Turkish press freedom under attack

Written by Yazeed Kamaldien

At first glance Turkey appears to be a stable democracy, particularly compared to its neighbours Iraq and Syria, but its media fraternity tells a different story.

During a visit to this country a few weeks ago, South African journalists heard first-hand of the pressures their Turkish counterparts face.

A series of meetings between media colleagues from the two countries were organised by the international Hizmet Movement. The latter has Turkish founders running media-related, education and interfaith projects in various countries, including South Africa.

A contingent of South African journalists traveled recently to Turkey to show support for their counterparts facing government repression in that country. From left are Amina Frense, managing editor at public broadcaster SABC, Weekend Argus journalist Yazeed Kamaldien and City Press newspaper's editor-at-large Mondli Makhanya, who showed support at a local TV station whose staff have been harassed and jailed.

A contingent of South African journalists traveled recently to Turkey to show support for their counterparts facing government repression in that country. From left are Amina Frense, managing editor at public broadcaster SABC, Weekend Argus journalist Yazeed Kamaldien and City Press newspaper’s editor-at-large Mondli Makhanya, who showed support at a local TV station whose staff have been harassed and jailed.

Turkish journalists echoed a narrative international media watchdogs espoused over recent years. It raises concerns their country’s democracy was at risk due to the ruling Justice and Development Party, known by its Turkish acronym AKP.

South African journalists attending a series of meetings with Turkish media workers also raised concerns about their country’s ruling party ANC, saying it had the potential to limit media freedoms too.

Mustafa Yesil, president of the Journalists and Writers Foundation in Turkey, said journalists in his country were losing their jobs “if they were critical of the government and the result is self-censorship”.

“We have self-censorship in 80% of the media. This creates a public that is deprived of their right to the truth,” said Yesil.

Yavuz Baydar, a columnist with the widely read Today’s Zaman newspaper, went as far as saying that self-censorship means “newsrooms of independent media are open air prisons”.

“We have a single party that controls the state, oppresses the opposition and suffocates journalism. Journalists have been jailed. The judiciary is also suffering,” said Baydar.

“About 80% of the media sector in Turkey is under control of the government. We can still express an opinion, but reporting is being diminished.

“Most people get their news from TV stations. But there is no TV station that is independent and free.”

Citizens meanwhile believe also the government is placing greater pressure on the media and limiting its freedom to report without fear.

Murat Gezici, general director of Gezici Poll and Research, said their February 2015 poll showed that 69,7% of people polled believe there was government pressure on the media.

Gezici said in 2004 this was only at 22%, when citizens felt the media was more free. He added though that most of the country’s estimated 77 million citizens were in fact supportive of the AKP as it spoke to their conservative values.

Ceren Sozeri, professor of media studies at Galatasaray University in Istanbul, said media freedom had long been at risk in Turkey, not because of its government but rather due to its ownership.

“Since the 1990s, business people entered the media sector. Liberation was silenced. New owners had other investments and with the help of the government they grew,” she said.

“It wasn’t about journalists working to make a living. These were businessmen. They also purchased TV channels. They now own radio stations and online media.

“Business people have supported different political parties and had good relations with power, which made them wealthy.”

She added: “By 2001, the ruling AKP took over media institutions. Media bosses supported this.”

The current threat to media freedom – a turning point – came about when media owners opposing the AKP raised critical questions across its platforms, said Sozeri.

“Then we saw an end to peace. AKP started to punish media owners with taxes and penalties. Some businesses ended up selling their TV channels to the government,” she said.

“We also saw new media owners emerging, taking loans from the government to buy existing newspapers. We still don’t know if they paid this money back.

“It’s taxpayer’s money and the government did not disclose information about it.”

Sozeri laid blame with media owners who “are not sensitive of media ethics”.

With faith in traditional media waning, Turkish citizens went online and expressed their views and accessed information via social media websites.

In response, the Turkish government has jailed journalists for their online comments, particularly on the website Twitter, and even blocked the latter briefly last year.

Akin Emre, digital media director for the private TV broadcaster Samanyolu, said since their company’s news channels reported more critically on the government they have suffered.

“There’s a (government-run) broadcasting committee and most of those members are from the AKP. They keep sending us fines. They sent us a fine of US$500,000. We have fines of millions,” said Emre.

“They sent us documentaries from the state TV channel that was shot in the 1980s. They want us to broadcast that in prime time, instead of our news programmes.”

Emre said one of the broadcaster’s bosses had been jailed for a sentence spoken in a fictional TV series a few years ago.

“There’s this term called ‘reasonable doubt’. They can arrest anyone they want, based on a reasonable doubt, not evidence. Everyone who is critical of the government is a terrorist,” he said.

Emre said the real reason for the arrest was because the company’s TV channels had become more critical of the ruling party’s policies.

He said advertising had also dropped since their news reports have been critical of the government.

