Turkey: COVID-19 pandemic increases climate of fear for journalists
The COVID-19 crisis has added a new layer to the crackdown on media freedom in Turkey with journalists being targeted across the country under the guise of combating misinformation, said Amnesty International ahead of World Press Freedom Day.
One of the world’s biggest jailers of journalists, Turkey has seen journalists facing criminal investigation and detention for reporting or even tweeting on COVID-19.
Journalists reporting on COVID-19 or even posting on social media, fear they may join the swathes of Turkey’s independent media workers currently languishing behind bars
“Since the 2016 coup attempt, journalists in Turkey have faced the constant threat of arbitrary detention and prosecution. The COVID-19 outbreak has given authorities an additional excuse to target the media,” said Milena Buyum, Amnesty International’s Turkey Campaigner.
“Journalists reporting on COVID-19 or even posting on social media, fear they may join the swathes of Turkey’s independent media workers currently languishing behind bars, held for months on end without trial, or facing prosecution on the basis of vague anti-terrorism and other laws limiting the right to freedom of expression.”
World’s biggest jailer of journalists?
In the aftermath of the failed coup attempt in July 2016, at least 180 media outlets have been shut down and an estimated 2,500 journalists and other media workers have lost their jobs. In the last month at least 18 news websites and dozens of individual online news stories have been blocked. Journalists have been arrested and charged with terrorism offences as a result of articles or posts they have shared on social media.
Lengthy periods of pre-trial detention have become routine. Charges levelled against media workers are often trumped up, sometimes patently absurd or wholly lacking any evidence of a recognizable criminal offence criminal offence.
In March, six journalists were detained for their reporting in relation to the deaths of two alleged intelligence officers in Libya, a fact already in the public domain. They remain in prison in pre-trial detention. This week, their lawyers found out via an article in a state media outlet that an indictment had been drawn up, rather than through the judicial channels in accordance with procedure. If approved by the court, the charges would carry sentences of up to 19 years in prison.
Former newspaper editor Ahmet Altan was first detained in September 2016, accused of ‘sending subliminal messages’ to the July 2016 coup plotters during a TV panel. Since then, he was convicted, this conviction overturned, prosecuted again under a different charge, convicted and released from prison pending his appeal only to be re-detained a week later. Altan, like scores of other writers, journalists and civil society actors, remains in prison simply for expressing opinions that the authorities don’t like.
Media freedom and COVID-19
Former Halk TV editor-in-chief, Hakan Aygün, was remanded in prison on 4 April because of his social media posts on Facebook and Twitter criticizing Turkey’s President Erdoğan’s sharing of a bank account number for donations from the public to help with the pandemic.
Hakan is being charged under articles prohibiting “inciting the public to enmity and hatred” and “insulting the religious beliefs of a section of society”. An indictment has already been drawn up and his first hearing will take place on 6 May.
Fox TV presenter, Fatih Portakal, is being investigated for “insulting the President” and for “deliberately damaging the reputation” of banks following a complaint by the Banking Regulation and Supervision Agency (BDDK) for a tweet on 6 April in which he compared the COVID Aid appeal to additional taxes collected during the war of independence at the end of WW1. Portakal’s tweet was blocked by court order on 8 April. On 30 April, media reported that an indictment had been drawn up with the allegation that Portakal’s tweet had damaged the reputation of banks.
On 18 March, police detained an editor following the publication of an article on their website about the death of two people in a local hospital from COVID-19
Three broadcasts of the news programme he presents were found to have violated Article 8/1b of the “Law on the Establishment of Radio and Television [Channels] and Broadcast Services” which pertains to incitement, enmity and hatred during broadcasts. The regulatory body, the Radio and Television High Council (RTÜK) imposed the highest penalty on FOX TV by stopping the broadcast of the programme three times.
On 18 March, police detained İsmet Çiğit, the editor-in-chief of SES Kocaeli, following the publication of an article on their website about the death of two people in a local hospital from COVID-19. The newspaper’s executive, Güngör Aslan, who is responsible for the website, was summoned by the authorities the next day. He was detained, and İsmet Çiğit was released. Both were questioned about their sources in the hospital and both felt pressure to stop their reporting on the issue. Güngör Aslan was also released the following day after giving a statement to the prosecutor.
Turkey’s already beleaguered journalists face new threats since the COVID-19 outbreak
Journalist and human rights defender Nurcan Baysal, was summoned to the Diyarbakır Security Directorate on 31 March after writing an article and posting on social media about measures taken in Diyarbakır’s prisons and in the city in relation to COVID-19. She presented herself to the prosecutor who questioned her about a number of tweets and her article.
Journalists excluded from prison releases
On 13 April 2020, a new law allowing the early and conditional release of up to 90,000 prisoners was introduced in Parliament. While the long-awaited changes to the Law on Execution of Sentences was brought in the context of COVID-19 pandemic, the government argued that this was not the driving force. The new measures failed to allow for the release of several categories of prisoner, including people in pretrial detention or convicted under overly broad anti-terrorism laws or crimes against the state, meaning that many imprisoned journalists will not be released. Turkey’s overcrowded prisons are also dangerous due to a serious lack of hygiene.
“Turkey’s already beleaguered journalists face new threats since the COVID-19 outbreak. They face censorship, criminal investigations and prosecution if they report critically on the pandemic, whilst those already inside Turkish jails face the danger of infection,” said Milena Buyum.
“Turkey’s government must act now and unconditionally release all journalists jailed simply for doing their job.”
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