The Turkish Republic has a long history of silencing its media. Since its inception, the journalists who have reported on the affairs of the nation have been targeted, jailed, threatened, fired, or injured because of their public critique of the government. Currently, Turkey is ranked “151st out of 180 countries surveyed for freedom of the media, below Russia and Myanmar/Burma,” which is astounding considering Turkey’s historical reputation as a free nation in a violent area (Reporters Without Borders). In fact, Turkey has been officially classified as “not-free” by the organization Freedom House every year since 2016. Its Freedom House sanctioned “Freedom Score” has dropped by 20 points since 2010 (Freedom House).
Much of what has caused Turkey’s reputation to be tarnished is the fault of the Justice and Development Party (English for Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi, or AKP). The AKP has controlled the Turkish government since 2002, when it gained the majority of legislative seats for the first time. Though it once encouraged freedom of expression and enhancing the legal protection of the social, cultural, and political rights of Turks, since 2011 the AKP has shown “an increasing intolerance of dissent, opposition, and critical media” (Human Rights Watch).
It is impossible to understand the government-mandated censorship in Turkey without considering the AKP’s relationship with the Gulen Movement. The politician Fethullah Gulen was once an important ally of the AKP. However, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (the leader of the party) has accused Gulen and his followers “of plotting against him and seeking to overthrow the government.” Most notably, President Erdogan has blamed Gulen for an unsuccessful 2016 coup attempt. Afterward, Erdogan and his government called for the arrest of thousands of policemen, women, lawyers, and judges who they suspected of supporting Gulen. Additionally, the government has taken considerable action to censor reporters with any relationship to the Gulen Movement.
By December ninth of that year, “149 journalists and media workers were in jail” (Human Rights Watch). But what is so abhorrent about this mass incarceration is that 131 of the 149 members of the press are simply being held in pretrial detention and are still awaiting trial. The government is purposefully taking advantage of the slow justice system to restrict their access to the public, regardless of whether the arrests were warranted. Such an abuse of the system is extremely effective.
To further—and permanently—silence the journalists, the Turkish government has developed a pattern of using the infamous Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code. This act criminalizes the “denigration of the Turkish nation” (Article 301, Turkish Penal Code). Erdogan and his government often use the code’s vague wording as justification for many arrests and suspensions. For example, Arzu Demir, an author and journalist who writes for the openly pro-Kurdish news agencies ANF and ETHA, is currently being held on baseless charges of spreading propaganda to a terrorist organization, a crime that the Turkish government often uses to libel the media. Demir told Human Rights Watch that she has “worked as a journalist for almost 20 years, and…can barely even do journalism anymore because of regular summonses. All [she does] lately is to give [her] statements at the prosecutor’s office or in court” (Human Rights Watch).
Not only are the reporters being oppressed by political actions and loopholes, they are being physically threatened and attacked. The newspaper Hurriyet, for example, faced a horrendous smear campaign in September of 2015 after President Erdogan accused the paper of misinterpreting and distorting a comment. Many of Erdogan’s followers called AKP supporters to action, and encouraged them to protest violently in front of the Hurriyet headquarters (Hürriyet Daily News, “Details of attack on Hürriyet in 11 points”).
Just hours after these outbursts on social media, “a crowd of around 200 people that included AKP parliament member and head of the AK Party’s Youth Branch Abdurrahim Boynukalin, attacked [Hurriyet’s] headquarters in Istanbul.” These protesters broke windows and assaulted security personnel in an effort to get into the building. They then trashed the office spaces and threw stones at glass entrances.
Unsurprisingly, the government offered no comment, help, or apology during this incident. In fact, the Istanbul chief prosecutor’s first course of action was to investigate the Hurriyet itself for “insulting President Erdogan.” The president made more inflammatory comments two days later, which sparked another violent protest. The conditions were so concerning that they warranted a visit from Donald Tusk, the EU Council President.
Not only did this cause trauma and injury to the employees of Hurriyet, it also discouraged other news outlets from expressing criticism of the government. In fact, it caused the Dogan Media Group, an influential TV broadcaster, to stop running any news coverage critical of the government (Human Rights Watch). The fact that the government managed to intimidate such an important news outlet into silence through encouraging violence is extremely disconcerting.
The issue of freedom of the press (or rather, lack thereof) within Turkey is incredibly important to the nation’s citizens. The media holds a special position in a democracy in that it is the only way for the people to receive information about their government that does not come directly from the government itself. When this right is stripped from these citizens, the nation is no longer free. When I asked a close family friend who is a journalist in Turkey about the situation for reporters, she said that “self-censorship is the result of (and much worse than) [government] censorship. This is what we journalists in Turkey experience. And we are so used to this that if tomorrow Turkey [were to] change suddenly, and [the government were to] say ‘you can write freely’ I guess I wouldn’t be able to. I kind of forgot how.” The writers and reporters in Turkey have all but lost their voices from all the pressure they face. We can encourage them to regain their voices by taking to social media and offering our support for their writing. We can suggest or even provide legal aid by way of the EU or United Nations. As people who live outside of Turkey, we have the opportunity to access information and reporting that many Turks do not have. Thus, it is important that we take advantage of this privilege and make sure that when we do read news about Turkey, it is coming from unbiased sources. In a world inundated by “alternative facts,” it is all the more important that we access to the truth. The government is silencing Turkish reporters in an effort to protect themselves from the public’s scrutiny. By doing so, they are violating the human rights of both its citizens and the reporters themselves. For all these reasons and more, it is crucial that as fellow citizens of this world, we take action.
1. “Details of attack on Hürriyet in 11 points – CRIME.” Hürriyet Daily News | LEADING NEWS SOURCE FOR TURKEY AND THE REGION, www.hurriyetdailynews.com/details-of-attack-on-hurriyet-in-11points.aspx?pageID=238&nID=88136& NewsCatID=509. Accessed 7 Mar. 2017.
2. “Turkey: Silencing the Media.” Human Rights Watch, Human Rights Watch, 15 Dec. 2016, www.hrw.org/news/2016/12/15/turkey-silencing-media. Accessed 7 Mar. 2017
3. “Turkey.” Freedom House, freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-press/2016/turkey. Accessed 7 Mar. 2017
4. “Turkey : Erdogan against the media | Reporters without borders.” RSF, rsf.org/en/turkey. Accessed 7 Mar. 2017.
5. Turkish journalists protest by the Syrian Embassy in Ankara on August 31, to demand the release of two Turkish reporters. Digital image. CNN. CNN, 23 May 2013. Web. 7 Mar. 2017. <http://www.cnn.com/2013/05/23/world/meast/turkey-blasphemy-sentence/>.
6. Hürriyet’s editor-in-chief Sedat Ergin. Digital image. Hurriyet Daily News. Hurriyet, n.d. Web. 7 Mar. 2017. <http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/details-of-attack-on-hurriyet-in-11-points.aspx?pageID=238&nID=88136&NewsCatID=509>
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