Freedom of the press is one of the great bulwarks of liberty and can never be restrained but by a despotic government. Indeed media freedom levels are a good test of the democratic health of a nation.
Turkey is in very poor health, with the government continuing to muzzle free media. The latest effort is related to the Internet. If proposed amendments to the Internet law, which are expected to go to Parliament this week, are adopted, it would further restrict free expression. The Telecommunications Directorate (TİB) will be given the right to request and collect data on any Internet user without judicial oversight.
Is it acceptable that the government empowers the TİB to censor electronic media outlets as well as the personal blogs of parliamentarians, while claiming all the while to be abiding with the principles of democratic governance? In fact the authorities have already been meddling. Opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) member Umut Oran published a parliamentary inquiry (as he always does) on his website on bribery and fraud allegations regarding Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s family. He received a message from the TİB that his website would be shut down if he did not remove the content. A year ago, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) ruled that Turkey’s existing Internet law already contradicts the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and freedom of expression.
Winston Churchill once said, “I am always in favor of the free press but sometimes they say quite nasty things.” Regrettably, Erdoğan does not think along the same lines as his government has taken more and more steps to muzzle what they perceive as “nasty press.” While initially there was a tweak here and there, more recently it is being done in a more blatant manner.
Self-censorship has become more common as more journalists are hounded for criticizing the government. The government has also been taking control of or co-opting numerous media outlets. Thereby more and more newspapers that were once rather critical of the government have become more or less government mouthpieces. The fact that a large number of Turkish newspapers are in the hands of industrial bigwigs who have very extensive interests has led to widespread self-censorship by these media owners. It was particularly noticeable that much of the mainstream media — this newspaper being one of the exceptions — did not widely report on the June 2013 Gezi Park protests. Several journalists and columnists were fired as a consequence of their reporting.
The most recent wave is a consequence of a corruption scandal that has plagued the government since Dec. 17. Some 100 journalists have lost their jobs, either being made redundant or resigning after being harassed.
Sentencing journalists to life imprisonment is also common. In November of 2013, Füsun Erdoğan, Ziya Ulusoy, Bayram Namaz, Ibrahim Cicek and Sedat Şenoğlu were accused of being members of the Marxist-Leninist Communist Party (MLKP), which is banned under Turkish anti-terrorism laws. All were given life sentences, with the exception of Şenoğlu, who received just over seven years. The anti-terrorism law has been systematically used to silence critical voices. Along with the terrorism law, it allows for the arrest, detention and sentencing of journalists on terrorism charges for doing their work.
Another case is that of Muharrem Erbrey, a writer, lawyer and human rights activist from Diyarbakır who has been in pre-trial detention since 2009. He is accused of attempting to humiliate the Turkish state in speeches given in the Swedish, Belgian and UK parliaments, of being Diyarbakır Mayor Osman Baydemir’s lawyer, of attempting to humiliate Turkish security forces — the list goes on. His detainment has been heavily criticized by Amnesty International and other international organizations.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Turkey is now the world-leading jailer of journalists, with some 40 (many of them Kurdish) in prison as of December 2013, with others facing very long pre-trial detentions. Meanwhile, Reporters without Borders’ Press Freedom Index ranks Turkey 154th out of 178. A further report, released earlier this week by Freedom House, accuses Turkey of a “frantic crackdown” on the media. Yet, according to government officials, not a single one of those in prison is being detained or tried for something they have written.
While the international community has criticized Ankara, it has had little impact. More needs to be done to stop this ugly trend.
This article first appeared in Today’s Zaman, a leading newspaper of Turkey.