Paris – The country in focus this week is Turkey due to the country’s ongoing targeting of journalists, newsroom reporters, managers and other critical news outlets.
Context – Since the country’s failed coup attempt in July 2016, scores of journalists and media outlet managers have been arbitrarily arrested and sentenced for their alleged support of Fethullah Gülen and his organization. During the coup attempt, a state of emergency was declared and by executive decree, 180 media outlets were forced to shut down and at least 2,500 journalists lost their jobs. The ongoing state of emergency gave authorities exceptional powers to prosecute anyone that criticized the government which sparked a sustained campaign of surveillance and harassment against the media coupled with an increased amount of press freedom violations. These violations have been concealed under the law that accuses journalists of “revealing state secrets” or “harming national security” which has seriously impacted press freedom, with many describing it as the “death of journalism” in the country.
Current Situation – Although Turkey ended its state of emergency in 2018, the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan continues to apply the laws promulgated during the state of emergency on media outlets and journalists. After heavy criticism of Erodğan’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic on social media, a new law has been introduced aimed to silence social media users.
In July of this year, Turkey’s parliament approved changes to a 2007 law on internet crimes – often used to charge an individual on the basis that the nation was insulted or a threat to national security was present. The changes to the law have given authorities the power to control social media content by forcing social media platforms with more than 1 million users a day on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to have a representative in Turkey who manages any complaints about content and relays them back to Turkish authorities. If companies fail to assign a representative, they will be punished with various sanctions making it almost impossible for them to carry out their work. The law also says that if any content violates “personal rights” and the “privacy of personal life,” companies are required to remove this from their sites within 48 hours of receiving a court order. Failing to comply, companies may face court penalties, including fines of up to 30 million Turkish lira (€3.4 million).
President Erdoğan has said himself that social media platforms “need to be brought into order…Such platforms don’t suit this country and our people. That’s why we want them completely shut or controlled after bringing the issue to our parliament.”
Triggering outrage, many NGOs and media outlets around the world denounced the new social media law with many fearing that the law would further exploit the country’s legal process and end independent journalism in Turkey altogether. “It is essential for everyone who values and champions free speech to recognize how damaging these new restrictions will be in a country where an autocracy is being constructed by silencing media and all critical voices,” said Tom Porteous, deputy program director at Human Rights Watch when the news of the law was announced.
Authorities now have the freedom to investigate journalist’s social media activity, scrounge up false charges and arrest them on unsubstantiated crimes. According to Reporters Without Borders, Turkey is the world’s biggest jailer of journalists, with the norm being that many spend more than a year in prison before going to trial. Long jail sentences are common and in some cases, individuals can receive life imprisonment with no possibility of a pardon. “Detained journalists and closed media outlets are denied any effective legal recourse. The rule of law is a fading memory in the “New Turkey” of paramount presidential authority.” Turkey’s military involvement in Libya and Syria and the country’s migrant issue have expanded the range of topics that are subjected to censorship and self-censorship thus increasing the use of the judicial system for political ends.
In June 2020, seven journalists from Odatv news website, the pro-Kurdish newspaper Yeni Yasam, left-leaning BirGun newspaper and the nationalist daily Yenicag were charged with “violating national intelligence laws” and “revealing state secrets” in relation to a Turkish intelligence agent killed in Libya earlier this year. They have been held in pre-trial detention since March. If convicted, they face between eight and 19 years in prison.
The defendants include Baris Pehlivan, Baris Terkoglu, Hulya Kilinc, Ferhat Celik and Aydin Keser who were charged for their reports on the intelligence officer who died in February including information about Turkey’s military activity in Libya. Murat Agirel and Erk Acarer are accused of revealing the intelligence agent’s identity on social media. Prosecutors have accused the journalists of acting “in a systematic and coordinated manner,” however multiple sources have found that the identity of the intelligence officer was already revealed, including his involvement in Libya.
All of the defendants dismissed the charges against them and requested they be absolved. Scores of people waited outside the Istanbul court in support of the journalists. The court released Baris Terkoglu, Ferhat Celik and Aydin Keser from custody awaiting the outcome of the trial. The case has been suspended until September 9, 2020.
Our view – This widespread criminal prosecution and arbitrary arresting of journalists is pushing Turkey’s press freedom to the brink of non-existence. The country’s laws and unjust sentencing system is threatening to silence dissents in Turkey. Dozens of journalists are now in prison for simply doing their jobs and nearly all of them are in jail on “terrorism” or “anti-state” charges.
The Freedom in the World Report has given Turkey an aggregated freedom score of 32 out of 100 and reported the country as “not free.” Under the “Civil Liberties” category, “Are there free and independent media?” Turkey scores a 1 out of 4 due to the constant political pressure on independent news outlets.
The Francophone Association for Human Rights (AFDH) calls on the Turkish government to expedite the release of all journalists who are currently being held or imprisoned for performing their journalistic activities and to revert to a more open and tolerant attitude towards liberty of the press. We also call on Turkey to abolish the use of its anti-terror law to silence and sentence journalists.