US Human Rights Report: Turkish gov’t’s prosecution and jailing of journalists hinder freedom of the press

The Turkish government’s prosecution of journalists representing major independent newspapers and its jailing of scores of journalists in 2017 hindered freedom of speech, and self-censorship was widespread in 2017 amid fear that criticizing the government could prompt reprisals, according to a report released on Friday by the US State Department.

According to the 64-page Turkey 2017 Human Rights Report, hundreds of individuals, including journalists and minors, were indicted for insulting the president, prime minister or state institutions. In June the Ministry of Justice announced that in 2016 it had tried 3,658 persons on charges related to insulting the president. Comprehensive figures for the year were unavailable at year’s end.

The report said that estimates of the number of journalists in Turkish jails varied. The Committee to Protect Journalists claimed that as of December 13, there were at least 81 journalists in prison. On December 6, the Journalists’ Union of Turkey claimed 149 journalists were in prison; Reporters without Borders reported that, as of October 24, there were more than 100 journalists in jail; the NGO Platform for Independent Journalism (P24) reported that as of November 28, there were 153 journalists, editors or media managers in jail, the vast majority for alleged ties to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) or the Gülen movement. As of May, an estimated 123 additional journalists were outside the country and did not return due to fear of arrest, according to the Journalists Association.

Turkey is the biggest jailer of journalists in the world. The most recent figures documented by SCF show that 256 journalists and media workers were in jail as of April 11, 2018, most in pretrial detention. Of those in prison 197 were under arrest pending trial while only 58 journalists have been convicted and are serving their time. Detention warrants are outstanding for 140 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 about 200 media outlets after the controversial coup attempt on July 15, 2016.

The US report said hundreds more remained out of work after the government closed media outlets allegedly affiliated with the PKK or the Gülen movement as part of the previous year’s government response to the attempted coup. On July 20, the Radio and Television Supreme Board revoked the licenses of five television stations for broadcasting inappropriate content. Another television station and 12 radio stations that previously had their licenses revoked under a July 2016 decree faced difficulty seeking redress and were unable to appeal to the Commission of Inquiry on Practices under the state of emergency, which was established to review appeals by individuals and associations.

Some excerpts from the section of the report on “Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press” are as follows: 

Individuals in many cases could not criticize the state or government publicly without risk of civil or criminal suits or investigation, and the government restricted expression by individuals sympathetic to some religious, political, or cultural viewpoints. At times many who wrote or spoke on sensitive topics or in ways critical of the government risked investigation.

In July parliament amended its by-laws to prohibit the use of the word “Kurdistan” or other sensitive terms by members of parliament on the floor of parliament, providing for the possible issuance of fines to violators. On December 13, parliament suspended HDP spokesperson and Şanlıurfa member of parliament Osman Baydemir for two General Assembly sessions after he referred to himself as a “representative of Kurdistan” during a discussion in parliament.

Human rights groups reported intensifying government pressure that, in certain cases, resulted in enhanced caution in their public reporting. On November 1, leading philanthropist and widely respected civil society figure leader Osman Kavala was arrested and subsequently charged with terrorism-related crimes.

Observers widely viewed his detention as politically motivated. On July 5, police detained eight leading human rights activists, including Amnesty International Turkey director İdil Eser as well as two foreign trainers, during a workshop in Buyukada, near Istanbul, on terrorism grounds. On June 6, police detained Taner Kılıç, the founder and chair of Amnesty International Turkey, in İzmir along with 22 others for alleged Gülen ties and in part for allegedly using the ByLock mobile application, a claim rejected by Amnesty International. Critics alleged Kılıç’s detention stemmed from government displeasure with Amnesty reporting critical of the government. In October a court released the “Buyukada 10” pending the outcome of their trial, which continued at year’s end. Kılıç and Kavala remained in pretrial detention, with judicial proceedings against them continuing at year’s end.

Press and Media Freedom: Print media were privately owned and active. Conglomerates or holding companies, many of which had interests before the government on a range of business matters, owned an increasing share of media outlets. Only a fraction of these companies’ profits came from media revenue, and their other commercial interests impeded media independence, encouraged a climate of self-censorship, and limited the scope of public debate. Private newspapers were also published in numerous languages, including Armenian, Arabic, English, and Farsi, although most had low circulations. Nearly all private Kurdish-language newspapers, television channels, and radio stations remained closed on national security grounds under government decrees.

