Turkey needs judicial overhaul to boost press freedom

Major obstacles obstruct freedom of the press in Turkey; thus, there is an urgent »»

Major obstacles obstruct freedom of the press in Turkey; thus, there is an urgent need to amend laws to allow journalists to perform their jobs freely; however, the freedom of the press issue should not be used as a pretext to impede Turkey’s efforts to confront its shadowy past and coup attempts, prominent Turkish journalists have said.

A report released last week by the Washington-based Freedom House showed that Turkey ranked 112th with 54 points among the 196 countries with regard to a free press. Turkey is in the category of countries that have “partly free” media. Released on May 2 as part of the UNESCO World Press Freedom Day celebration in Washington, the report put Turkey’s never-ending debates on freedom of the press back on the agenda.

The arrest of several journalists including Soner Yalçın, Ahmet Şık and Nedim Şener in early 2011 as part of a probe into Ergenekon, a shadowy crime network that has alleged links within the state and is suspected of plotting to topple the government, has already led to numerous debates, with some claiming the legal action taken against these journalists violates freedom of the press and aims to silence government opponents. The journalists are accused of being members of Ergenekon.

At the same time, there are dozens of journalists who have been jailed or face criminal charges due to their coverage of Ergenekon and coup plans. The beginning of the Ergenekon trial triggered an escalation in the number of cases filed against journalists in Turkey.

Journalist Alper Görmüş admits there are serious problems regarding freedom of the press in Turkey; however, the general outlook is not as dark as it seems to the West, which fails to notice some nuances as it observes developments in Turkey.

He cited the Counterterrorism Law (TMK) and two articles of the Turkish Penal Code (TCK), Articles 216 and 301, as the major obstacles to freedom of the press, noting that more than 50 journalists, most of whom are not well known by the public, are under arrest due to the TMK. “If the courts find links between these journalists and terrorist activities, then it is OK, but their imprisonment over their articles and journalistic activities is unacceptable,” he said.

In November of last year, the Ministry of Justice said 4,139 investigations were opened against journalists that year. Today, this number stands at more than 5,000. The newspapers most affected are the Zaman, Taraf, Bugün, Yeni Şafak, Star and Vakit dailies, which have faced over 3,500 investigations thus far. Of these investigations, indictments have been accepted for 2,000, and their trials have begun. The news editors of these dailies say the judiciary is trying to silence journalists writing for them.

Görmüş also pointed out a change of attitude among the administrators of Turkey’s Press Council; its former president, Oktay Ekşi, used to claim journalists, mostly Kurds, jailed under the TMK could not be granted freedom of the press because they were “terrorists.” Görmüş said these people have changed their views in the wake of the arrests of some journalists as part of the Ergenekon operation and have begun to talk about the importance of freedom of the press.

 “This is a pragmatic approach,” Görmüş said, adding that the West fails to notice these things from outside. “There are serious problems with freedom of the press in Turkey, but I do not find efforts to draw a dark picture to impede efforts by Turkey to confront its shadowy past sincere,” he added.

Taraf daily’s Mehmet Baransu, who exposed many shadowy plans prepared by Turkey’s General Staff, is perhaps the journalist who faces criminal complaints most frequently for his coverage of Ergenekon and coup plans; he is charged with violating the principle of confidentiality of an ongoing judicial process.

“I do not even remember the number of cases filed against me,” Baransu told Sunday’s Zaman when he was asked about the number of cases he faces, which he blamed on the TMK.

He said the amendment of this law in 2006 due to pressure from the Turkish military, main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the mainstream media on the grounds that the law was impeding the Turkish military’s efforts to fight against terrorism paved the way for trying journalists on terrorism charges today. He said the law was amended to place Kurdish journalists and intellectuals under arrest; however, today it is the same circles who are complaining about cases against some journalists due to their suspected links to Ergenekon.

“They were shot with their own gun,” he said.

An article in the TMK stipulates that a person who promotes a terrorist organization must be punished with a sentence ranging from one to five years in prison. If the crime is committed by means of the press, then the sentence is increased by half.

Salih Memecan, president of the Media Association, which was established last year to help strengthen democracy in Turkey by improving the quality of the media, acknowledged that Turkey deserves to rank 112th in Freedom House’s press freedom report when the number of cases filed against journalists are taken into account.

To ensure that journalists perform their jobs freely, Memecan called on the government to take all the necessary measures and make the necessary amendments to prevent cases against journalists. He said Turkey should adopt international standards in its judiciary so that journalists will not face cases due to their journalistic activities.

Nevertheless, he noted that freedom of the press does not enable a journalist to be involved in coup plans or be manipulated or used by coup plotters.

“Coups deal the biggest harm to freedom of the press. Journalists are censored and face torture,” Memecan said, adding that freedom of the press should not be used as a pretext to prevent confrontation of coup attempts in Turkey.