Can independent journalism fight back in Turkey?

By Stefan Simanowitz, Amnesty International

“Accusing journalists of aiding terrorists because they do not toe the regime’s line is the first step to a totalitarian state,” journalist Sue Turton told me a few years ago.

Turton - the force behind the #FreeAJStaff campaign which helped release three Al Jazeera journalists jailed in Egypt in 2013 – was offering thoughts on how to secure the release of more than 100 journalists unjustly detained in Turkey.

Journalists who used to observe court cases from the press gallery, now watch them from the dock
Stefan Simanowitz, Amnesty International

 

The country is among the world’s biggest jailers of journalists for the fifth year in a row, and was ranked 153 out of 180 countries in the newly published World Press Freedom Index, between Belarus and Rwanda.

Since the failed coup attempt in July 2016, at least 180 media outlets have been shut down in Turkey and scores of journalists have been jailed on baseless ‘terrorism offences’ -many charged as a result of posts they have shared on Twitter, cartoons they have drawn or opinions they expressed.

COVID-19 has brought additional fears for journalists behind bars. Last week, Turkey entered its second lockdown but overcrowding and unsanitary facilities has been a concern long before the pandemic that already posed a serious health threat to Turkey’s prison population.

So how can we help get them out of jail?

“My advice is to build international solidarity,” Sue Turton tells me. “When my colleagues were convicted in Egypt, we knew our best weapon was the solidarity of the media all over the world”.

Accusing journalists of aiding terrorists because they do not toe the regime’s line is the first step to a totalitarian state
Sue Turton, journalist

So we did just that. On World Press Freedom Day 2017, Amnesty International together with several other prominent human rights organizations launched the Free Turkey Media campaign. Four years on, more than 250,000 people have signed an online petition calling for the immediate release of Turkey’s journalists. Thousands of others have posted ‘solidarity selfies’ on Twitter, and leading journalists, politicians and celebrities have joined the call too.

And yet, the situation for journalists in Turkey remains dire.

Some of the country’s most respected journalists – Turkey’s Christiane Amanpours, Medhi Hassans and Anderson Coopers - are exiled, facing investigations or are behind bars. Some are serving absurd life sentences, many others are held in pre-trial detention on baseless charges.

According to international human rights law and standards, pre-trial detention must be an exceptional measure only to be applied if other alternatives are not suitable to prevent a substantial risk of flight, harm to others or interference with the evidence or the investigation. Whereas deprivation of liberty should only occur as a last resort, it is applied routinely and punitively in Turkey. Its impact is devastating to the media scene in the country.

Despite the elevated risks, brave journalists across Turkey continue to do their job in a climate of fear as the authorities attempt to curtail all independent journalism and silence critical voices.

“Working under the constant threat of arrest and conviction makes life extremely difficult but journalism is our profession. We have to carry it out,” says Çağdaş Kaplan, editor of the online news portal Gazete Karınca. “There is a plainly visible truth in Turkey, but there is also an attempt to hide it from society. Somebody has to speak about it, and that’s what we are trying to do.”

"For journalists, Turkey has become a dungeon,” says journalist Hakkı Boltan. His organisation - the Free Journalists Association – was ironically shut down in November 2016.

Some of the country’s most respected journalists – Turkey’s Christiane Amanpours, Medhi Hassans and Anderson Coopers - are exiled, facing investigations or are behind bars
Stefan Simanowitz, Amnesty International

Indeed, those who used to observe court cases from the press gallery, now watch them from the dock.

But there is hope.

The new Biden administration in the USA has taken a much harder line on human rights in Turkey.

A month ago, the USA called Turkey out over a series of “significant human rights issues”, ranging from allegations of arbitrary killings and torture to the jailing of tens of thousands of critical voices, including political opponents, lawyers, journalists and human rights defenders.

There are also signs that human rights are making their way back on to the agenda in moves to reset EU-Turkey relations.

The new Biden administration in the USA has taken a much harder line on human rights in Turkey
Stefan Simanowitz, Amnesty International

Last month, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen met with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and stated that “Turkey must respect international human rights rules and standards”.

Is this diplomatic pressure – together with the support and solidarity of journalists and campaigners around the world – starting to have an impact?

It is too early to say, but last month, Ahmet Altan – the prominent author and former newspaper editor who was serving a ten and a half years sentence on ridiculous charges – was released following the decision by the top appeals court to quash his conviction.

In 2018, two years into his unjust imprisonment, Ahmet Altan wrote: “I may never see this world again”.

Although he still faces the ever-constant threat of re-arrest, the fact that today he is back home with his family offers us a light of hope amid the darkness.

Stifling a nation’s media is a wilful act of self-harm that we, as journalists, will keep writing about until the day they come to take away our pens
Stefan Simanowitz, Amnesty International

World Press Freedom Day is a day for us to remember journalists around the world who have been harassed, intimidated, imprisoned or even killed for their work. But it is also a day to take strength.

It is a moment to push back against the growing trend among governments that are locking up journalists and enacting laws used to criminalize their legitimate work. And it is a time to make clear to governments – including in Turkey – that stifling a nation’s media is a wilful act of self-harm that we, as journalists, will keep writing about until the day they come to take away our pens.

Stefan Simanowitz runs the Free Turkey Media campaign, an initiative by Amnesty International with PEN, Reporters Without Borders (RSF), Article 19, Human Rights Watch, the Committee to Protect Journalists, Index on Censorship and other organizations.