Friday, May 24, 2024

Press Freedom is in Peril in Turkey

Freedom of the press is a catalyst of all fundamental human rights, thriving democracies, and inclusive societies. 2022-2023 marked a year where global citizens are standing at a crossroads to defend press freedom better and rebuild trust for independent, accountable journalism. There is a strong correlation between the rise of authoritarian regimes across the globe and the decline of press freedom. Journalists and press members are on the frontline facing systemic, state-led human rights violations. Pluralism in media is a vital pillar of democracy yet is perceived as a threat to one-person regimes. Silencing media outlets and journalists through politicized judiciaries, legal battles, online harassment, and physical attacks is a primary sign of authoritarianism, precisely the status quo of media in Turkey.  

Media and press freedom in Turkey is an empty promise in peril, particularly since the last decade. Global Peace Index 2023 lists Turkey at 147th place out of 163 countries with a high level of political terror and instability, predominantly facilitated by controlling the public discourse through state-sponsored media outlets and oppression of journalists with critical views of Erdogan’s autocracy. With authoritarian trends gaining dominance in Turkey, Reporters Without Borders places it on the 165/180 ranking and notes that 90 percent of the national media is now under government control. The spiral of violence, legal attacks, and discriminatory practices against journalists is at its peak to create a public arena for the anti-freedom, religious, polarizing discourse to flourish. Moreover, Committee to Protect Journalists reporting underlines that Turkey is the fourth worst offender, with the increasing number of imprisoned journalists coming after Iran, China, and Myanmar. The number of journalists behind bars is also on the rise in parallel lines as arbitrary detentions and unlawful deprival of freedom for media members are now turned into routine procedures in Erdogan’s Turkey. 

Many other human rights indexes put Turkey at the very end of their listing as all fundamental human rights are interdependent, and sliding back from democracy hinders freedoms resulting in extremely polarized states. In today’s Turkey, there are no gray areas left; one is either a supporter of Erdogan’s regime or a national security threat, traitor and thus inevitable defamation, labeling of being a “terrorist” follows. 

There is no globally agreed definition of terrorism. This disturbing international human rights law gap enables anti-democratic governments to easily manipulate judiciaries and pass ambiguous constitutional amendments to subjugate human rights defenders, civil society members, and journalists. Over the last decade, as the erosion of press freedom increases, journalists continue to be at risk of being targets of abused anti-terrorism measures. According to the latest Media and Law Studies Association’s (MLSA) report, terrorism-related offenses compose the most frequent accusation that puts media members behind bars in Turkey. Making propaganda for terrorism and alleged membership in a terrorist organization comprises 93 percent of such charges documented by the MLSA.  

It is not only media professionals under severe attack. In October 2022, a notorious bill was passed in the Turkish parliament with the alleged state mission of combatting fake news and disinformation, which have been further shrinking the space of journalists and citizens with critical views. The censorship legislation composed of 40 articles pushed Turkey from the edge of freedom of speech and opinion. The spillover of misuse of countering terrorism state practices and laws poses various impediments for citizen journalists and civil society members. Dozens of social media account holders who criticized delayed and ineffective state assistance in Turkey’s horrendous February 6th earthquakes were issued legal cases against them with the alleged crime of inducing hatred in society. Internet bandwidth restrictions for social media platforms further throttled the free flow of information in the midst of a historical earthquake that impacted ten cities with over 15 million population. Various prominent press freedom institutions, including CPJ, reported on escalating violence against journalists at the earthquake sites, closely monitoring and covering the state’s failed response in the aftermath of 7.8 magnitude earthquakes.

 With the crackdown on all civil, political, and economic rights, citizens being discriminated against on the grounds of their ethnicity, religion, or gender, and the rule of law being washed away as the judiciary is running under government intervention, Turkey ended up being an electoral authoritarian state. Yes, there were multiparty elections, and citizens could cast their votes, despite occasional violence and the intentional absence of police intervention in these incidents. However, with media under the government’s radar, elections were not fair in Turkey and will never be until the hands of political authorities are removed from the media outlets. The International Election Observation Mission of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) closely monitored the recent elections, whose results further perpetuated authoritarianism in Turkey. OSCE’s reporting clearly underlined the biased media coverage that hindered the public visibly of opposition alliances while unjustly favoring the current government discourse. 

OSCE’s Statement of Preliminary Findings and Conclusions indicates: “Journalists, particularly in south-easter Türkiye, have frequently faced terrorism charges based on their reporting, including during the electoral period. TRT-1 [Turkish Radio and Television Association] and TRT Haber newscasts showed a clear bias towards the People’s Alliance and Mr. Erdoğan, who received a combined total of 44 and 45 percent of politically relevant coverage, mainly positive in tone. In contrast, the Nation Alliance and Mr. Kılıçdaroğlu received a combined total of 28 and 25 percent, while Labour and Freedom Alliance received 7 and 5 percent of newscast coverage, all mainly negative in tone.” 

There is almost no day in Turkey where a journalist is not facing various forms of physical, online, legal, or phycological threats. Sinan Aygül, the Editor-in-Chief of Bitlis News, was severely attacked on June 20th by individuals who got out of a municipal vehicle and harassed him while threatening Aygül not to criticize Bitlis` Mayor, an AKP (Justice and Development Party)-run city. Editor-in-Chief of TELE1, Merdan Yanardağ, a critical broadcaster, was detained on June 28th, right after he was off of livestream by police officers as accused of terrorism propaganda. Turkey misuses domestic counter-terrorism laws and ignores European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) judgments. Hidayet Karaca is one of the hundreds of journalists who were deprived of their liberty while doing journalism since December 2014. The recent pro-long decision released by ECHR on June 20th indicates a “lack of sufficient guarantees that the continuation of his pre-trial detention had been decided by an “independent and impartial tribunal” and requests the State Party of Turkey to pay a compensation of EUR 18,000 for “owing to the excessive length of the applicant’s pre-trial detention.”  

Free flow of information and pluralistic media is a primary requirement for sustainable positive peace. The latest May elections in Turkey were, in fact, the last call for a return to universal norms and upholding the rule of law. As Turkey fades away from advancing democracy and promoting fundamental human rights for all, press freedom will inevitably continue to shrink as media members and citizen journalists are under state oppression whose mission is to mute Turkey into silence.  


Author profile
Cemre Ulker

Cemre Ulker is the UN Representative of the Journalists and Writers Foundation, an international civil society organization affiliated with the UN Department of Global Communications. Ms. Ulker leads JWF`s global initiatives to promote the culture of peace, human rights, and sustainable development. She is a human rights expert focusing on civil, and political rights and dedicated to the gender-sensitive implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals with a particular focus on peaceful, just institutions, and global partnerships. Ms. Ulker is also a faculty member at the UNITAR Global Diplomacy Initiative. She has her master’s degree in Human Rights from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.


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