“We have a problem getting advertising from state banks or companies that do business with the state. Or companies owned partly by the state, such as Turkish Airlines, state banks or telecommunications companies. It affected our revenue,” said Emre.

He said Samanyolu was not the only company facing government threats or being sidelined by authority.

“The president (Turkey’s leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan) recently met with the media at his palace. None of the critical outlets like us were invited,” said Emre.

South African media workers at the meeting raised similar concerns about press freedom in their country.

Moshoeshoe Monare, deputy editor at Mail & Guardian newspaper, recalled President Jacob Zuma’s State of the Nation address earlier this year, when a media blackout unfolded in Parliament.

“The opposition (party) interrupted his (Zuma’s) address. The intelligence and police jammed the (communications) signal so that journalists could not tweet (send out messages on Twitter website),” said Monare.

He also referred to the Gupta family, its close links with Zuma and its media businesses used to “get state business”.

Liezel de Lange, deputy editor of Beeld newspaper, said South African journalists were “concerned about the judiciary and its ability to protect free speech”.

“Our government is more likely to spend taxpayer’s money (for advertising) on media institutions that are sympathetic to it. We can see that affecting our budgets,” said De Lange.

“Our government is not a fan of social media. There was a signal jam at (opening of) Parliament (earlier this year) and they tried to stop information from flowing out.”

She added: “It seems our presidents had a couple of chats on how to deal with the media.”

Written by Yazeed Kamaldien

Global media watchdogs, including the US-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), have called on the Turkish government to “reverse anti-press measures”.

The CPJ in a recent statement expressed “alarm at a fresh wave of anti-press actions in Turkey”.

It said it had meetings with government officials and was “assured that Turkey is committed to continuing its judicial reform to improve conditions for a free press and free expression”.

“We also came away from some meetings with a sense of official hostility toward the media, and we have seen that hostility play out in a series of attacks on press freedom in recent months,” it said.

“These include the harassment and prosecution of journalists because of their activities on social media; the blocking of reporters’ social media posts; a ban on coverage of a sensitive story; and detentions, police raids, and criminal investigations of journalists.

“These acts have a chilling effect on news coverage in Turkey.”

It detailed cases that it had been aware of:

— On January 15, an Istanbul court ordered Twitter to block tweets that linked to a July article in the online newspaper Radikal that reported on the allegedly illegal wiretapping by police. Access to the Radikal article itself was also blocked in Turkey.

— At the end of December, police raided the Istanbul home of Turkish TV journalist Sedef Kabaş, detained her briefly, and confiscated her laptop and phone. She faces up to five years in jail in connection with her social media posts. She is being prosecuted for a tweet in which she named a prosecutor who had dropped corruption proceedings against high-level Turkish officials, the Turkish press reported. The charges against her include “targeting persons involved in the fight against terrorism,” news reports said.

— Also in December, police raided two media outlets perceived as affiliated with a movement led by US-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen. The editor-in-chief of Zaman newspaper, Ekrem Dumanlı, was detained in one of the raids and Hidayet Karaca, the chairman of Samanyolu TV, was arrested in the other. The two arrest warrants were part of a group of 31 issued by Turkish prosecutors that month on charges of “establishing a terrorist group,” committing forgery, and slander, press reports said, citing Istanbul chief prosecutor Hadi Salihoglu.

No court dates to hear the two men’s cases have been set.

CPJ said: “Turkish authorities have repeatedly gagged coverage of sensitive issues, depriving the public of its right to be informed.

“These recent violations against press freedom and freedom of expression obscure the positive steps taken by the government, including the stark reduction of the number of journalists imprisoned in relation to their work in Turkey.”

Reporters Without Borders has meanwhile said Turkey’s judicial practices “continue to be repressive and the number of detained journalists is still at a level that is unprecedented since the end of the military regime”.

“Around 60 journalists were in detention at the end of 2013, including at least 28 held in connection with their work, making Turkey one of the world’s biggest prisons for media personnel,” it said.

“Despite directives intended to limit use of provisional detention, journalists often spend months if not years in prison before being tried.”

It added: “Most of the journalists in prison or being prosecuted are the victims of anti-terrorism legislation inherited from the dark years. A score of articles in the penal code complete this repressive legislative arsenal.”

It also said the “media paid a high price for their coverage of the wave of anti-government demonstrations” in recent years.

“Journalists were systematically targeted by the police and sometimes by demonstrators. The violence was sustained by a climate of hysteria fuelled by the speeches of government officials and pro-government media branding critical columnists, social network users and foreign reporters as agents of an international plot to overthrow the government or even as terrorists,” it said.

“The level of self-censorship was such that 24-hour TV news channels completely ignored the violent clashes rocking Istanbul.

“Recalcitrant journalists were sidelined. No fewer than 14 were fired and 22 resigned. Astronomical fines were imposed on those TV channels that covered the protests closely.”

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About Yazeed Kamaldien

Self-employed journalist and photographer from South Africa.

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