Free Speech on trial in Turkey
A destination popular with tourists for its beautiful beaches and mouth-watering kebabs, but sadly, Turkey is no stranger to the incarceration of their journalists. Taking the lead as the world’s leading jailer of journalists, Turkey surpasses Egypt and China when it comes to suppression of press freedom. The Gryphon explores the mistreatment of journalists in Turkey came to the fore when the country declared a state of emergency in 2016 after the failed putsch attempt.
On the 16th of February 2018, many people were relieved when Deniz Yucel, a Turkish-German reporter for Die Welt was finally released pending trial from Turkish prison. The release could have been influenced by widespread protests supporting the journalist throughout his incarceration. Yucel, among others, was put behind bars for alleged espionage without an indictment for a year. He was even held in solitary confinement for 150 days of his imprisonment. Allegedly accused of spreading propaganda for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) (which the Turkish government had labelled a terrorist organization) he denied all accusations and no indictment was made. He was also accused of instigating violence by supporting the US based-Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen movement, an accusation he also denied. Yucel’s arrest also resulted in an increase to diplomatic friction between Berlin and Ankara. Even before this incident, Turkey had criticized Germany for not surrendering asylum seekers who Turkey accuses of involvement in the failed putsch. However, the Turkish Prime Minister,Binali Yildrim, has recently expressed Turkey’s willingness to make amends with Germany.
During a conference in Berlin, Angela Merkel welcomed Yucel home but also remembered the remaining German journalists still held in Turkish custody. She expressed her hope for a “fast and fair judicial process”. German Justice Minister, Heiko, continued to reassure the public by stating that Berlin would do everything in its power to gain freedom for all the German nationals remaining in Turkish custody as quickly as possible. Yucel’s trial will still proceed as planned as his charges have not been dropped. It has also been reported that the Istanbul state prosecutor is demanding the incarceration of Yucel for up to 18 years.
An hour after the news of Yucel’s release, the exultation of the public was dialled down as news emerged regarding six Turkish journalists and media professionals being sentenced to “aggravated” life imprisonment. Since the failed putsch attempt the Turkish government has been very wary of any sort of association with the failed endeavour. This includes the Gulen movement who Turkish President, Erdogan, accuses as the culprit behind the failed coup despite Gulen’s rejection of any involvement. The six journalists had received life sentences based on the charge that they were notified beforehand about the coup attempt and were involved with the event. They have rejected all the accusations. The Turkish court is accusing both Ahmet Altan and Mehmet Altan of prior knowledge of the coup attempt due to comments they made on a political debate show on a Gulen-linked television channel. Ervin Cinmen, Mehmet Altan’s lawyer, reassured that they would be proceeding with an appeal to the verdict.
The Turkish government crackdown on Gulen’s organization has resulted in more than 38,000 people, including journalists, being put behind bars. To date, five German and more than 100 Turkish journalists remain incarcerated by the Turkish government. In other words, since the coup attempt and the state of emergency declaration, the freedom of press has deteriorated and faces continuous questions. Cem Ozdemir, a German Green Party MP, is certain that Yucel’s release does not signify that Turkey will be changing its attitude.
“Most of the journalists arrested are being charged under the anti-terror laws, which have repeatedly been used as grounds to suppress the media”
Even before the coup, the government’s relationship with the media was fractious. In November 2015, Can Dundar and Erdem Gul, Turkish journalists for Cumhuriyet were taken into custody after publishing a video which demonstrated the Turkish military secretly moving arms across the Syrian border. Both were released after 92 days in prison on the basis that it was an “undue deprivation of liberty”. This provoked the wrath of President Erdogan as he repudiated the constitutional court’s decision of releasing Dundar and Gul.
On one hand, Paragraph X of the Turkish constitution strictly delineates the freedom of the press by reinforcing that the press is to remain free and uncensored. “The state shall take measures to ensure freedom of the press and information,” it further dictates. However, it goes on to say that it prohibits any writings that threaten “the internal or external security of the state” or the “indivisible unity of state territory and people,” or that “encourage criminal activity or have to do with confidential state information.” Most of the journalists arrested are being charged under the anti-terror laws, which have repeatedly been used as grounds to suppress the media.
The aftermath of the failed coup attempt resulted in a purge of state administration, army, economic and media sectors, as reported by the European Parliament last May 2017. The purges have been criticised by the Council of Europe. As a signatory to the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR), Turkey was deemed to have violated Art 10 of the ECHR, which commits it to the right to freedom of expression and information. However, the state of emergency has allowed Turkey to opt out of these conventions. Mehmet Simek, deputy prime minister, was quick to reassure the public last year that the state of emergency in Turkey would not include restrictions on movement, gatherings and free press but this has proved doubtful as journalists, such as Yucel, were imprisoned as soon as the crackdown commenced.
While the state of emergency aims to restore democracy and to uphold the rule of law in Turkey, it is not surprising to see it has taken a toll on Turkey’s accession to the European Union. The post-coup crackdown and incarceration of journalists have led to questions over whether Turkey should really be considered now even if it can prove it has a stable economy and other necessary criteria.
Silencing journalists, instilling fear and undermining the freedom of press and the media could lead to an impasse of journalists in Turkey. The imprisonment of journalists in the aim of achieving ‘obedient media’ is not only a punishment for those arrested, but also serves as a sinister deterrent for anyone who wishes to criticize the government.