Ozan Kose / AFP / Getty Images

Fear and reporting in Turkey

Although fewer journalists are currently jailed than in previous years, crackdowns and attacks on them are on the rise

Turkish journalist Kemal Goktas routinely exposes torture and human rights abuses in his reports. But as the Turkish government continues to arrest and detain members of the media, the newsman fears that he too will be silenced or imprisoned soon.

"People need to know about the abuses that are happening, but now I feel more pressured then ever by the government to stop reporting about these issues," said Goktas, a reporter for Turkish newspaper Milliyet.

Goktas, 38, is based in the capital, Ankara, and said he will continue to cover government abuses, but he could face more than two years in prison if a high court finds him guilty of insulting a public official.

In a series of articles, he criticized as too brief the one-year prison sentence handed to an officer over the beating a woman who was in police custody. In November 2014, five months after Goktas' last article on the case, the Istanbul prosecutor’s office filed charges against him.

He was acquitted in early April, but he said the prosecutor’s office notified him that it has appealed his case to the Turkish high court.

The Turkish Ministry of Justice did not return calls regarding his case.

It isn’t the first time the journalist has been dragged into court for his reporting.

"Every year, one or two and sometimes three cases are brought against me because of my news stories. They are either by the Turkish government or civil cases by judges, prosecutors and police officials who I’ve reported about," said Goktas, who has worked for such prominent private Turkish media outlets as Radikal, Vatan and Sabah.

In 2010 he stood trial in Istanbul and was eventually acquitted on charges related to information revealed in his investigative book "The Hrant Dink Murder: Media, Judiciary, State," about the death of Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink in January 2007. 

Bedriye Poyraz, a journalism professor at Ankara University, said Goktas’ situation shows the dangerous situation reporters are in and the extreme lengths President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) are going to try to stop the media from reporting the truth.

"Goktas is one of the few journalists that tries to find a way to cover the critical cases that show the government’s real face, and he tries to continue to survive as a journalist," she said.

Fewer arrests, more attacks

Attacks on journalists spiked in May 2013, especially during Gezi Park protests in Istanbul, where Turks demonstrated en masse over a wide range of concerns, including freedom of the press and other rights issues.
Umit Bektas

According to Bianet, a Turkish media watchdog group, 32 journalists and news publishers were in prison as of January 2015.

This is a drop from the 82 journalists and publishers imprisoned in January 2014.

Almost all the jailed journalists and publishers in 2014 were charged with leading or being affiliated with illegal armed groups under the Turkish Penal Code and the Anti-Terrorism Act. Fourteen of the 32 jailed journalists and publishers in 2014 worked for Kurdish media groups.

"The government routinely charges journalists on these vague charges because they have nothing else to accuse the journalists with but they want to detain them," said Mustafa Edib Yilmaz, the foreign-news editor of the Istanbul-based daily paper Zaman.

Although the number of jailed journalists dropped in 2014, Bianet data shows that detentions and attacks on journalists and publishers increased significantly in 2014 and 2013 compared with previous years.

Journalists and media publishers reported 148 verbal and physical assaults in 2014 and 186 in 2013, compared with 46 reported assaults in 2012 and 33 in 2011.

"So many more journalists are not in prison but awaiting trial, and these trials are dragging on for years without any indictments," said Yilmaz.

Political motivations

He said Dec. 14, 2014, was one of the worst days in recent history for the Turkish press. On that day Turkish police arrested 27 people, including Ekrem Dumanli, the editor-in-chief of Zaman, and 10 other senior journalists, media executives and even the writer for a popular television series on charges of forming, leading and being a member of an armed terrorist organization.

Most of those detained were associated with the influential Gulen religious movement lead by U.S.-based Fetulah Gulen, a former Erdogan supporter who has since emerged as a powerful critic. 

The Turkish government accuses the movement of infiltrating the police and judiciary and working against the AKP.

Dumanli was released a week after his arrest but is still awaiting trial. Hidayet Karaca, the head of the Gulen-affiliated Samanyolu television, has been in custody for more than 120 days.

Poyraz said journalists are caught between the political battles of the Gulenists and the AKP as a result. "There is no media and media content that can criticize the government freely anymore," she said.

In January a statement the European Parliament called on the Turkish government to provide "ample and transparent information on the allegations against the defendants."

"We are all watching to see what happens with the case of Karaca because there is no evidence that he is the leader of a terrorist organization but the government is still holding him," said Yilmaz.

Goktas said that there are many cases of journalists in Turkey facing long detentions and trials but that in the end, the judges decide that they are not guilty.

He and Yilmaz said the government raids, detentions, trials and fines have forced hundreds of journalists to leave the profession.

"It is very human to be afraid. You can be physically attacked, lose your job, lose your future and even lose your life," said Yilmaz.

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