RSF calls on EU leaders to insist on press freedom at summit with Turkey

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has written a letter to European Union leaders in advance of an EU-Turkey summit in Varna, Bulgaria, on March 26 asking them to press autocratic Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan for the restoration of pluralism in Turkey, the lifting of a state of emergency in effect since a coup attempt in July 2016 and the release of all wrongfully imprisoned journalists.

The Turkey-EU Summit will be held on Monday under the leadership of Erdoğan, European Council President Donald Tusk and EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker in Varna, Bulgaria. Ankara expects from the EU updates on the Customs Union agreement, visa liberalization, acceleration of financial assistance to Syria and concrete steps to combat terrorism.

On May 25, 2017, Erdogan met EU leaders Tusk and Juncker in Brussels. The first summit of the leaders was held in October 2015. This summit will be the fourth leaders meeting between the two sides.

During the ongoing state of emergency in Turkey more than 50,000 people have been jailed while 150,000 others have been removed from state posts under the pretext of an anti-coup fight.

Turkey is also the biggest jailer of journalists in the world. The most recent figures documented by SCF show that 245 journalists and media workers were in jail as of March 16, 2018, most in pretrial detention. Of those in prison 190 were under arrest pending trial while only 55 journalists have been convicted and are serving their time. Detention warrants are outstanding for 139 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 more than 180 media outlets after the controversial coup attempt.

The full text of the RSF letter is as follows:

For the attention of:
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker
European Council President Donald Tusk
High Representative for Foreign Affairs Federica Mogherini

Dear President Juncker, President Tusk and High Representative Mogherini,

As you prepare to meet with President Erdoğan in Varna on 26 March, you must be aware of the unprecedented crackdown on journalists and media outlets in Turkey, which is ranked 155th out of 180 countries in RSF’s latest World Press Freedom Index. The Turkish government’s witch hunt against critical media has climaxed since the July 2016 coup attempt.

The state of emergency in effect since then has allowed the authorities to liquidate around 150 media outlets at the stroke of pen, reducing pluralism to a handful of low-circulation newspapers, including the dailies Cumhuriyet (recipient of the RSF Press Freedom Prize in 2015), Sözcü and BirGün, which are the targets of growing harassment. This week’s acquisition of the Doğan media group by the pro-government conglomerate Demirören completes the subjugation of the mainstream media. Government propaganda now dominates the media landscape.

Turkey is again the world’s biggest prison for media professionals. Criticizing the authorities, working for a “suspect” media outlet, contacting a sensitive source or using an encrypted messaging service often suffices for a journalist to be imprisoned without the judicial system feeling the need to prove any individual involvement in criminal activity.

The Turkish courts recently refused to heed several rulings by the constitutional court, the country’s highest court, ordering the immediate release of imprisoned journalists. Their refusal “runs counter to the fundamental principles of the rule of law and legal certainty,” the European Court of Human Rights said this week.

After being held provisionally for more than a year, journalists are starting to be convicted. The first media figures to be accused of complicity with the coup attempt, the well-known journalists Ahmet Altan, Mehmet Altan and Nazli Ilicak, were sentenced last month to life imprisonment with no possibility of a pardon. A few days later, 25 of their colleagues also received prison sentences. Verdicts are expected soon in the case of 31 former Zaman employees, who will appear in court on 5 April, and in the case of 17 Cumhuriyet employees, whose trial will resume on 24 April.

Censorship of the Internet and social networks has also reached unprecedented levels. The chronic blocking of many news websites and the frequent social network slowdowns have now been compounded by frequent arrests of Internet users and the blocking of access to censorship circumvention tools (VPNs and the Tor Network). Hundreds of Internet users have been arrested since mid-January for criticizing Turkey’s offensive in Syria’s Afrin region.

We cannot overstate the degree to which these policies are fraught with peril, including for the EU. Carried out in the name of combatting terrorism, they dangerously increase the country’s instability, which has already been exacerbated by the region’s geopolitical crisis. By raising the political climate to fever pitch and by preventing a democratic debate among the different sectors of the population, President Erdoğan is accentuating the deep divisions in a very polarized society. By undermining the foundations of Turkish democracy and shrinking the sources of independent news and information, he has turned his country into an unpredictable and unreliable partner for Europe.

We ask you to make it clear to President Erdoğan that Turkey cannot expect any progress in its relations with the EU as long as the authorities continues to trample on press freedom and the rule of law. We fully understand the need to cooperate with Ankara on certain issues but a conditional approach must prevail more than ever in bilateral relations. Although the Turkish authorities claim, for example, to have satisfied all the criteria for Turkish citizens to enjoy visa-free travel within the EU, they still have not amended their terrorism legislation, which continues to be widely used to persecute critics.

We count on you to firmly ask President Erdoğan to restore pluralism, lift the state of emergency and immediately free all journalists who have been imprisoned without evidence of individual involvement in a crime recognized by international law. The rulings of Turkey’s constitutional court and the European Court of Human Rights on Şahin Alpay and Mehmet Altan must be implemented without delay. We also ask you to increase EU support for Turkish civil society and independent journalists. They are resisting with determination but the battle is an unequal one. They need help more than ever.

We thank you in advance for the attention you give to this letter and we are at your disposal should you need more detailed information.

Sincerely,

Christophe Deloire
Reporters Without Borders secretary-general.”

(SCF with turkishminute.com)

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