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October 21, 2012, Sunday

Another gloomy report

The detailed report on the state of freedom of the media and free speech in general in Turkey is in many aspects more depressing reading than the latest progress report by the EU.

Titled “Turkey's Press Freedom Crisis -- The Dark Days of Jailing Journalists and Criminalizing Dissent,” the report by Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) staff, the result of months of inquiries, reflects a gloomy picture for a country that is in the midst of democratic transition, in negotiations with the EU and very keen on being regarded as a primary source of inspiration in the wake of the Arab Awakening.

When I met the delegation from the CPJ early this summer, I pointed out the very core of the ongoing problems we in journalism and publishing have been facing, based on three major points:

First, the vastly spread intolerance; a culture deeply ingrained in the political class and in Parliament. In many cases, as I pointed out, both the government and the opposition (the Republican People's Party [CHP] and the Nationalist Movement Party [MHP], to be specific) have remained responsible for tightening the screws on free speech -- for example, by cooperating or even competing with each other to impose primitive bans and restrictions that exist in the Internet Law, the Turkish Penal Code (TCK), the Counterterrorism Law (TMK), etc.

At the moment, there is no opposition in Turkey with a pro-freedom agenda.

Second, I told the CPJ that the matter of “jailed journalists” is almost exclusively a case that concerns Kurdish journalists and publishers who to a high degree are also activists. I pleaded with the CPJ to look at the case in the context of the Kurdish conflict.

Third, I drew their attention to the greatest source of censorship and increasing self-censorship today; namely, the “unholy alliance” between the proprietors of big media groups and the powers in Ankara -- a deal that connects mutual greed in terms of money and propaganda. This, I argued, would continue to pollute the climate of good journalism, and even if the government resolved the issue of “jailed journalists” it would leave journalism under huge pressure.

In other words, I tried to make the point that when making a quantitative analysis (jail and legal probes), qualitative considerations are also necessary to identify the fundamental structural problems that will endure no matter which government comes to power. Turkey's media, vibrant, diverse, still bold, keen on struggling for its independence, will remain easy prey for those with money and political power.

The CPJ's report fairly but critically covers most of this, except the third aspect. But those who are interested in that part can see a comprehensive interview I did with Nina Ognianova of the CPJ on its website (

The report says that 76 journalists were imprisoned as of Aug. 1. “Sixty-one of these journalists were being held in direct relation to their published work or newsgathering activities. The evi­dence was less clear in the cases of the 15 other journal­ists being held,” it adds.

We also learn from the report that around three-quarters of those in jail are “Kurdish journalists charged with aiding terrorism by covering the views and activities of the banned Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, and the Union of Communities in Kurdistan, or KCK. Staff members for the Dicle News Agency and the Turkish-language newspaper Özgür Gündem in particular have been targeted, as have journalists with Azadiya Welat, Turkey's sole Kurdish-language daily.”

We are also reminded that “other penal code articles prohibit journalists from ‘breaching the confidentiality of an investigation' or ‘influencing a fair trial,' effectively criminalizing inde­pendent, in-depth coverage of police and court activities. Although these articles rarely lead to imprisonment, they serve to intimidate journalists into self-censorship.”

It is hard to disagree with the CPJ's findings. The dark shadow of power over the press is a bitter fact. Media owners completely ignore the duty of defense of freedom, and the unwillingness to amend the TMK makes it virtually impossible for those of us within the media to debate the lines between free speech and “glorification of violent acts and terrorism.” We feel helpless.

What the CPJ in a nutshell concludes is that Turkey, a key country in today's troubled world, is shooting itself in the foot, and I agree with it entirely.

“The government's efforts to subvert the media's watchdog function and suppress dissident views make it difficult for Turkey to achieve long-term strategic goals. The country's economic future remains linked to European integration, but its press freedom crisis is a key concern among European policymakers. European Union accession is unlikely unless the problems are corrected. … Turkey's close relationship with the United States -- built in part on Ankara's image as a regional model for democracy -- is also at risk,” it reads.

“How can we look at you as an inspiration when your government presses its fingers on your press?” a female Egyptian blogger asked me last weekend in Cairo.

She was spot on.

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