A report by the Committee to Protect Journalists released this month has called attention to the plight of journalists and the erosion of freedom of speech in Turkey, specifically relating to Kurdish political issues.
The Turkish government has classified those who are seen as reporting "favorably" on Kurdish politics or guerrilla groups like the Kurdish Workers Party (known as PKK), as terrorists and has imprisoned 76 reporters and editors as of August, according to the report. "Imprisonments surpass the next most repressive nations, including Iran, Eritrea, and China," says CPJ.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, once seen as a the great hope for Turkey's western-style democratic reforms, is behind the persecution, and in addition to imprisonments, has allegedly been the source of intimidation resulting in self-censorship and media companies firing journalists for criticisms of his regime.
"Erdoğan has led this anti-press campaign, personally filing several defamation lawsuits against journalists, while he and his government have pressured news organizations to rein in critical staffers," says the CPJ report. "These actions have sown widespread self-censorship as news outlets and their journalists, fearful of financial, professional, or legal reprisals, shy from sensitive topics such as the Kurdish issue and the crackdown on free expression itself."
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Journalists have been held for months, and in some cases even years, for writing critical of the government's handling of ethnic Kurds in Turkey. But it's a curious shift from Erdoğan's previous stance.
Erdoğan himself served four months in prison in 1998 for reciting a politically incendiary poem under the previous regime. And as late as 2009, the Prime Minister was lauded for easing restrictions on Kurdish media organizations, even allowing Kurdish language to be used in broadcasts and political campaigns, according to an article by the New York Times about Erdoğan's reforms.
Now, in a swift 180 degree turn, journalists are being targeted for nearly any reporting that could be considered pro-Kurdish or critical of the government's policies on Kurds. Charges have included “committing a crime on behalf of an organization,” “aiding and abetting an organization knowingly and willingly,” and “making propaganda for an organization and its objectives,” according to the CPJ report.
Throughout the Kurdish prosecutions, CPJ found that the government conflated reporting favorable to the PKK or other outlawed Kurdish groups with actual assistance to such organizations. Basic newsgathering activities— receiving tips, assigning stories, conducting interviews, relaying information to colleagues—were depicted by prosecutors as engaging in a terrorist enterprise.
Yavuz Baydar, ombudsman for the Turkish newspaper Sabah and columnist for Today's Zaman, chalks this change up to the Prime Minister's character itself undergoing a shift and his seeing his favorability increase overall.
"Mr. Erdoğan has become increasingly tense, uneasy, defensive, and downright furious with dissent and criticism by the media and many columnists, also reporters," wrote Baydar in a Q&A with CPJ in anticipation of the release of this month's report. "He has become louder, and gone into an 'angry teacher' mode, mocking the 'pupils' and telling them how to report or comment. This has led, he discovered, to his increased popularity in a country where the media have always ranked low due to past sins."
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Baydar said in his exchange with CPJ's Nina Ognianova that the government crackdown mostly falls upon Kurds and the Kurdish media and a report on the state of Turkey's human rights by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) echoes this. Thousands of cases of detentions of pro-Kurdish journalists and students have come before the ECHR relating to freedom of expression in Turkey over the past years. Some have resulted in favorable rulings for the journalists.
"This situation has a chilling effect on journalism and journalists in Turkey," said Thorbjorn Jagland, secretary-general of the Council of Europe, in a 2011 Time magazine article about two reporters charged with attempting to overthrow the government.
Reporters Without Borders has consistently listed Turkey as a problem country on its annual Press Freedom Index, this year saying Turkey was "back to old habits" and ranking it 148th in the world, 10 places lower than the previous year.
"The unprecedented extension of the range of arrests, the massive phone taps and the contempt shown for the confidentiality of journalists’ sources have helped to reintroduce a climate of intimidation in the media," said the 2012 Press Freedom Index.
Meanwhile, the government maintains that it's priority is still upholding democractic princples and that it is achieving that goal.
“We firmly believe that guaranteeing fundamental freedoms is vital for our democracy,” said Namık Tan the Turkish ambassador to the United States, in a June 2012 letter to CPJ. “This is even more important now as Turkey is setting a significant example for many other countries in our region.”