Turkey: journalism is not a crime

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Antonio Rodriguez

Turkey has earned an accolade which holds no glory: according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, it is the biggest jailer of journalists in the world.

Globally in 2016, one third of all imprisoned journalists, media workers and executives were in Turkey’s prisons, with the vast majority waiting to be brought to trial.

Freedom of expression in Turkey is under sustained and increasing attack. Since the failed coup attempt in July 2016, academics, journalists and writers who criticise the government risk criminal investigation and prosecution, intimidation, harassment and censorship.

Coupled with the closure of at least 180 media outlets by executive decree under the state of emergency, the message - and the resulting effect on press freedom - is clear and disturbing. The severity of the Turkish government’s repression of the media is such that it has been described by some as the “death of journalism”.

Fatih Polat, editor-in-chief of the newspaper Evrensel
Journalism is not a crime… We are defending the very essence and ethics of journalism while [the government] is trying to destroy it.

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Turkish people gather during the Gezi Park protest in Istanbul in 2013. Turkish people gather during the Gezi Park protest in Istanbul in 2013.
© OREN ZIV/AFP/Getty Images

Fear is Chilling

The erosion of media freedom is not new in Turkey. In 2013 when huge protests erupted in Istanbul against the destruction of Gezi Park, a prominent news channel was broadcasting a nature documentary about penguins rather than covering the protests. Journalists lost their jobs for displeasing the authorities. Critical media outlets were taken over and their editorial line changed to a more compliant one.

With more than 120 journalists and other media workers imprisoned, and thousands more unemployed following the closure of 156 media outlets, independent journalism in Turkey is at the edge of the precipice.

The fear of imprisonment for criticising the authorities is palpable: newspaper columns and current affairs discussion programmes, very popular in Turkey, contain little vocal dissent nor strongly diverse views.

Journalists working for foreign media outlets and foreign freelance journalists have not been spared. Some have been deported or denied entry to Turkey while others saw their press credentials revoked. 

Prison conditions in Turkey

Under the State of Emergency in Turkey:

  • Prisoners’ access to lawyers is severely restricted; at best, they can have meetings which are monitored.
  • Some are not allowed letters or books from outside.
  • Only closest relatives can visit once a week, through a glass window and by means of a telephone.
  • No association with other prisoners is allowed except with those held in the same cell.

© Yasin Akgul/AFP/Getty Images

Protest in Istanbul in 2011 after Turkish police detained about 10 people, mostly journalists. Protest in Istanbul in 2011 after Turkish police detained about 10 people, mostly journalists.
© Mustafa Ozer/AFP/Getty Images

Media blackout

Imagine, for a moment, a world with no free media. What would it be like? Limited information about the world around us. Lack of exposure to diverse analysis and, as a result, diminished ability to hold institutions and governments to account in an open and transparent way.

A vibrant and pluralistic media is essential to the enjoyment of other human rights by all members of society. It is a crucial vehicle for exercising the right to freedom of expression which includes the right to seek and receive information and ideas of all kinds. A free media is essential to hold the powerful to account for their actions.

The prolonged imprisonment of journalists and other media workers silences their voices, has a chilling effect on others and creates a huge void in public debate. Securing the release of imprisoned journalists is therefore a key part of creating a better future for human rights in Turkey.

This crackdown must end. Journalists and other media workers must be freed from extensive and punitive pre-trial detention. They must be allowed to carry out their work because journalism is not a crime.