Government prosecution of independent journalists limited media freedom throughout the year. The pretrial detention since October 2016 of 20 prominent journalists, editors, and staffers of the country’s leading independent newspaper Cumhuriyet continued. Prosecutors alleged that material in the newspaper dating to 2014 aided a variety of terrorist organizations, including the PKK, the Gülen movement, and the leftist Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party or Front, and sought prison sentences ranging from seven and a one-half to 43 years. As of December 14, four employees remained in pretrial detention, some for more than 400 days.

As of December 14, a total of 18 journalists and editors who had worked for the now-closed, Gülen-linked Zaman newspaper and who were arrested in 2016, remained in detention on terrorism and coup-related charges. On December 8, an İstanbul court ruled for the continued imprisonment of 19 journalists and the release of three advertising and sales department staff members of the Zaman media group. Travel bans remained in place for those released. The journalists’ trial was in progress at year’s end.

On May 19, government authorities raided the offices of the left-leaning daily newspaper Sozcu. Sozcu’s owner and three of its employees were detained, arrested, and charged with aiding the Gülen movement. Two were later released, while the other two remained jailed with judicial proceedings against all four continued at year’s end.

Other journalists said they were fired from their jobs or asked to censor their reporting if it appeared critical of the government. Some journalists working with foreign correspondents reported being pressured by their organization’s editors to avoid or stop working with those foreign journalists. These pressures contributed to an atmosphere of self-censorship in which media reporting became increasingly standardized along progovernment lines.

The government restricted access to the internet and regularly blocked selected online content, including online newspapers and journals.

In several cases the government barred journalists from travelling outside the country. In August police confiscated the passport of Aslı Erdoğan, former board member and columnist for the closed pro-Kurdish daily Özgür Gündem, as she was on her way to Germany to accept an award for her work. In September, after public pressure, authorities returned her passport. Some dual-national journalists entering the country were detained and many later deported. On February 14, German-Turkish national Deniz Yücel, a reporter for the German daily Die Welt, was detained; he remained in prison on terrorism-related charges as of year’s end.

On October 10, Wall Street Journal correspondent Ayla Albayrak was convicted of terrorist propaganda based on a story she wrote on government-PKK clashes, and was sentenced in absentia to two years and one month in prison. Her case remained under appeal at year’s end.

Violence and Harassment: Government and political leaders and their supporters used a variety of means to intimidate and pressure journalists, including lawsuits, threats, and, in some cases, physical attack. President Erdoğan and AKP members sometimes verbally attacked journalists by name in response to critical reporting.

Human rights groups noted that filing terrorism-related charges was a common tool the government used to target journalists reporting on sensitive issues, particularly PKK terrorism and the Gülen movement. According to center-left online news portal Bianet, between July 2016 and July, courts heard 301 cases against journalists. In these cases prosecutors requested aggravated life sentences 142 times and life sentences five times.

Journalists reported that media outlets fired some individuals for being too controversial or adversarial with the government due to fear of jeopardizing other business interests. For example, journalist and television presenter İrfan Değirmenci was allegedly dismissed from his job at Kanal D, owned by the Doğan Publishing Group, after he announced on social media that he would vote “no” in the April constitutional referendum on constitutional changes proposed by the ruling AKP.

Journalists affiliated or formerly with pro-Kurdish outlets faced significant government pressure. Thirty-eight of the 56 individuals who worked as “solidarity” or “duty” editors of the Özgür Gündem in 2016 faced prosecution for alleged “terror propaganda” at year’s end. On March 6, the acting editor of Özgür Gündem, Nadire Mater, was sentenced to 15 months’ imprisonment and fined 15,000 lira ($3,900). Her sentence was suspended. The trials of other high-profile duty editors, including the president of the HRFT, Şebnem Korur Fincancı, and Reporters without Borders Turkey representative Erol Önderoğlu, continued at year’s end.

Government officials withheld press accreditation and denied entry to the country of several journalists from France, Germany, Greece, the Netherlands, Norway, Russia, Syria, the United Kingdom, and the United States. International journalists reported government interference in their ability to report within the country. On May 8, French photographer Mathias Depardon, while on assignment for National Geographic magazine, was arrested while working in Hasankeyf district in southeastern Batman Province on terrorism-related charges. On June 9, he was released following engagement by French authorities.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: Government and political leaders occasionally resorted to direct censorship of news media. On January 6, a state of emergency decree authorized the government to interfere with or stop broadcasts in the event of a terror incident. Lack of compliance could result in the media outlet being closed. The government declared media blackouts on terror attacks or other sensitive issues, although many media outlets disregarded these blackouts, which were not always enforced.

