COMMENTARY — CPJ downplays the number of jailed journalists in Turkey

By Abdullah Bozkurt

Although there are varying figures on the number of jailed journalists and media workers in Turkey from different advocacy groups, one thing that is certain is that the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is the leading jailer of journalists in the world. In fact, Turkey has broken the world record with a number that exceeds all the other notorious performers on freedom of the press, earning the title of predator for the country’s repressive leader.

The consensus is that there has been a systematic, deliberate and thorough campaign to silence critical voices and a crackdown on freedom of expression in the NATO member and EU-candidate country. When it comes to actual figures on the number of journalists jailed in Turkey, however, the numbers vary greatly to the point that it would be difficult, though not impossible, to explain the differences in methodology and in the definition of media practitioners. Considering that even one jailed journalist is one too many, why would different organizations that boast of defending freedom of the press ignore some while compiling their lists?

For the journalist organizations in Turkey, the answer is easy and straightforward. The historically deep-rooted institutional bias and ideological slant in some, coupled with polarization in the Turkish media landscape, continue to cloud judgment of who would be classified as a journalist when compiling the lists. The acute problem of divisions in Turkey among journalists and journalist associations that have been exacerbated with the growing pressure on the media in recent years may partially explain differences in the figures coming out of Turkey. The Erdoğan regime has craftily exploited this polarization and division and perpetuated the constant fear of a government clampdown on journalists. Today, the regime directly or indirectly controls nearly all media outlets in Turkey, letting only a few with limited reach and small circulation survive.

Beyond Turkey, however, the downplaying of the number of jailed journalists by reputable organizations such as the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is a completely different issue and certainly begs further explanation. When the CPJ made the same mistake in 2016 in a list of jailed journalists in Turkey and identified only 81, it was missing dozens of names, some of them prominent journalists. When asked, the CPJ said this omission was attributed to a failure to link them to professional journalistic activity. It was frustrating and disheartening to see that an organization such as the CPJ simply overlooked so many people because it thought the retribution had nothing to do with critical journalism.

My exiled journalist colleagues and I in Sweden had decided to closely examine jailed journalists in Turkey and compile our own list to recognize their names, their work and accomplishments in the field of journalism. Saying that they will not be forgotten is the least we can do for our colleagues who were not lucky enough to escape the brutal regime of President Erdoğan. We have worked on the list for months, with many challenges in verifying the information through friends, family members and lawyers who were afraid to speak up and even share basic information such as in which prison jailed journalists were being held and when the arrests took place. But we had managed to identify 191 names as of January 2017.

To our dismay, we were unable to recognize 27 people who worked for state broadcaster the Turkish Radio and Television Corporation (TRT). The arrest of 29 TRT employees was reported in the Turkish media without one of them bothering to mention their names. We were able to find out about only two of them by the time we published the report. When we eventually discovered the names of the rest of the TRT reporters, we kept the updated list of jailed and wanted journalists lists on the website of the Stockholm Center for Freedom (SCF), an advocacy group that was set up by exiled Turkish journalists like myself. The SCF numbers have been shared across the globe by many media outlets, and we’re happy to see that our friends who are languishing behind bars are being recognized.

On Dec. 13, 2017 the CPJ put out a new census report listing 73 journalists as being bars for their journalistic work in Turkey, less than what it reported a year earlier. When compared to the list maintained and regularly updated by SCF, the New-York based CPJ was missing 182 names. Frankly, that is a huge difference that cannot be justified by anything that makes sense, even when factoring in the different definition of media practitioner and the claim of failure to verify their imprisonment as being a result of their professional journalistic activity. It is sad, actually, because the Turkish government often puts forward a similar argument when confronted with questions on jailed journalists. They are not jailed because of their profession but due to ‘terrorism,” “coup-plotting,” “espionage,” “defamation” and other trumped-up charges.

As expected, most of the missing names are those of people who worked for state broadcaster TRT and state news agency Anadolu. More precisely, 74 journalists and media workers at TRT and nine at Anadolu were not on the CPJ list. Since most of these names were not reported publicly except in the total figures, it may be difficult for the CPJ to access them. For SCF, it took months to verify the names by reaching out to several people who managed to flee Turkey. The only person the CPJ put on its list from TRT is Seyit Kılıç, whose name was included in one of the major press freedom cases in which 29 journalists and media workers including prominent reporters were tried on fabricated terrorism and coup plotting charges. However, SCF put these names out for the public record long before the CPJ compiled the 2017 list, and it could have very well examined them and run its own investigation. But it apparently did not. With these standards, is the CPJ effectively saying that if you are working for, say, BBC or PBS, you may not qualify as a journalist? Perhaps.

