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Noose tightens on Turkish press freedoms

Turkish journalists and international rights groups are raising their voices over a growing media crackdown

ISTANBUL — With 19 journalists jailed, about 150 awaiting trial and 400 forced layoffs and resignations in the last year, according to media watchdog Bianet, Turkish journalists say media freedom is at its lowest point in decades.

“The government is using every possible excuse to jail journalists and even making things up to be able to say that journalist are insulting officials or [President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan,” said Hakan Gulseven, a journalist who in late September was sentenced by a Turkish court to 11 months in prison and fined $3,000 because he reported that Hüseyin Avni Coş, the former governor of Adana, called a protester a “pimp,” writing in his column that "there is only one pimp in Adana."

Gulseven, a columnist for the newspaper Yurt and the editor of the online magazine Red, says he will appeal to a higher court.

According to Istanbul-based Bianet, his case is emblematic of a larger crackdown on media freedom by Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

The AKP is Turkey’s largest political party and is led by Erdogan, who was recently elected president after serving as prime minster from 2003 to August 2014, and although he is credited with achieving major economic reforms, his critics say his rule has been increasingly authoritarian and has seen a sustained assault on media freedom, limiting the range of viewpoints that the public hears.

“The government is calling us [journalists] spies and terrorists if we are critical of them,” said Mustafa Edib Yilmaz, the foreign-news editor of Istanbul-based daily paper Zaman. “When the AKP government and Erdogan publicly attack journalists and spread rumors, it is hard to counter it and recover from it.”

According to Yilmaz, in July, Erdogan asked the Ankara public prosecutor's office to launch a criminal investigation of the editor-in-chief of Today’s Zaman (the English version of Zaman), on charges of insulting a public official. Erdogan accused the editor of mounting a campaign against him on Twitter.

“The government’s latest tactic to quiet down media groups that are critical of the government is to send tax inspectors to their offices, mostly without notice, to dig through their business books,” said Yilmaz.

He says sometimes the tax inspectors visit his offices every day for weeks and demand to see their financial documents and receipts. Zaman and Today’s Zaman are owned by Feza Publications, a Turkish media conglomerate whose owner is known to be close to Fetulah Gulen, the U.S.-based leader of a secretive Turkish religious movement who once backed Erdogan but has since emerged as a powerful critic. Erdogan’s supporters have blamed Gulen acolytes in the nation’s law enforcement system for a corruption probe against senior party figures.

State and media ‘close’

“The AKP is getting very authoritarian, and they want to control every news outlet with all of the details,” said Bedriye Poyraz, a journalism professor at Ankara University. “It’s very difficult to find television news programs that are critical of the government officials or activities.”

According to a February 2014 report by the U.S.-government-funded rights watchdog group Freedom House, “overly close relationships between media owners and government” and “bad laws and overly aggressive prosecutors” have damaged journalism there and have “muzzled objective reporting in Turkey.”

This climate has led to a wave of forced resignations and firings for journalists who refuse to comply, with several individual cases detailed in the report.

“Many well-known and good Turkish journalists have been forced out of the profession over the last five years,” Yilmaz said.

According to Freedom House, in December 2013 Nazlı Ilıcak, a columnist for the newspaper Sabah, was fired the day after she criticized the government on a television news show over a corruption scandal. In January this year, Murat Aksoy, a writer for conservative daily paper Yeni Şafak, was also dismissed after making similarly critical remarks on air.

A representative for the prime minister did not respond to a request for an interview.

On Sept. 23, CNN Turk canceled a popular talk show, “Aykiri Sorular” (“Tough Questions”), because, according to media reports, the host of the show, Enver Aysever, would not ask his interview guests scripted, rehearsed questions. It’s unclear if the government officials being interviewed approved the questions in advance.

The show started in 2007 and was originally a daily show but was later cut back to a weekly format. “Aysever brought a range of guests on his show and asked hard questions,” said Poyraz.

CNN Turk is owned by the Dogan Media Group, Turkey’s biggest media group, which owns a wide range of television stations and news organizations, including Hurriyet, an influential newspaper with a readership of almost 2 million, and Radikal, a widely read newspaper known for its investigative stories. The media group is part of Dogan Holding, which is a leading industrial conglomerate in Turkey.

Aysever could not be reached for this article, and CNN Turk’s media relations department did not respond to questions about his departure.

The group’s billionaire owner, Aydin Dogan, is often politically at odds with Erdogan, and Dogan Media is known for pushing back on government censorship. But media advocates say it appears even Dogan is relenting.

