IPI report indicates WhatsApp groups another side of censorship in Turkey

Turkey’s government is increasingly sharing news items with journalists via WhatsApp groups, ready to be “copied and pasted” in the next day’s paper, the International Press Institute (IPI) website reported.

The media remains under the chokehold of of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) of Turkey, which ranked 157th out of 180 countries in April in Reporters Without Borders (RSF) annual report on global press freedom. Around 90 percent of Turkey’s newspaper coverage is pro-government.

Press advisers to government spokespersons ask journalists to share their questions in these WhatsApp groups ahead of press conferences, it said, citing Cumhuriyet journalist Sinan Tartanoğlu, a member of the WhatsApp group formed by the then-prime minister’s office.

While journalists covering government press conferences are permitted to ask questions not previously mentioned in the WhatsApp groups, they prefer not to for fear for losing their accreditation and press card.

“I asked myself repeatedly whether I would lose my accreditation after asking a question about Turkish soldiers allegedly burned by ISIL militants,” Tartanoğlu is quoted as saying. “I did not lose my press card, but I felt fear in my very bones.”

Foreign media also have difficulties accessing news sources and barely manage to get quotes from government officials, IPI reported.

One foreign journalist who chose to remain anonymous said once Turkish officials warned the journalist that his request “completely disrespected [our] foreign minister, especially in a meeting where we are the host state,” while another recalled that the Ministry of Health once offered in a WhatsApp group a prize for the article that was most pleasing to them.

However, many journalists working for independent media outlets are not included in the WhatsApp groups at all. Similarly, they are not summoned to meetings or accredited for NGO gatherings attended by the president or other government officials.

Başak Kaya, a correspondent for the Sözcü daily, said she only managed to attend a recent meeting held by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu by using her personal connections.

“We cannot even get answers to the most ordinary questions. No one takes our phone calls or replies to our emails,” she said.

Kaya added that even when journalists like her get a hold of government documents and want to write about them, they are unable to because they can’t get the documents confirmed.

Burcu Cansu, a reporter with the left-wing Birgün daily, noted that her newspaper doesn’t even apply for accreditation from government departments.

“They will not accept the application anyway,” she explained, adding: “Even if our accreditation were to be accepted, we wouldn’t find it acceptable to submit ‘government-approved questions’ in advance. This doesn’t sit well with journalism ethics or with press freedom.”

Turkey is the biggest jailer of journalists in the world. The most recent figures documented by SCF show that 237 journalists and media workers were in jail as of August 15, 2018, most in pretrial detention. Of those in prison 169 were under arrest pending trial while only 68 journalists have been convicted and are serving their time. Detention warrants are outstanding for 145 journalists who are living in exile or remain at large in Turkey.

Detaining tens of thousands of people over alleged links to the Gülen movement, the government also closed down some 200 media outlets, including Kurdish news agencies and newspapers, after a coup attempt in Turkey on July 15, 2016. (SCF with Ahval)

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