While the law does not prohibit particular books or publications, publishing houses were required to submit books and periodicals to prosecutors for screening at the time of publication.

The Turkish Publishers Association (TPA) reported that publishers often exercised self-censorship, avoiding works with controversial content (including government criticism, erotic content, or pro-Kurdish content) that might draw legal action. The TPA reported that publishers faced publication bans and heavy fines if they failed to comply in cases in which a court ordered the correction of offensive content. Publishers were also subject to book promotion restrictions. According to TPA’s Freedom to Publish Report for 2016-2017, the government closed 30 publishing houses. In some cases prosecutors considered the possession of some Kurdish- language, pro-Kurdish, or Gülenist books to be credible evidence of membership in a banned organization.

Some writers and publishers were subject to prosecution on grounds of defamation, denigration, obscenity, separatism, terrorism, subversion, fundamentalism, and insulting religious values. Authorities investigated or continued court cases against a myriad of publications and publishers on these grounds during the year. In January a court sentenced journalist Arzu Demir to six years in prison for spreading “terrorist organization propaganda” and “praising crime and criminality” for her two books, Women on the Mountains and Revolution in Rojava. Similarly, TPA reported that the government banned and confiscated Rojava: The Time for Kurds by Fehim Taştekin and History of Kurds by Aytekin Gezici.

On February 9, the government issued an emergency decree removing the Supreme Board of Election’s authority to fine or halt private radio and television broadcast outlets that violated the principle of equality, which required that broadcasters give equal access to the country’s major political parties. Critics charged that the move benefited the ruling AKP political party.

The Radio and Television Supreme Council continued the practice of fining broadcasters whose content it considered “contrary to the national and moral values of society.”

Libel/Slander Laws: Observers reported that government officials used defamation laws to stop political opponents, journalists, and ordinary citizens from voicing criticism. The law provides that persons who insult the president of the republic may face a prison term of up to four years. The sentence may be increased by one- sixth if committed publicly and by one-third if committed by media.

Authorities charged citizens, including children, with insulting Turkish leaders and denigrating “Turkishness.” In January authorities forcibly returned from northern Cyprus to Turkey prominent fashion designer Barbaros Sansal following a controversial social media post he made that criticized Turkish society. As he left his plane in İstanbul, a mob, some of whom appeared to be airport staff, beat him. He was arrested the next day, charged with insulting the Turkish nation, and sentenced to six-plus months in prison. As of December 31, his appeal continued. In May historian Suleyman Yesilyurt was indicted for “insulting” Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, while appearing on a television program. On June 1, after expressing remorse and apologizing in court, he was released.

Lawmakers, mostly from the pro-Kurdish HDP, were also targeted in a significant number of insult-related cases. At year’s end nine HDP lawmakers were in prison for a variety of charges related to terrorism and political speech.

While leaders and deputies from opposition political parties regularly faced multiple insult charges, free speech advocates pointed out that the law was not applied equally and that AKP members and government officials were rarely prosecuted under it.

National Security: Authorities regularly used the counterterrorism law and the penal code to limit free expression on grounds of national security. Organizations, including the Committee to Protect Journalists and Freedom House, reported that authorities used the counterterrorism law and criminal code to prosecute journalists, writers, editors, publishers, translators, rights activists, lawyers, elected officials, and students accused of supporting a terrorist organization–generally either the PKK or the Gulen movement. In December the HRA’s Adana branch reported that in 2016 and 2017, authorities opened approximately 100 criminal cases against 92 members of their association. The charges included violating meeting and demonstration laws, resisting government officers, spreading terrorist propaganda, insulting the state and praising crime and criminals. The HRA asserted the cases stemmed from an attempt to intimidate lawyers and undermine the organization’s operations.

In April a court in Şırnak Province banned the HDP’s constitutional referendum campaign song, resulting in a nationwide prohibition on the use of “Bejin ‘Na’” (“Say ‘No’”). A judge found the anthem’s lyrics to be a challenge to the indivisibility of the Turkish state. Prominent columnist Ahmet Altan and his brother, economist Mehmet Altan, both in prison on terror-related charges since September 2016 for allegedly sending coded messages to the 2016 coup plotters during a panel discussion on a television program, remained in detention at year’s end. Many observers viewed their prosecution as an effort to intimidate or silence prominent opposition voices.

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