The most notable exclusion from the TRT list is prominent journalist Ahmet Böken, who has been jailed since Aug. 11, 2016. If this man is not a journalist, then I don’t know who is. He helped transform public broadcaster TRT into a popular network and won an award for an impressive job in Venice after competing against 120 channels from 19 countries. He served as a juror for the Emmy Awards sponsored by the International Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. Since he graduated from Ankara University’s faculty of communications in 1994, Böken had worked as a reporter, editor, news presenter and news director for the private Samanyolu network. He also wrote columns for the network’s news website. When the network launched a 24-hour news broadcast network in 2007, he became its chief editor. The government tapped his talent in 2010 when he was offered the opportunity to run the TRT Haber news channel. He gave lectures on broadcasting at university communications faculties. There is nothing that can justify the CPJ’s leaving his name off its list of jailed journalists.

The problematic approach in the CPJ list is seen with respect to journalists who worked for privately run media outlets as well. For example, Ahmet Sağırlı, who worked for the pro-government Türkiye daily, was listed by the CPJ after he was dismissed from the newspaper and arrested a week later on charges of membership in the Gülen movement and alleged use of popular messaging application ByLock. However, Nur Ener, a reporter whose name appeared on headline stories in the critical national Yeni Asya daily did not make the list when she was charged and arrested on similar charges. She had been jailed since March 6, 2017 and was accused of using the ByLock app and of links to a terrorist group. She was released pending trial on Feb. 20, 2018.

Likewise, Aslıhan Aydın, who I had the pleasure of working with in the Zaman daily’s Ankara office, was ignored by the CPJ as well. Aydın is a well-known female journalist in the Ankara media community who was bylined on many lead stories for Turkey’s one-time largest daily and who interviewed prominent figures for the paper. She is also accused of using ByLock and membership in a terrorist organization and has been in jail since June 28, 2017.

Let’s continue to examine the CPJ list and try to make sense of what methodology, if any, they use for jailed journalists to qualify for inclusion on the list. The CPJ lists Mustafa Ünal and Vahit Yazgan, bureau chiefs for Ankara and İzmir, respectively, as journalists behind bars. But it overlooks jailed Zaman bureau chief in Diyarbakır Aziz İstegün (he was convicted but released pending appeal), Konya Bureau Chief Şirin Kabakçı, Bursa Bureau Chief Enis Öznük and Erzurum Bureau Chief Ersin Demirci. The names of all these senior journalists appeared in the bylines of major headline stories in the Zaman daily and were well-known figures in the regions in which they served. The indictments the prosecutors filed against all of them cite the same anti-terror and coup plotting charges, and the so-called evidence is nothing but their published articles, tweets and comments. Why the CPJ would list some bureau chiefs and ignore others who worked for the same national daily begs further questions.

Another missing name from the CPJ list is that of 55-year-old Hidayet Karaca, an accomplished journalist who had managed the critical Samanyolu TV network for years and was jailed on Dec. 14, 2014 when police raided the station. He had spent four years in pretrial detention before he was sentenced to 31 years’ imprisonment in one case. There are other cases pending against him as well. Karaca served for years as chairman of the boards of directors of a number of media associations such as the Television Broadcasters Association and Television Audience Measurement (TİAK).

He actually comes from print journalism where he worked as bureau chief for the Zaman daily in both Ankara and İzmir provinces. He moved to broadcast journalism in 1999. During his trial hearings, Karaca explained that the fabricated charges against him were nothing but the result of the network’s coverage of corruption investigations that came to public notice during the Dec. 17-25, 2013 period and which implicated President Erdoğan himself, his family members and several of his cabinet ministers. In the second indictment, which was accepted by a court on July 22, 2016, just a week after a controversial coup attempt in Turkey on July 15, 2016, Karaca was accused of attempting to overthrow the government, although he had been in jail since December 2014.

