Freedom of speech and press freedom eroded in Turkey

There are rising concerns that freedom of expression and media freedom are becoming increasingly stifled in Turkey and this week’s guest on Monday Talk has said that the Turkish government’s attempts to manipulate the media are unacceptable. Turkish daily ‘Zaman’ published the following interview with independent journalist and former BBC foreign correspondent William Horsley.

“Prime Minister Erdoğan has acknowledged that he has personally made phone calls to TV companies and others to get news changed; it appears that same pressure has been applied to the dismissal of staff. This has no place in a democracy,” said William Horsley, UK chairman and media freedom representative of the Association of European Journalists, an independent professional network active in more than 20 European countries.

In his latest attempt to restrain media freedom, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has recently criticized the media for its coverage of the seizure of the Turkish Consulate General in Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, and the abduction of Turkish citizens by an al-Qaeda splinter group, accusing the media of publishing provocative reports.

Since the June 11 raid on Turkey’s Mosul consulate, in which the terrorist group Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) took 49 consular employees hostage, the government has been widely criticized for its failure to prevent the incident.

On June 17, an Ankara court issued a gagging order on reports concerning the Mosul raid. The ban was imposed on the grounds of protecting those being held. The court order came only two days after Prime Minister Erdoğan slammed the media over reports on the hostage crisis.

Answering our questions, Horsley elaborated on the issue while on a working visit to İstanbul.

From a European point of view how do you see the issue of press freedom in Turkey?

Turkey was a famous black spot in terms of press freedom for many years of political turmoil and frequent military interventions in Turkish politics in the past. Constant use of torture, not only against journalists but against dissenters of all kinds, was widespread. I recently looked at the statistics from the European Court of Human Rights, and Turkey’s record on violations of freedom of expression and media freedom is the worst of all. There is plenty of evidence that Turkey has been a pioneer in the practice of restricting media freedom in Europe. But recently Turkey has been at the center of a lot of landmark judgments which the court has made to protect journalism and freedom of expression because the current government has made a lot of moves; internet restrictions, jailing of journalists for long periods of time, arbitrary use of the justice system, etc. Many of those have come to the Strasbourg court and rulings have decided new protections for journalists. There was the landmark case in 2012 when the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg ruled in the case of Ahmet Yıldırım v. Turkey blocking access to an entire online platform was a violation of the right to freedom of expression; the Court unanimously held that the blanket blocking of access to breached the right to freedom of expression. There is a positive development in Turkey that the Constitutional Court is upholding the judgment of the Strasbourg court.

The Constitutional Court in Turkey has said that the ban on the social media site Twitter violates freedom of expression and individual rights, Prime Minister Erdoğan said that he does not respect the decision of the high court. How does this sound in Europe?

This is a classic example of what a politician should not say in Europe. It shows disrespect for the rules. It is terrible to hear that from a prime minister. But it is not uncommon for him to use this kind of insulting language against individuals or toward the rules.

Can journalists have safe working conditions under these circumstances in Turkey?

Everybody was surprised about three years ago when the number of journalists prosecuted or jailed in Turkey escalated. Reports from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and elsewhere showed the number of journalists in jail is as high as 90, many of them in pre-trial detention. Recently, the number has fallen below 30 and many journalists in pre-trial detention have been freed. That is a big improvement, but people like Füsun Erdoğan have been released only with a threat of going back to jail with a very long sentence. Evidence in the Turkish justice system seems to be quite arbitrary, directed partly by the political will of the political leaders. This is very unfortunate.

‘Turkey in serious violation of the most fundamental safeguards of media freedom’

Some concerned citizens in the Turkish society have been wondering if Turkey has been going through its own McCarthyism and some recent words of Prime Minister Erdoğan have concerned people even more. He said, “If this is a witch hunt, yes we’ll do it.” He was referring to a faith-based group that he considers a “parallel state.” You might have heard similar concerns from journalists’ associations in Turkey. Is there anything that European institutions can do in regards to this?

The European institutions can help – the European Union, the Council of Europe, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe — they are all fully engaged with Turkey, they are the biggest force but they are inadequate, either they don’t have the power or the will to confront the Turkish political establishment when it violates human rights. In terms of journalism, the International Federation of Journalists and the European Federation of Journalists which represents hundreds of thousands of journalists who are trade union members are a very big force and they fight individual battles in regards to journalists facing jail. There are also a range of non-governmental organizations that argue on specific cases and lawyers who bring the cases to Strasbourg. The new role of the Turkish Constitutional Court in taking petitions from individual citizens and its handing down a number of judgments that are favorable to journalists is an improvement. In a wider picture, taking into consideration the rulings of the Strasbourg court, it is the responsibility of the member state to ensure that these rulings are applied everywhere, not only in one particular case. So, Turkey is in violation of its obligations in all of those areas, particularly the abuse of the justice system, the anti-terrorism laws and the insult laws. Turkey is in very serious violation of the most fundamental safeguards to media freedom.

Are there any repercussions to expect as a result?

Well, Turkey’s political relations with Western Europe have been gravely damaged. Its ambition to join the European Union has been set back by this and other issues. Its overall relations with security partners, with the United States and the countries of Western Europe has suffered – that’s not good for the Turkish people and the Turkish government.

The EU, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Council of Europe are the guardians of human rights. To my mind the member states of those organizations have been too accepting, too passive and too quiet. It is essential that the political leaders who represent those institutions speak out when countries like Turkey oppose those commitments. There are now moves in the Council of Europe to take a more proactive stance on media freedom and safety of journalists. We have to see what they will do because their record so far has been poor.

