Mission Report: Turkey's journalists on the ropes

Renata Rat

30 November 2020

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Joint International Press Freedom Mission to Turkey (6 – 9 October 2020)

Eleven international freedom of expression, journalists’ and human rights organizations carried out a joint mission to Turkey on October 6 to 9, 2020, meeting with media professionals, civil society actors, judicial and regulatory authorities, members of parliament and representatives of diplomatic missions, for the purpose of reviewing the status of media freedom in the country.

The mission was organised in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, the sharp rise in targeting of media by regulators, increased physical attacks on journalists and a new restrictive law on social media with the potential to impose further limitations on the remaining spaces for independent reporting and public commentary.

The mission also provided the opportunity to assess how the situation had evolved in the 13 months since a previous visit in September 2019, which had focused on pre-trial detention, trial proceedings, the abuse of anti-terror law to target critical journalists as well as the prospect for the Judicial Reform Strategy to enact significant change.

These issues were set out in detail in the 2019 mission report Turkey’s Journalists in the Dock: Judicial Silencing of the Fourth Estate.

 

Overview of key developments in 2019/2020

In the year since the 2019 mission we have seen the following developments:

o In October 2019, the Judicial Reform Strategy introduced a mild tightening of the definition
of terrorist propaganda, and an extension of the right of appeal for those convicted to
prison sentences of under five years.1 However, the Turkish authorities failed to address
the fundamental issue of judicial independence and ignored the central challenge of
reforming the system for nominating members of the Board of Judges and Prosecutors
(HSK), which is responsible for appointing, promoting and disciplining judges and
prosecutors. The current system, in which the president and governing party appoint the
vast majority of the 13 board members, enables direct executive influence over the careers
of judges and prosecutors.

 

o Despite clearer limits on the duration of pre-trial detention, journalists continue to be
arbitrarily detained and jailed for months for their journalism. The most prominent
example was the March 2020 arrest of six journalists for “revealing the name of a national
intelligence agent” after reporting on the agent’s death in Libya and funeral.2 Although the
agent’s identity had already been made public in parliament, the journalists were held for
several months until September when five of them were found guilty before being
released pending appeal.

 

o Despite the revised definition of terrorist propaganda, the charge continues to be used to
criminalize and prosecute journalists.

 

o In general, public criticism of topics that are sensitive to the government is liable to be met
with criminal charges. Journalists reporting on Turkey’s military activities in Syria or Libya,
for example, have been charged with a range of crimes including breaches of secrecy law
or provoking hatred.

 

o The broadcast regulator Radio and Television High Council (RTÜK) has imposed fines on
independent broadcasters including Halk TV, TELE1, KRT and Fox TV4, threatening their
license to operate.

 

o The Public Advertising Agency, BİK, has also overseen a sharp rise in advertising bans
against independent newspapers, cutting a crucial supply of income threatening their
viability.

 

o The safety of jailed journalists was put at risk by the government, as the parole law of April
2020 that provided for the early release of tens of thousands of prisoners to ease
overcrowded prisons in light of the Covid-19 threat excluded individuals in pre-trial
detention and anyone convicted of terrorism-related crimes, espionage or crimes against
the intelligence services – laws which are frequently used to prosecute journalists

 

o The social media law, rushed through parliament in July, and that came into force on
October 1, requires social media companies to establish legal representation in Turkey
and the transfer of the personal data of all Turkish users to servers in the country.
Complying with the law would make the companies an extension of the state’s censorship
apparatus. Failure to comply could result in the blocking of their services in Turkey.

 

Meanwhile, hundreds more continue to face prosecution and travel bans in the face of a
compromised judiciary that denies journalists the right to a fair trial.

The fall in numbers of jailed and prosecuted journalists is partly the result of the conclusion of
cases opened in the aftermath of the 2016 failed coup. It is also a reflection of how successfully
the media has been muzzled.

More recently the battleground for control of media has shifted from the courts to media
regulatory bodies, whose independence has been removed by authorities which have been
instrumentalized to target critical media. This, together with the state capture of previously
independent media through ownership transfers, has ensured the further stifling of independent
voices.

There has been a significant fall in the number of journalists in jail from a high of 170 in 2017. ECPMF’s partner, the International Press Institute (IPI) counted 77 journalists held behind bars at the start of October 2020. Despite this “progress”, Turkey remains one of the world’s biggest jailers of journalists.

Mission Participants

The mission was convened by the International Press Institute (IPI), and comprised representatives from:

  • European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)
  • ARTICLE 19
  • Association of European Journalists (AEJ)
  • Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ)
  • European Federation of Journalists (EFJ)
  • Human Rights Watch (HRW)
  • Osservatorio Balcani Caucaso Transeuropa (OBCT)
  • PEN International
  • Reporters without Borders (RSF)
  • the South East Europe Media Organisation (SEEMO).

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