Mehmet Kuru

Mehmet Kuru, a reporter who worked for Zaman in Eskisehir province, was listed on the CPJ list in 2017 but was removed the next year. Although he was released pending trial, Kuru was rearrested during the final hearing of the trial, on Oct. 18, 2017, when he was convicted and sentenced to serve six years, three months on completely fabricated charges. It appears the CPJ did not follow up on his case and did not update his current status, despite the fact that there has been ample time to do so since October 2017.

Another example that shows sloppy work on the part of the CPJ is the exclusion of jailed reporter Fahrettin Kılıç, who worked for pro-Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) magazine Özgür Toplum, while including Aslı Ceren Aslan, who worked for the Özgür Gelecek magazine, also a pro-PKK publication. Kılıç has been jailed since March 31, 2017. The selective listing simply does not make any sense. Likewise, the CPJ listed Ayhan Demir, the owner of local news website Çaldıran Haber Ajansı, as among jailed journalists while excluding Burçin Dokgöz, the owner of another news website, Çorum Vizyon, who has been jailed since Aug. 21, 2016. Both are charged under abusive anti-terrorism laws.

For some reason, some journalists and media workers who were employed by the Cihan News Agency, once the largest privately funded news service and owned by Feza Gazetecilik, were selected for inclusion on the list, while many others were left out. The CPJ did not put eight Cihan journalists — Abdurrahim Ersöz, Ahmet Metin Sekizkardeş, Beytullah Özdemir, Fahri Öztoprak, Kazım Canlan, Murat Avcıoğlu, Ömer Oruç and Şinasi Gözüm – on the list.

One would think the CPJ perhaps made a decision to exclude the names of people who worked in administrative or support departments in line with their methodology. When going through the list, that rule, if it exists, does not seem to be applied, or was selectively used. For example, Akın Atalay, chairman of the board of directors of the leftist Cumhuriyet daily, is included on the list. Again, Cumhuriyet attorney Bülent Utku also made the CPJ’s list before. Sadık Demir, the owner of local radio station Radyo Karacadağ, also qualified. None of these people have anything to do with journalistic work except that they are associated with a daily and a radio station in different capacities. On the other hand, the Zaman daily’s senior managers Yakup Şimşek, Metin Sekizkardeş and Alaattin Güner and its attorney Ali Odabaşı were excluded from the CPJ list. While the owner of Karacadağ was approved by the CPJ, the radio’s jailed employees Mizgin Çay and Salih Erbekler were not.

Mehmet Gündem

When it comes to columnists for dailies, the CPJ also uses a selective methodology that is difficult to comprehend. For example, singer Atilla Taş made the CPJ’s list last year for writing a column for the critical Meydan daily, which was shut down by the government in 2016. He was not on this year’s list because he was released pending trial. If writing a column for a newspaper is an adequate criterion for inclusion on the CPJ list, then why we do not see the names of other jailed columnists such as economist Abdülkadir Civan, who wrote for Today’s Zaman, or academic Sedat Laçiner, who wrote for the shuttered Haberdar news website. Veteran journalists and columnists Nuh Gönültaş and Mehmet Gündem are also missing from the CPJ list. The former had regularly been writing for the closed down Bugün daily, while the latter wrote for the Milliyet newspaper.

Let me continue with Havva Çuştan, who was jailed on Oct. 19, 2017 while working for the ETHA news agency, reportedly close to the outlawed Marxist-Leninist Communist Party (MLKP). She was listed by the CPJ, while Turkish-German journalist Meşela Tolu, who also worked for ETHA as a volunteer reporter and translator, was not. Assuming that the CPJ made a distinction between a journalist and media worker in its methodology for ETHA’s jailed employees, why would the same criterion not be applied to others on the CPJ list? Tolu was luckily released from jail after the CPJ published its list.

Another puzzle in the CPJ list is that some of the jailed journalists who stood trial in the same case were not included. For example, in one of the largest press freedom cases in Turkey in which 29 journalists and media workers were tried and many were later sentenced to lengthy prison terms, the CPJ excluded prominent journalists from the list. For example, Oğuz Usluer, a former news coordinator at HaberTürk TV, who has been behind bars since Dec. 28, 2016, and National Party (UP) leader and Türk Solu weekly columnist Gökçe Fırat Çulhaoğlu, who was arrested on Aug. 2, 2016, were not included, while most of the defendants in the same case were listed by the CPJ. Again most of the journalists in a press freedom case in Turkey’s southeastern province of Antalya were listed by the CPJ, while Serhat Şeftali of the Zaman daily was excluded.