The abrupt resignation of Hurriyet editor-in-chief Enis Berberoglu the day after Erdogan attacked the Dogan Media Group at a pre-election rally in August prompted fears among opposition leaders that the resignation was a sign the organization was bowing to political pressure — which the company strongly denied

Other Turkish holding groups — including Ciner, Calik and Cukurova — with major newspapers and television stations also have investments in state-funded industry sectors such as construction and energy. According to a 2012 report by the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESEV), in 2011, Dogan, Turkuvaz (owned by Calik) and Cukurova earned 67 percent of the advertising revenue for television news media and 85 percent of newspaper ad revenue.

The fact that so much of Turkey's media is owned by corporations whose interests in other economic sectors where the government is potentially a major client adds to the pressure on media freedom.

Those groups dominate the Turkish media landscape, together with Dogan, whose owners are also heavily invested in energy, industry, retail, and tourism industries. 

The Dogan and Calik groups dominate the market, with a combined share of over 80 percent. This virtual duopoly is not only limited to advertising revenues; the two groups control the entire newspaper and magazine distribution sector, excluding subscriptions, the TESEV report said. Calik is run by Erdogan’s son-in-law.

“This increases the dependency on the AKP of some big capital groups in Turkey, since they need this party’s consent or support to benefit from these new investment opportunities,” said Cenk Saracoglu, a professor of sociology at Ankara University.

He says this economic relationship puts pressure on media outlets to soften their news coverage to benefit the government, jettisoning troublemaking journalists critical of the AKP.

“The number of the pro-AKP media outlets, all of which use almost same discourses and even same wording when exalting AKP, have dramatically increased,” said Saracoglu.

Journalism as ‘terrorism’

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Turkey is the world’s leading jailer of journalists, followed by China and Iran.

In 2013 Bianet reported that 59 journalists and 23 publishers were in prisonAlthough fewer journalists are in prison now than in 2013, Onderglu says the government has charged more journalists this year than it did last year. Some journalists, like Gulseven, are not in prison but are awaiting trials or appeals. Many more journalists were briefly imprisoned during the year, some for as little as a few days or months. According to Bianet, 12 of the 19 journalists currently in prison are from Kurdish media.

Bianet’s media editor, Erol Onderoglu, says the Turkish government mostly charges journalists under the country’s Anti-Terrorism Act (TMK) and the penal code articles related to “terrorist organizations.” He says investigative reporters Ahmet Sik and Soner Yalcu are among the high-profile journalists charged under the act.

In April, Sik was awarded UNESCO’s prestigious Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize for his “outstanding contribution to the defense of press freedom."

‘These [terrorism charges] are broad charges that the government can pin on journalists and even make up evidence to support their claim.’

Erol Onderoglu

editor, Bianet, Turkish media watchdog

“While Şık is being celebrated as a press freedom hero internationally, he is being prosecuted as a criminal at home. We call on Turkish authorities to immediately drop all charges against him and allow him to do his work without reprisal,” CPJ Europe and Central Asia program coordinator Nina Ognianova said in a press release.

“These [terrorism charges] are broad charges that the government can pin on journalists and even make up evidence to support their claim,” said Onderoglu. “So if you are a journalist who interviews sources from the opposition party, then the AKP party may claim that you have ties to terrorist groups.”

The charges can be very difficult for journalists to dispute, especially in a court system that doesn’t have a good track record for protecting freedom of expression or media, according to the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation.

Dozens of journalists and more than 3,000 protesters were arrested in May 2013 during Istanbul’s Gezi Park protests, demonstrations initially protesting the development of a shopping mall in place of the popular public park.

Erdogan’s government blocked Twitter and Facebook during the Gezi protests as a means to keep people from organizing and communicating with wide audiences, claiming that activists on Twitter were “inciting riots and conducting propaganda” and “encouraging breaking of the law”.

According to Twitter’s publicly reported numbers, it received 186 requests from the Turkish government, specifying 304 accounts, to remove content in the first half of 2014. This is up from seven requests specifying 30 accounts from the same period in 2013. Twitter complied in part or in whole with 30 percent of the requests.

However, a recent ruling by the country’s Constitutional Court overturned a law that allowed the government to shut down websites on the basis of national security without a prior court order. The court also overturned a part of the law authorizing service providers to store users’ data and provide authorities with that data on demand.

“We need a group or office that journalists can go to make complaints about governmental interference and attacks on the press and freedom of expression,” said Ondurglu.

“If you are not pro-government, life can be very difficult,” said Tulin Daloglu, an Ankara-based journalist for Al Monitor.

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