Turkish journalists: In prison or in exile

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President Erdogan supporters unfolding the national flag of Turkey during after coup demonstrations at Taksim square. Istanbul, Turkey, Eastern Europe and Western Asia. 20 July,2016.jpg“Every morning, my father would write his article, get dressed, and go to court [because he had been summoned]. And nobody found his daily visits surprising. I thought that all fathers stopped by the court before they went to work.” These words belong to Ahmet Altan, a prominent Turkish journalist and writer, who shares his impressions about his father, Chetin Altan, one of the pioneers in Turkish journalism. In an article, Ahmet Altan describes his father’s arrest after the military coup in Turkey on 12 March 1971, summarizing the situation in the following way: “They [the coup plotters] put him in jail because he was writing articles.”
Today Ahmet Altan is in prison himself because he writes articles those in power do not like. His brother, Mehmed Altan, a professor of economics and a columnist in various media, is also behind bars. The two were arrested after the attempted coup on 15 July 2016 and charged with terrorism because on the day before the coup attempt they had participated in a TV show and had unconsciously stirred the viewers toward a coup.
The Turkish ruling elite, for their part, claim that there is not a single journalist in prison across the country. In a statement from a few weeks ago, obviously referring to the EU institutions, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that he had received a list with the names of 149 imprisoned journalists. “We tell them to give us the list with the journalists in prison. I looked at [the list], they are all thieves, pedophiles, terrorists,” Erdogan said.
Neutralizing the media
According to the Turkish government, the media are currently as dangerous as terrorism. Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmuş recently drew this parallel, criticizing the media harshly for their poisonous language. It is probably for this reason that President Erdogan and his regime have transformed Turkey into the biggest open prison for journalists in the world.
Analysts agree that the Turkish media are under strict control. Approximately 95% of the media are controlled, directly or indirectly, by the president’s family or businessmen close to them. Pro-government propaganda is everywhere and the main newspapers often publish almost the same leading stories. The media are swinging from one extreme to the other. The crisis surrounding Turkey’s downing of a Russian military jet is a case in point: Russian President Vladimir Putin was initially demonized, but later emerged as Turkey’s good partner after Erdogan warmed up to Russia. Turkey’s relations with Europe, and especially with Germany and the Netherlands, constitute another telling example: Turkish media used to view German Chancellor Angela Merkel as the European leader who understands Turkey but she is now described as “a Nazi remnant” and “the female Hitler”.
The remaining 5% are smaller opposition media, mostly on the left of the political spectrum. Even though they have a more critical stance toward the government, they are forced to use a markedly propagandistic language and stay within the red lines drawn by Erdogan. Thus, the journalists working for these media find themselves pressed to accept a compromise in relation to the government’s propaganda and their role as watchdogs.
In Erdogan’s words, Turkey is the freest country in the world when it comes to freedom of expression. This opinion, however, does not correspond to the assessments of international organizations. Amnesty International has called on the Turkish government to end the oppression of the media and to release the detained journalists. On 20 March this year, during the 34th special session of the United Nations’ Human Rights Council in Geneva, more than 70 organizations, including the Association of European Journalists, Reporters Without Borders, and Human Rights Watch, delivered a joint statement on the deterioration of freedom of expression and media freedom in Turkey.  The organizations called on the international community to demand that the Turkish authorities remove the restrictions on freedom of expression. They also pointed out that restrictions on media freedom have reached new heights in the lead up to the referendum on 16 April.
Turkey ranks 151st out of 180 countries in the Reporters Without Borders’ 2016 World Press Freedom Index.  Turkish journalism, however, has faced even greater challenges since the report was published in June last year. The pressure on the media increased overnight after the attempted coup in July, which Erdogan described as “a gift from God”. The arrests of journalists are politically motivated, as suggested by Prime Minister Binali Yildirim himself who in August 2016 said, “We are arresting them, and they will prove that they are innocent.”
