Turkey’s press freedom crisis is worsening amid growing state capture of media: Human Rights Watch

Turkey’s press freedom crisis is worsening amid growing state capture of media, said a statement issued by 11 international rights group including Human Rights Watch (HRW) following their visit to Turkey October 6-9.

A delegation from the rights organizations went on a four-day mission to Turkey to meet with journalists, members of civil society and members of parliament and the judiciary and assess the conditions of media freedom in Turkey.

Convened by the International Press Institute (IPI), the delegation also comprised representatives from ARTICLE 19, the Association of European Journalists (AEJ), the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF), the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ), Human Rights Watch (HRW), Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso Transeuropa (OBCT), PEN International, Reporters without Borders (RSF) and the South East Europe Media Organisation (SEEMO).

According to the statement scores of journalists remain behind bars in Turkey or face baseless prosecutions in retaliation for their work. The group said Turkish authorities continue to instrumentalize a justice system that does not guarantee basic due process rights in court. The lack of political will to end this pattern, largely unchanged since 2016, was described as “hugely disturbing.”

Referring to the recent confiscation of exiled journalist Can Dündar’s assets, the statement said this symbolized the relentless persecution of critical voices and constituted a new form of attacks on journalists through the seizure of their private property and their families as reprisal for their legitimate work.

According to the Stockholm Center for Freedom’s “Jailed and Wanted Journalists in Turkey” database, 176 journalists are currently behind bars in Turkey, while 167 are wanted and are either in exile or remain at large.

The statement said, in a meeting with the Human Rights Department of the Ministry of Justice in Ankara, mission members called on the authorities to ensure the prosecution of those responsible for physical attacks on journalists, which are on the rise, especially in local areas.

According to the statement regulatory institutions lack independence, calling for an end to the misuse of state regulatory bodies, including the Radio and Television High Council (RTÜK) and the Press Advertising Authority (BİK), to punish and financially cripple independent media.

The statement highlighted that RTÜK has stepped up a campaign of fines and broadcast bans on independent television broadcasters. BİK, with which press freedom groups met earlier this year, was criticized for increasingly issuing spurious state advertising bans on critical newspapers.

RTÜK had imposed $1.6 million in fines on TV channels with stances critical of the government in 2019 and the first half of 2020.

According to the statement Turkey’s new law on Internet crimes was designed to clamp down on the remaining spaces for free comment The controversial law on Internet crimes – the so-called social media law – was approved by the Turkish parliament in July and was signed into law by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

The legislation sets forth progressive sanctions forcing social media platforms with more than 1 million connections a day to appoint a representative in Turkey with whom the Turkish authorities can resolve problems arising from cases of insult, intimidation and violation of privacy.

The law also obligates social media platforms to respond within 48 hours to complaints about “violations of personal rights” or to judicial orders to remove content. The social network provider that fails to remove offending content within 24 hours after a court ruling will be held responsible for damages incurred by the content.

According to the statement, the delegation had a separate meeting with Constitutional Court members and urged them to give greater priority to press freedom cases, especially those related to website blockings.

The justice minister’s recent announcement that he supported the restructuring of Turkey’s Constitutional Court, the country’s highest judicial authority, in line with the country’s presidential system was cited as an alarming development in this context.

According to the statement, such a restructuring, which is backed by President Erdoğan, would undermine any independence enjoyed by the Constitutional Court. The statement said although the court was late in making decisions and that on occasion lower courts failed to implement its rulings, it remained an essential guarantor of the fundamental rights embedded in the constitution, including press freedom.

Turkey was ranked 154th of 180 countries in the 2020 World Press Freedom Index released by Reporters without Borders (RSF). In May, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Representative on Freedom of the Media Harlem Désir called on the Turkish authorities to urgently address and reverse current media freedom violations and the pressure journalists face.

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