Harlem Désir, representative on freedom of the media for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), expressed his concern over recent judicial action launched by Turkish prosecutors against two journalists of the Turkish Cypriot daily Afrika in a letter to Turkish authorities on Thursday.
Şener Levent, the editor-in-chief of a daily based in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (KKTC) and Ali Osman, a reporter for the same publication, were summoned by local police on Tuesday to testify in a case filed in Ankara against them over a headline criticizing Turkey’s military offensive in Afrin, northern Syria. Levent and the reporter refused to give testimony to the police, saying they in the first place rejected the case against them.
In January the Afrika daily published a headline calling the Afrin offensive “Turkey’s second invasion move,” comparing the Turkish Army’s operations in northern Syria to Turkey’s capturing of northern Cyprus in the late 1970s.
In response, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan publicly slammed the newspaper for engaging in “indecent” publishing. Following Erdoğan’s remarks, a group of people physically attacked the newspaper headquarters in Lefkoşa.
“I am very concerned over the judicial action initiated by the Turkish prosecution against Turkish Cypriot journalists,” Désir said in a letter to Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu.
“Threatening journalists with criminal lawsuits for their work weakens pluralistic debate in societies, can lead to self-censorship among journalists and to the overall deterioration of media freedom… The right to freedom of expression encompasses views that may offend, shock, and disturb.”
The two journalists, Levent and Osman, face criminal charges based on articles critical of Turkish politics published by the newspaper on January 21, 2018 and February 1, 2018.
Désir recalled that the Nicosia-based newspaper Afrika has been under significant pressure for an extensive period of time. He mentioned the attack against Levent and the newspaper’s offices on January 22 and stressed that violence and intimidation of journalists is unacceptable.
“It is essential for the public authorities to refrain from initiating lawsuits against journalists for their work, including when they express differing views on sensitive affairs. I urge them to drop the lawsuits against Levent and Osman,” he said.
Turkey is ranked 157th among 180 countries in the 2018 World Press Freedom Index released by Reporters Without Borders (RSF). If Turkey falls two more places, it will make it to the list of countries on the blacklist, which have the poorest record in press freedom.
Turkey is the biggest jailer of journalists in the world. The most recent figures documented by SCF show that 240 journalists and media workers were in jail as of July 24, 2018, most in pretrial detention. Of those in prison 179 were under arrest pending trial while only 61 journalists have been convicted and are serving their time. Detention warrants are outstanding for 144 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.