Turkey: journalism is not a crime
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 156 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”.
Journalism is not a crime… We are defending the very essence and ethics of journalism while [the government] is trying to destroy it.
Ahmet Şık’s story (in detention since 29 December 2016)
Ahmet Şık is a seasoned investigative journalist and is no stranger to politically motivated prosecution and imprisonment. He was held in prison for more than a year in 2011 for writing a book outlining the alleged infiltration of state structures by those loyal to the cleric Fethullah Gülen, at the time an ally of the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP), before they fell out.
Then last December, Ahmet was imprisoned again pending a trial, accused this time of making propaganda for the armed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and what the government calls “FETÖ” (Fethullahist Terrorist Organisation), which it alleges is led by Fethullah Gülen and is responsible for the attempted coup.
Ahmet went back to Silivri prison, six years after he was first held there, sharing a cell with two other detainees. He can only speak to his closest relatives through a screen and by telephone once a week. Their conversations are recorded. He is not allowed to receive letters or books.
In an indictment published in April 2017, eight tweets, two interviews and an article by Ahmet Şık were presented as evidence of his aiding three separate proscribed groups with totally different, often opposing, agendas. He is accused of “assisting a terrorist organization”.
“I reject the accusations that are made against me. The subject of the investigation concerns my professional activities, in other words, journalism.”
Ahmet Şık’s court deposition, 30 December 2016
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.
Deniz Yücel’s story (detained since February 2017)
The Turkey correspondent for the German newspaper Die Welt, Deniz Yücel, became the first foreign journalist to be remanded in pre-trial detention since the attempted coup in February 2017. He had been added to a Twitter group with which some hacked emails had been shared. The Red Hack group published tens of thousands of emails in September 2016, including some they allegedly obtained by hacking the email account of Berat Albayrak, the Minister for Energy and Natural Resources and President Erdoğan’s son-in-law.
After 13 days in police detention, he was remanded in prison pending trial accused of “making propaganda for a terrorist organization” and “inciting the public to hatred”.
In fact, Deniz Yücel was questioned by the prosecutor and the court about seven articles on a range of issues unrelated to the hacked emails. In his deposition in court, he pointed out that the questions he was asked were based on erroneous translations and partial readings of his articles.
Deniz Yücel remains in Silivri prison. His lawyers’ application for his release was turned down in March 2017.
Nazlı Ilıcak’s story (in detention since 26 July 2016)
Nazlı Ilıcak, a prominent journalist and political commentator, was on holiday in south Turkey when she saw in the media on 25 July 2016 that an arrest warrant had been issued for her. According to her lawyer, she was stopped and detained on her way to present herself at a police station the following day.
The court remanded her in prison pending trial on the grounds that she could not be found on the day the arrest warrant was issued. It was claimed there was a risk of absconding as well as tampering with evidence and pressuring witnesses.
In addition to charges of membership of “FETÖ”, she was questioned over allegations of “attempting to bring down the government or to prevent it from carrying out its duties” and producing “propaganda for a terrorist organization”. She was asked about a TV programme she hosted the day before the coup attempt. She faces a potential life imprisonment without parole.
“My job at the TV station was to present a programme nothing more, nothing less.”
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
Kadri Gürsel: in detention since 31 Oct 2016
Veteran journalist Kadri Gürsel is one of nine media workers from the daily newspaper Cumhuriyet who were imprisoned last November. He has had a 30 year career focusing mainly on international relations. Now, he is accused of terrorism offences over a column he wrote in July, shortly before the attempted coup, entitled ‘Erdoğan wants to be our father’.
In the piece Gürsel wrote that Erdoğan wants to impose himself forcefully on the population, suggesting that the way to deal with this was to reject him and rebel, rather like Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia who set himself on fire, sparking a revolution which led to the toppling of Ben Ali, the former president. Gürsel told the court it was written in dark humour.
In the indictment published on 4 April, Kadri Gürsel’s connection with individuals using the phone app ByLock was presented as evidence, alleged to be a means of communication between members of “FETÖ”. No reference is made to how his knowledge of the individuals or content of any communications between them may have been unlawful.
“They are trying to invent inexistent evidence of my guilt.”
Crushing the Kurdish media
In July 2015, the fragile peace process between the Turkish government and the PKK collapsed. In the ensuing context of armed clashes and 24-hour curfews, reporting from the southeast region was very difficult.
The post-coup clampdown on freedom of expression was felt acutely by all those concerned about the Kurdish issue and human rights.
Almost all Kurdish newspapers, TV and radio stations, news agencies have been closed down.
Zehra Dogan’s story (detained July 2016 – December 2016)
Zehra Doğan, the editor of JINHA, was detained on 21 July 2016 remanded in pre-trial detention on charges of membership of, and making propaganda for, a terrorist organization.
“They threatened me with torture. One of them suggested I should become his lover, that if I did so, he would save me. It was awful. I kept on saying I am a journalist.”
The case was based on witness statements alleging she had been seen speaking to members of YPS, the youth wing of the PKK, during a curfew. Her questioning by the prosecutor lasted no more than 10 minutes.
In Mardin prison, she was held with 51 others in a wing designed to hold 30 women. For months, she slept on the floor on blankets. Access to water was limited to three one-hour slots a day.
Zehra was released in December 2016. In March 2017, she was acquitted of membership but convicted of making propaganda for a terrorist organization on the basis of shares on social media, none of which contained incitement to violence. She was sentenced to two years, nine months and 22 days in prison, but is currently at liberty pending her appeal outcome.
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.