Jailed journalists write for freedom in Turkey

Dozens of Turkish journalists writing for the Tutuklu Gazete newspaper have very personal reasons to be concerned about media freedom in their EU-candidate country. They are all in jail.

From prison cells across Turkey, they contributed articles to a special edition protesting against restrictions on freedom of expression, which have drawn criticism from the United States and Europe.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton voiced concern about the issue on a visit to Istanbul this month, saying it was not in Turkey’s interest to be “cracking down”.

A report by the Council of Europe, an intergovernmental pan-European human rights body, has called for urgent measures to address a “particularly worrying” situation for media freedom.

Writing from jail in the south-eastern city of Diyarbakir, Kurdish newspaper editor Vedat Kursun says it is particularly tough for journalists who write about a 27-year-old Kurdish separatist insurgency in which more 40,000 people have died.

“Journalists in this country have been put in a situation where they virtually can’t practice their profession. They always feel the cold breath of the authorities on their neck,” he wrote in Tutuklu Gazete, published as a free supplement in leftist Turkish newspapers on Sunday.

Kursun was sentenced to 166 years in jail for membership of the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), viewed by the U.S. and EU as a terrorist group. He, like other journalists, says he was only convicted for articles in his newspaper.

Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan rejects such an argument, saying journalists are not in jail because of what they wrote. They are generally prosecuted under widely implemented laws against membership of terrorist groups or spreading their propaganda.

Since coming to power in 2002, Erdogan’s government has earned praised internationally for political reforms aimed at bringing Turkey in line with European Union political norms, and for liberalising an economy that now ranks among the fastest-growing in the world.

However, the ruling AK Party, which polled 50 percent of the vote to win a third term in power in parliamentary elections in June, also faces accusations of trying to tame the media and smother opposition to its power.

Turkey has fallen to 138th out of 178 countries reviewed for the World Press Freedom Index by Reporters without Borders, a media freedom pressure group, from 101st in 2007 due to the proliferation of lawsuits.

OTTOMAN ABOLITION OF CENSORSHIP

Tutuklu Gazete’s publication date of July 24 was symbolic. It marked the anniversary of the official abolition of censorship in the Ottoman Empire under Sultan Abdul Hamid II at the time of the Young Turks revolution in 1908.

“Resistance to Censorship,” the newspaper proclaimed in a front-page headline above a picture of people protesting against media restrictions at a demonstration attended by thousands in Istanbul earlier this year.

The Turkish Journalists Union (TGS), which organised the project, says the paper is part of a year-old campaign to secure the release of 70 jailed journalists and prompt changes in the anti-terrorism laws.

“If journalists are prosecuted on charges of being terrorists due to their professional activities, it means there must be a mistake in those laws and they must be changed,”  says TGS Chairman Ercan Ipekci.

“We hope public opinion will be influenced by these articles and that this wave of public opinion will hit parliament and that it will make the necessary changes in the laws,” he said.

The organisers wrote to all the jailed journalists about the project and published articles from 39 of them. For now, there are no plans for further editions of the paper.

COUP PLOT ALLEGATIONS

While charges of links to the PKK predominate in the prosecution of reporters, some of the journalists in jail are among hundreds of people detained over a series of alleged coup plots against Erdogan’s government.

Among them is the Kanalturk television channel founder Tuncay Ozkan, who has been in jail since September 2008 charged with seeking to overthrow the government in a trial which is still continuing. He says his opposition to the ruling AK Party is the reason for his prosecution.

“I was jailed for conducting my profession without compromise, for exercising my right to freedom of thought and dissidence,” Ozkan said in an article written from Silivri prison, near Istanbul in northwest Turkey.

TGS says journalists are the subjects of some 4,000 investigations. Many of those are for articles about the alleged anti-government plots of the shadowy “Ergenekon” network since the investigation was launched four years ago. Some 2,000 cases have been opened against reporters.

Well-known journalist Ahmet Slk was detained earlier this year. The co-author of a book about Ergenekon, Slk faces a jail sentence of up to four years on a charge of “violating the secrecy of an investigation”.

Turkey has long faced criticism from campaigners over its human rights record. Writers including Nobel prize winner Orhan Pamuk and slain Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink were prosecuted under laws restricting freedom of expression.

A Reporters Without Borders report in June called on Turkish authorities to boost the status of journalistic principles in the law to counterbalance the protection of legal confidentiality, state security and personal privacy.

“A legislative straitjacket continues to stifle journalists,” the report said.

“Reporting of some topics is still routinely punished by the courts. Journalists are arrested and tried for doing their job or expressing an opinion,” it said.

Daren Butler

July 28, 2011

Reuters

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