‘The fact that 700 journalists are under criminal investigation completely intolerable in democracy’

Citing a “significant decline” in press freedom in Turkey, Freedom House downgraded Turkey from “Partly Free” to “Not Free” in its “Freedom of the Press 2014” report. Are there any surprises?

Most informed observers would think that the Freedom House’s decision was well-founded because Turkey has moved from this grey zone where the government kept saying it was trying to make reforms, but what we have seen until recently is that there are new ways to have journalists prosecuted. The fact that 700 journalists are now under criminal investigation which might lead to them being imprisoned is completely intolerable in a democracy. There is a little bit of light in that Turkey is releasing a number of pre-trial detainees. When you look at the sentences being imposed this is unacceptable. The other issue that pushes Turkey to “unfree” zone is the blatant political manipulation of the media owners who depend on a relationship with the government for their own profits. Prime Minister Erdoğan has acknowledged that he personally has made phone calls to TV companies and others to get news changed; it appears that same pressure has been applied to have staff dismissed. This has no place in a democracy. Arbitrary interference by politicians either in business or in the application of the law is completely out of order.

The Turkish government and its supporters in the media have been critical of the Freedom House’s report on the Turkish press.

Freedom House is acknowledged to be an authoritative assessor of issues of freedom by governments and NGOs. If you look at the output of the Freedom House, their findings are very much in line with other non-governmental organizations – like Reporters Without Borders and Human Rights Watch.

You are also preparing a report on media freedom in Europe. What would you tell us about its content?

It is a Europe-wide report on the state of media freedom in Europe and the safety of journalists for the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, so it will cover all 47 Member States. With respect to Turkey, this ongoing battle for Turkey’s respect for the rule of law is the central point. We heard from Füsun Erdoğan, who has been released from pre-trial detention, who alleged that evidence presented at the court about her by prosecution was fictitious, fabricated. Turkey has been found in violation of rules in judicial process so many times. The blatant attempt by the government to control the message both through the mainstream media and now through the social media and the internet is totally out of line. Turkey has made progress in many areas of democracy. The country has evolved from a kind of military-backed state into a new form. If the new form is going to be the one in which the elected government will misuse its power to interfere both with the judiciary and the free press, then the question is how much progress has happened.

‘Turkish political figures must control their language towards journalists’

Do you have any recommendations for Turkish journalists?

The obvious first response is to tell it like it is. This becomes very risky when so many people are under threat of either legal action or punishment by their employers. There are still mainstream publications in Turkey attempting to do that and they must be supported. There is a problem that is Turkey’s so-called ‘strategic relationship’ with some other countries. That means that many democracies are unwilling to confront the Turkish government directly over these rights issues. As a matter of fact, the British Foreign Office explained recently that they have freedom of expression as one of their high priorities and it is their policy that countries, including Turkey, which have a strategic relationship with the UK are being made aware that if these basic rights are being violated, that would have some impact on the relationship. It’s open to question what that means but that kind of statement is important. I am very impressed by the fact that there are brave journalists in Turkey, Russia and Ukraine striving to report events in their own countries truthfully under appalling pressure – not only economic pressure but violence and threats to their livelihood.

There is another aspect which is very disturbing to my association and others.

What is it?

The use of violent and aggressive language by senior political figures towards individual journalists, calling them “traitors” and other insults, such as the outburst by the Mayor of Ankara [MelihGökçek] during the Gezi Park protests last year. This is inflammatory and does great damage to the democratic fabric of the society and it intimidates journalists from asking questions. It is an absolute must that Turkish political figures must control their language and must refrain from abusing their position. In fact, they should be identified and punished. It goes back to the landmark legal case of murder of Hrant Dink — Turkey has a very bad distinction for failing to protect life of Hrant Dink and for failing to ensure a fair trial after his murder. Why? Because there is improper protection of law enforcement officials. This is the opposite of what Turkey should be doing. This is a case of impunity of officials who misuse their position. The result is injustice against journalists and others. Turkey must act and improve its record.

‘Politicians don’t set conditions in UK’

I recently watched an interesting segment on Turkish CNN in Cüneyt Özdemir’s show. They showed a piece of a live BBC TV show in which the host, Andrew Marr, told British Prime Minister David Cameron to “shut up” because they had no time left. Then CNN-Turk’s reporter in London said that this is quite normal in the UK. This is so unreal for Turkish people. How is it possible, would you explain?

I have not yet seen the details of what was said or how it came about. But it’s true; this is part of a lively open democracy that politicians don’t call the shots. If the BBC or another channel invites a politician, that politician is expected to accept the rules, they don’t set the conditions. It is one of the features of the British democracy that media is outspoken toward politicians. Saying “shut up” sounds quite strong, not polite, but it is probably an indication that the journalist felt confident enough, equal enough to the prime minister. What it displays that even a prime minister will be held to account so journalists can continue to ask tough questions even if that is uncomfortable. It is an aspect of British society.


William Horsley is an independent journalist and former BBC foreign correspondent who writes on international affairs, and is working on several policy initiatives to safeguard freedom of expression. Currently, he is the UK chairman and the media freedom representative of the Association of European Journalists, an independent professional network active in more than 20 European countries. He works closely with the Council of Europe’s programs in support of the European Convention on Human Rights. He is the International Director of the Centre for Freedom of the Media at the University of Sheffield and a Visiting Fellow at the Centre for Law, Justice and Journalism at City University London. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has just published the second, updated edition of his Safety of Journalists Guidebook, outlining the obligations of Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe governments regarding media freedom and journalists’ safety.

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