister influenced what should be an impartial investigation and judicial process. Soylu targeted the two dailies for spreading lies and “having sick mentality” following these reports.
Legal harassment and sentencing
Local news reported on Tuesday (May 4) that İsmail Çoban, a journalist with the now-closed pro-Kurdish Azadiya Welat newspaper and who has been imprisoned since 2018, was sentenced on March 31 to an additional two years of imprisonment after several articles of another pro-Kurdish newspaper, Özgürlükçü Demokrasi, that he had cut out and hidden were found in his cell. The news articles were cited as criminal evidence, and Çoban was sentenced for “bringing illegal/banned items into the prison facility”. Çoban had been sentenced to seven years and six months for “membership of a terrorist organization” in 2018. Another case in which he was sentenced to five years for “spreading terrorist propaganda via the press” is now on retrial after a regional appeals court overturned the ruling.
Authorities’ directives to undermine press freedom
Following a police directive banning audiovisual recording of protests and public demonstrations on April 27, Yol TV correspondent Özge Uyanık filed a criminal complaint on Wednesday (May 5) against police officers who had prevented her from recording while she was covering May Day demonstrations. Uyanık stated that police officers, quoting the police directive, threw her phone to the floor after trying to delete video from her device even though Uyanık showed her press card.
The police directive was appealed by at least 40 local bar associations on the ground that the directive does not have a legal basis and violates the constitution. The opposition party CHP had also filed a lawsuit with the top administrative court, the Council of State, for annulment of the directive.
Media regulatory bodies as censor mechanisms
Turkish media regulatory bodies continued their pattern of censorship and intimidation to suffocate critical media with directives and access blocks during the week of World Press Freedom Day.
On Sunday (May 2), Radio and Television High Council (RTÜK) member İlhan Taşçı reported that RTÜK Chair Ebubekir Şahin asked managers of TV channels in a private note not to air footage from AKP’s overcrowded congresses, which were highly criticized for being held during the pandemic at the risk of increase in infections. Şahin asked, instead, for TV channels to show “empty streets”. In his defense, Şahin said that the main purpose of his request was to contribute to upholding lockdown measures, while local groups saw this as another attempt to censor local media from reporting on controversial AKP events.
On Friday (May 7), Şahin said in an interview with the pro-government newspaper Sabah that RTÜK had issued a license to music platform Spotify to continue its operations in Turkey. However, Şahin said that Spotify now has to regulate its content in compliance with Turkish Law. This is relevant as Spotify is a platform with increasing critical and journalistic content via news podcasts, and commentaries of individual journalists. It now faces being potentially targeted with restrictions and sanctions by RTÜK if unwanted content or news is published.
RTÜK was granted expanded powers to monitor online broadcasting with a presidential decree in August 2019, requiring online platforms to obtain a license.
On Wednesday (May 5), two Diyarbakır Panel Courts of Peace blocked access to URLs of news sites “jinnews24.xyz” and “jinnews25.xyz” of the pro-Kurdish, women-only news site Jinnews, along with “mezopotamyaajansi34.com” of the pro-Kurdish Mezopotamya news agency. The numbers in the news sites URLs indicate how many times access has been blocked to these news outlets’ sites.
Another ECtHR ruling finds violation of journalist’s free expression
In a positive development, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) found on May 4, 2021 that prominent journalist Banu Güven’s freedom of expression was violated over a broadcasting ban issued in 2014 on a corruption scandal concerning four ministers. The scope of the broadcasting ban was quite extensive, encompassing all news articles and documents related to the investigation. Güven and two academics, lawyers Yaman Akdeniz and Kerem Altıparmak, applied to the Constitutional Court (CC) in 2014, and to the ECtHR in 2015 after the CC found their application inadmissible.
Güven told IPI that ECtHR rulings have an important role in establishing case law in Turkey and setting precedent for local courts, although Turkey has seen several incidents where higher court rulings were ignored or not implemented in recent years. “This ruling is the detection of a right violation found back in a time tunnel”, Güven said, referring to the lengthy process of the case. “But such rulings are still vital for the press freedom.”
“This won’t compensate the loss of our rights, the restrictions and curtailing [of the news] we faced then, but carries an admonitory nature for the local authorities. However, [since the process takes years] the government knows that they will get away with these right violations”, Güven said. She added: “Therefore the Turkish government has to be regularly reminded of its obligations under international agreements and in relations with the EU.”