Austrian lawmaker Stefan Schennach, general rapporteur on media freedom and the safety of journalists for the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), on Friday voiced his concerns over the detention of journalists in Turkey and Azerbaijan, which he deemed an appalling phenomenon observed over the course of many years, especially in those two countries.
“The current situation in Turkey and Azerbaijan is unacceptable. In both these member States, freedom of expression, including freedom of the media, has been violated for several years. Therefore, I call on both Turkey and Azerbaijan to urgently stop these attacks on journalists, in order to uphold the standards established by the Council of Europe and stick to the values promoted by our Organisation,” he said.
“Journalists are placed in arbitrary pre-trial arrest and detention, and are held for months, sometimes for years, before their cases come to court. Such detentions are the result of politicised targeting of journalists for their critical reporting; they are an obvious violation of freedom of expression and of journalists’ right to liberty and security,” Schennach remarked.
Schennach recalled a recent PACE report titled “Threats to media freedom and journalists’ security in Europe” that found Turkey to be the country which has the highest number of imprisoned journalists, at present 95 according to the Council of Europe Platform to promote the protection of journalism and safety of journalists.
Furthermore, he criticized the discriminatory release bill enacted by Turkey in mid-April. “Moreover, in the context of the current pandemic crisis, detention in penitentiaries constitutes an unjustified risk to health, and even to life. A recent bill proposes that approximately one third of 300,000 Turkish detainees be released, but it excludes those detained for terrorism-related offences, and therefore the majority of the 95 journalists in detention, as they are charged with or convicted of terrorism-related offences, although with no solid justification.”
According to the rapporteur journalists are arrested on fabricated charges in Azerbaijan. “As for Azerbaijan – where there are currently 10 journalists in detention – several journalists are arrested on the ground of fabricated accusations. Elchin Mammad, editor in chief of the Yukselish Namine newspaper, was arrested on 30 March 2020 ‘for having stolen jewellery’. Since 2015, he has repeatedly been under judicial or police investigations, interrogations, house and office searches. Today, if convicted he faces up to seven years in prison.
“Another Azerbaijani journalist and blogger with Kanal24 Internet TV, Ibrahim Vazirov, was arrested on 13 April 2020, days after police had demanded he delete online reports about the social and economic impact of Covid-19. In previous weeks, the journalist had been producing video reports critical of the government’s quarantine measures. A similar case happened to Mirsahib Rahiloglu, a journalist with the Reportyor.info, who had published interviews with citizens expressing frustration at the lack of financial support during the lockdown. He was arrested for ‘violating lockdown rules’ and detained for 30 days. Natig Izbatov, a journalist with online news outlet 7gun.az, was arrested as he was filming interviews with people about the economic effects of the lockdown. He was sentenced to 30 days in jail for violating lockdown rules, despite having official documents which gave him permission to work as a journalist. Moreover, he was allegedly assaulted at the police station, his telephone had been searched and footage and recordings deleted,” he added.
According to the Reporters Without Borders’ (RSF) recently published 2020 World Press Freedom Index in which Turkey was ranked 154th among 180 countries in terms of press freedom, Turkey is the world’s biggest jailer of professional journalists. The Stockholm Center for Freedom (SCF) has documented that 165 journalists are currently behind bars in Turkey, while 167 wanted on fabricated terrorism charges have been forced to live in exile. The Turkish government has seized nearly 200 media outlets, including the country’s largest daily as well as most popular TV networks, since 2015.