A lawsuit against 29 journalists began on 27 March this year. On 31 March, the court decided to release 21 of the journalists. “I leave a closed [prison] and move to an open prison,” columnist and pop singer Atilla Taş said while waiting for the ruling to enter into force. But even this did not happen. Following massive pressure in social media from trolls close to the government, the court revised its ruling: “The journalists remain in prison!”
As of 1 April 2017, the Stockholm Center for Freedom (SCF) has documented that 228 journalists and media workers are in prison in Turkey – a new world record.  While they differ in their political views, the detained journalists share a critical stance against Erdogan’s regime. Some 189 media, among them newspapers, magazines, radio and TV stations, information agencies, and websites, have been shut down since the beginning of 2016 – all of them critical of Erdogan’s regime. After the failed coup in July last year, those journalists who were lucky enough not to end up behind bars faced a dilemma between losing one’s job and being described as a terrorist or a traitor. More than 30% of all journalists in Turkey lost their jobs and had to start low-qualified jobs so that they could make a living. Some of them are deprived of any form of social protection. The authorities have seized the assets of some of the detained journalists and those who managed to flee the country.
The Turkish authorities have issued arrest warrants against 92 journalists. In addition, according to a report by the Journalists Association of Turkey, the Turkish authorities have opened investigations against 839 journalists. As of 26 January, around 10,000 people were being investigated for social media posts. The journalists detained after the attempted coup are still without sentences, and many are even without indictments. According to official data, there were 29 imprisoned journalists in Turkey before the attempted coup but their number has since increased by almost 800%. Almost all of these journalists have been detained on charges such as “membership in a terrorist organization”, “terrorist propaganda”, “an attempt to bring down the government”, and “espionage”.
The inhuman conditions in Turkish prisons
A SCF report offers Turkish journalists’ accounts of inhuman conditions in the prisons and torture. During arrests, journalists are usually handcuffed while the pro-government media are on the spot to cover the detention of “the public terrorists”.
Due to the overload in prisons, the detained journalists are kept in overcrowded cells. Visits are cancelled or limited to one’s closest relatives and friends. In addition, the journalists have limited access to their lawyers, and their meetings are usually being filmed and take place in the presence of prison guards. The journalists are not allowed to use computers, have only limited access to books, and cannot send and receive letters from family members. Their predicament is even worse due to the inaccessible healthcare in prisons. Those suffering the most include older journalists and journalists with chronic diseases.
Life in exile
Another serious problem for freedom of expression in Turkey concerns the 92 journalists with arrest warrants issued against them. Some of them left the country already before the attempted coup, while others have undertaken risky illegal journeys in search of safety abroad and many are now missing. The safety of the Turkish journalists living abroad is under threat. Those living in countries with considerable Turkish diasporas claim that they have received serious threats and that the Turkish intelligence agencies are spying on them. They are also being targeted by the pro-government media.
Among these journalists is Can Dündar, the former editor-in-chief of the opposition newspaper Cumhuriyet who lives in exile while his wife remains in Turkey because her passport has been annulled. Dündar has received direct threats, including one from President Erdogan, who promised him that he would “pay a heavy price”. Ekrem Dumanlı, the former editor-in-chief of the newspaper Zaman, is in a similar situation, exposed to attacks and receiving threats through social media.
Another form of harassment consists of taking journalists’ relatives as hostages. Instead of detaining journalist Bulent Korucu, the police arrested his wife Hacer without a court decision . As of this writing, Hacer remains in prison. Another example concerns Bülent Keneş, the former editor-in-chief of the newspaper Today’s Zaman. To pressure him to surrender, the police arrested his brother Levent Keneş, who has been teaching physics for 20 years.  The journalists who are forced to leave Turkey say that in addition to the risks to their personal safety, they struggle with material hardships and face bureaucratic barriers to being recognized as asylum seekers in the countries they reside.
Author: Tayfur Huseyin (AEJ-Bulgaria)
*This text is part of AEJ-Bulgaria’s project “Mediator 2: A Bridge Between Ethical Journalism and the Society”, supported by the America for Bulgaria Foundation.
Picture: Mstyslav Chernov/CC BY-SA 4.0