World Press Freedom Day was celebrated in the capital of Sweden on Thursday by the Stockholm Center for Freedom (SCF) and the London-based International Observatory of Human Rights (IOHR), with Turkey the focal point of a panel discussion.
The event, held at Café Panorama in Kulturhuset, brought prominent journalists and human rights defenders such as Martin Schibbye, a Swedish journalist who was imprisoned in Ethiopia for 438 days; Abdullah Bozkurt, a Turkish journalist and president of SCF; Levent Kenez, a Turkish journalist and SCF coordinator for freedom of expression and freedom of the press; and Valerie Peay, Director of the IOHR and the Trustee Director of the Royal Caledonian Educational Trust.
“Why did we choose Sweden for our event today, you may ask?” said Peay, who moderated the discussion with journalists, answering her own question by saying, “For us, Sweden was the first country to safeguard press freedom.”
“In 1766, the Parliament passed the Freedom of Press Act that prohibited censorship,” Peay added.
Stressing that press freedom has been under attack all over the world, the director of IOHR pointed out that “we can’t let silence fill the void in terms of world press freedom,” asking for everybody to do more and play their part.
“The worst fear for a prisoner of conscience is being forgotten,” said Schibbye, who shared his personal experience in an Ethiopian jail. “Attention and solidarity are more important than food for imprisoned journalists,” he underlined. Schibbye suggested that journalists should be teaming up to fight fake news and that investigative journalism with fact-based reporting is the best panacea for misinformation.
“Citizen journalism is on the rise, and as long as they are fact checked, then they can often help bypass censorship. They are also unfortunately in danger so we should support their anonymity,” remarked Kenez, a Turkish journalist who is forced to live in exile due to a crackdown on the media in Turkey.
Kenez also explained why the SCF numbers for jailed Turkish journalists are higher than others. According to SCF data, 254 journalists and media workers were in jail as of May 3, 2018, with 62 of them already convicted on dubious charges of terrorism, defamation and coup plotting. In addition, 142 Turkish journalists who were forced to go into exile or still remain at large in Turkey are wanted for arrest by authorities.
Kenez said more than 80 names on the SCF list are from jailed journalists who had worked for state broadcasting network TRT and state-news agency Anadolu. “Other organizations have simply failed to identify their names, and it took us for months to verify their identities,” he said.
Meanwhile, Bozkurt noted that more governments are adopting policies to criminalize encrypted and secure communication tools, providing an example from Turkey where the authorities labelled everyone who downloaded the ByLock mobile phone application as terrorists. He also recalled how David Kaye, the UN Freedom of Opinion and Expression special rapporteur, described the “criminalization of encryption” in his damning report on Turkey which was released during the special session on Turkey as part of the UN Human Rights Sessions in Geneva. Russia and Iran have also moved to ban Telegram, another safe communication app.
Bozkurt also made a plea for advocacy organizations to raise funds for jailed journalists because they have difficulty in hiring lawyers against the backdrop of close to 600 lawyers who are also jailed in Turkey. “If they are lucky to find one, they have to pay higher fees because of the risks,” he lamented.
Expressing that all critical voices are branded as “terrorists” by the Turkish government, Bozkurt remarked that the definition of terrorism is so broad and vague in Turkey — which describes anybody who is associated or affiliated with or came in contact with what the government deems to be a terrorist — that that person is also considered to be a terrorist.
“I’ve already been declared a terrorist by the Erdoğan government, and all the listeners in this hall now qualify as terrorists because you came in contact with me by attending this event in Stockholm,” Bozkurt explained.
The event was live streamed on Facebook, and the hashtag #FreeMediaTurkey was used along with #WorldPressFreedomDay