Last but not least in the long list of omissions by the CPJ is award-winning radio programmer and journalist Serkan Sedat Güray, who has been incarcerated in Turkey’s notorious Silivri Prison since March 7, 2017 on fabricated charges of terrorism. Güray, a 42-year-old journalist, was detained on March 3, 2016 for allegedly insulting President Erdoğan but was released on his own recognizance. He was detained by the police once again on Feb. 22, 2017 and spent 17 days in detention before he was formally arrested on March 7, 2017 under abusive anti-terror laws. A graduate of Turkey’s prestigious Bilkent University’s Department of American Culture and Literature, Güray started his media career at Burç FM in 1993 as a newsreader. Later, he worked for popular radio networks such as Radio Blue, Radyo Bilkent, Dünya Radyo, Power FM, Capital Broadcasting Network and Samanyolu News Radio. In 2007 he was recognized as the best program producer in Europe by the GTN European Radio Awards Committee. The following year he received the best radio theatre producer award from the Association of National Radio Broadcasters in Turkey. He was unable to make the CPJ’s jailed journalists list.

More examples can be cited to illustrate discrepancies in the CPJ’s coverage of jailed journalists in Turkey, but the ones I have mentioned thus far should be more than enough to shed light on the sloppy work done by the CPJ. I understand well that it is quite challenging to collect reliable information on the ground in Turkey because of the massive crackdown and unprecedented attack on freedom of the press in the country. The government does not share data on jailed journalists and publicly claims there are no journalists behind bars in Turkey, at least not for their professional work. Let’s not forget that these people all have reputations, faces, friends and families. They have spent years in the field of journalism in various positions. The least we can do is to remember their names and send a message to the Turkish government that we won’t forget them no matter what absurd explanations the government puts forward and what charges it levels against these great people who have lost their freedom.

Of course, the CPJ has been compiling such lists for years in many countries. It brings a broad range of experience to the field and certainly deserves huge credit for highlighting press freedom cases and raising awareness of the plight of journalists around the world. In this business, credibility is of utmost importance, and the CPJ and other journalist advocacy groups must tread carefully so as to not expose themselves to exploitation by governments that will try to undermine their work. They must be as cautious as possible to make sure their work is solid. However, when looking at the Turkish case, one cannot help but wonder what safeguards the CPJ has in place to make sure that its list is thorough and free of mistakes and omissions. If it made so many errors in the Turkey file, then is it not fair to ask the question of whether it might have made similar mistakes while covering other countries as well.

I know this is not an exact science and that there are differing methodologies in this kind of advocacy work. The available resources, organizational capacity, qualified researchers, reliable networks, trusted sources and other issues pose challenges all the time. The repression, threats and climate of fear fostered by the Erdoğan government further complicate the work done by journalist organizations. Nevertheless, the huge difference between the CPJ numbers and those of SCF cannot be fully explained by any of this. Granted, SCF adopts the more liberal approach of listing all media workers and journalists because of the full-frontal attack by the Turkish government on critical media outlets and their employees. The arrest of support personal and other media practitioners in the Turkish case is directly related to the crackdown on freedom of the press and serves as an intimidation tactic by the government. SCF is not free from mistakes and omissions, either. In fact, when the CPJ list for the year 2017 was examined, it turned out that SCF had missed the names of three local journalists and updated its list to include them as well. Since it started publishing the data on its website, SCF has received about a dozen inquiries that led to adding new names to the list.

Let’s be frank. Turkey, the worst jailer of journalists in the world, represents a unique case with the intensity and depth of the crackdown and the number of those jailed. The professional and academic discussion on the definition of the media profession has almost lost its meaning in the Turkish context. Whether one works on the corporate side of a critical newspaper or in its distribution network, the Turkish government targets him or her because of the content and editorial policy of the paper for which he or she works.

As of March 26, 2018, SCF had documented 245 journalists and media workers as behind bars, with 56 of them already convicted on dubious charges. The Erdoğan regime seeks to arrest an additional 140 journalists who are either at large in Turkey or in self-exile abroad. Let’s not buy into the Erdoğan government narrative, but rather recognize all these journalists for the work they contributed to the public discussion in whatever capacity they served. Cherry-picking will only benefit the predators of press freedom. (

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