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Journalism on trial in Turkey

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Hermione Gee: When the international media watchdog, Reporters Without Borders (RSF), released its 2011-2012 World Press Freedom Index on January 26th, Turkey had dropped 10 places to 148th on the report's list of 179 surveyed countries. The report confirmed what many observers have already suspected, namely that Turkey is "back to its old habits" with respect to its treatment of its national media. RSF said 2011 saw a dramatic escalation in the judicial harassment of journalists," with recent government actions reintroducing "a climate of intimidation in the media." Hermione Gee reports from Istanbul on the state of press freedom in Turkey.

After more than 10 months in prison, Turkish journalist Ahmet Sik finally took the stand in his own defense on January 5. "This is not only a case that puts journalists on trial, but also journalism as a profession," he told the court. "What is violated here is not only a journalist's freedom of expression, but the public's right to information." He went on to deny all charges against him, saying his "only endeavour has been to report the truth accurately."

Sik, a prominent investigative journalist, was arrested in March 2011, along with his colleague, Nedim Sener, recipient of the International Press Institute's 2010 World Press Freedom Hero award. Both men are charged in connection with the long-running Ergenekon case – an alleged ultra-nationalist plot to overthrow the pro-Islamic Justice and Development Party, or AKP, government. Sik and Sener say their only offense was to raise questions about the relationship between the police force and the religious Fetullah Gulen movement.

Since 2008, hundreds of people – including academics and military officials, as well as many journalists – have been arrested in connection with the Ergenekon investigation. Although the case has prompted much debate over the last few years, with government critics saying it's being used to settle scores and silence critics, the arrests of Sik and Sener raised the level of protest within the country and grabbed the attention of the international media.

"This shows that this is outrageous," says Asli Tunc, Associate Professor of Communications and Media at Biligi University, where Sik also worked until his arrest. "The other people, we can never be sure; you could think maybe there is something there. But with these two people, with Ahmet Sik and Nedim Sener's case, people understood the actual situation, the lack of press freedom. We know those people. We can give very good references to those people. I mean, he's my colleague, and it's unbelievable that he's in prison right now. Anyone can be in prison."

"Putin's media"
In fact, there are currently 72 Turkish journalists behind bars according to the Turkish Journalists Association, although the exact number is disputed. Most are being held on terrorism related charges, either in connection with the Ergenekon case, or charged with promoting the cause of the outlawed armed Kurdish organization, the PKK. The International Press Institute says Turkey leads the world when it comes to the number of journalists in prison – topping even China and Iran. There are also more than seven hundred other cases pending that could lead to even more journalists being imprisoned. The 2011 Press Freedom Index places Turkey bottom of all 25 Western European countries and says the situation has worsened over the last year.

Asli Tunc agrees. Despite the vast numbers of newspapers, magazines and television stations in Turkey, she says, press freedom is under increasing threat. "It's the weakest part of the whole country right now. From 1 to 10, it's like 3 or 4. If you compare it to the economy or other fields in the country, freedom of expression is really bad. When a foreign journalist sees those outlets, they say, 'What are you talking about? You have tons of different outlets,' but they are all the same voice."

Part of the problem, Tunc explains, is that the AKP changed the media ownership laws when they were elected in 2002.

"When they came to power, only Islamist newspapers were supporting the AKP, but now, there is a very partisan media structure and they are not necessarily Islamist. Now, more than 60% is pro-government so there is no diversity, there is no opposition. So if they see any opposition right now, they punish them. There is a fear in the air; it resembles Putin's media."

And much as Putin used Russia's buoyant economy to distract the electorate from increasing infringements on democracy, Tunc says Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is relying on Turkey's economic boom and global standing to further his agenda. "If you are economically strong, of course press freedom is a secondary issue -- most people look at their pockets. He acts as a global leader, it's good for Turkey, it's a new role for Turkey. So they're trying to cover up with good economy, good social services -- they're helping poor people, disabled people, so that makes them very powerful. How they present it is: press freedom is a luxury; we are rich, we are a role model, so who cares about press freedom? He presents the whole issue as a bunch of intellectuals and professors crying out for their friends."

International pressure
But those professors and intellectuals are gathering supporters – if not at home, certainly abroad.

On the opening day of the Sik-Sener trial last November, dozens of people gathered outside Istanbul's imposing new Palace of Justice in Caglayan, now the largest courthouse in Europe. Among them were representatives of Human Rights Watch, the International Press Institute, PEN, Journalists Without Borders, foreign consular officials, as well as foreign and local media. Philippe Leruth, Vice President of the European Federation of Journalists, was also there. "I'm here to express the solidarity of European journalists with all the journalists who are put in jail in Turkey. They are opposition journalists who express dissenting opinions...and are criminalized because they do their work."

The Federation has tried to meet with government officials to discuss the issues "but the messages we get are not very positive," Leruth says. "I must confess we don't have the impression we get much consideration." But, he points out, Turkey needs to resolve this issue if it's serious about its bid for EU membership. "If you want to make part of the EU, you have to adopt the common values of Europe and press freedom is part of the common values of Europe."

Even so, in October 2011, an EU progress report citing "serious concerns" with the ongoing prosecution of journalists with was met with defiance from Egemen Bagis, Turkey's Minister for EU Affairs and Chief Negotiator. "Nobody has been arrested in Turkey because of serving as a journalist," he told the AFP, adding that "being a journalist doesn't give immunity to people either."

Despite the tough talk, says Asli Tunc, the Turkish government can't sweep the issue under the carpet anymore. "It's become too visible. They have to do something. The pressure is coming from all over the place."

And, indeed, on January 5, the day of Ahmet Sik's testimony, the US State Department made it clear that it is also paying close attention to the issue. "We have to see whether this trial goes forward in a manner that is consistent with international standards, consistent with international human rights," Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told journalists. "That's the standard by which we'll judge it."

Constitutional reform
Government supporters point to the country's stringent penal code as the real culprit and argue that once the country's new constitution is in place, there will be fewer restrictions on the press.

Turkish laws have certainly served to limit press freedom in the country for decades. As well as the strict anti-terrorism laws, discouraging military service, insulting Turkishness, and referring to the 1915 Armenian massacre as a genocide are all criminal offenses. But it will take more than a new constitution to bring real press freedom to Turkey, says Asli Tunc.

"It's very hard to change the structure radically with the laws and constitution. My hope is to have a more open and more democratic scene but they have created a culture of fear. Even if the law is there to protect you, the good journalists are out, the partisans are in, and they know the rules; they have a lot to gain from the government. The whole thing is becoming more monolithic. So it will go on and on."

Click here to listen to a radio report by Hermione Gee about freedom of Journalism in Turkey... 

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