Turkey: keeping the pressure on

by Steven M Ellis (This article was first published in the British Journalism Review)

Amid increasing repression, international groups can play a vital role in fighting the state’s attack on media freedom.

Scene at the first Cumhuriyet trial Scene at the first "Cumhuriyet" trial in July 2017 (By Murat Başol)

International groups have expended a lot of energy in recent years to combat the deterioration of press freedom in Turkey, but it can be difficult to see progress. Turkey’s media were never completely free, but in recent years independent journalists had come under tremendous pressure from the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan – even before the July 2016 coup attempt that left more than 250 dead, the country traumatised and Erdoğan firmly in charge.

Fifteen months later, the situation is bleak. Turkey remains under emergency rule. The government continues to exploit the atmosphere to chill independent journalism and crack down on dissent. Constitutional changes adopted in a controversial April vote will hand the president even more powers. However, having been to Turkey more than a dozen times in recent years on behalf of the Vienna-based International Press Institute (IPI), a global network of publishers, editors and leading journalists dedicated to protecting media freedom, I have seen first-hand the value of the work by international groups.

Publicising developments, being present at trials as observers, pressing international bodies and leaders to stand up for journalists – all of that has led to progress reflected in recent releases of journalists and, hopefully, in impending rulings by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). Importantly, value can also be seen in the additional strength those efforts have given to journalists and members of civil society who refuse to be cowed or to stop fighting Turkey’s slide into authoritarianism.

For independent journalists in Turkey today, the judicial process is itself the punishment. Authorities seeking to paint criticism of Erdoğan’s rule as support for violent terrorists have shuttered hundreds of media outlets and NGOs, and imprisoned more than 100 journalists. The vast majority are in pre-trial detention in cases focusing on their news reporting or commentary. They are accused of links to the "Fethullahist Terrorist Organisation" – the government’s name for the movement headed by Fethullah Gülen, the US-based cleric blamed for the coup attempt – or Kurdish militants or leftist extremists. Paradoxically, some are accused of serving all three, despite the latter groups’ mutual antipathy to Gülenists.

Those held pending trial in high-security prisons face solitary confinement and arbitrary restrictions on access to counsel and loved ones. When, and if, indictments are finally issued, defendants face cases built on guilt by association and investigations conducted to bolster charges decided in advance.

Journalists actually given trials see their arguments ignored by judges and prosecutors, who know that colleagues whose rulings displeased the government were reassigned or criminally investigated. These journalists are often sent back to prison for weeks or months more on claims that their release would allow them to tamper with evidence, ie, news reports and commentary from months or years earlier.

At trial, armed guards – sometimes by the dozen, sometimes clad in riot armour – surround the defendants, preventing physical contact with spouses and children. Families and supporters jockey for space in stiflingly hot galleries packed beyond capacity. During breaks, they call out to their loved ones across the human barrier, waving, cheering and communicating by shouts and hand gestures.

Journalists fortunate enough to be freed pending trial find themselves released into what is in effect an open-air prison: under travel bans and judicial control, they may be sent back at any time and still face years or decades behind bars if convicted in trials that drag on and on. But releases are progress and generating international attention has played an important role, as illustrated in the recent releases of eight journalists from the centre-left, secularist daily Cumhuriyet.

Since its founding 93 years ago by a confidant of Kemal Atatürk, Cumhuriyet’s journalists have faced harassment, imprisonment and assassination. Visitors to its Istanbul offices are invited to note that the chief editor’s office looks out on both the criminal court and a graveyard. Today, prosecutors are demanding up to 43 years in prison for 18 current and former journalists and administrators who they say seized control of Cumhuriyet and slanted its reporting to aid Gülenists and topple Erdoğan.

The case ignores the newspaper’s persistent criticism of the Gülen movement, even when Gülen was a key Erdoğan ally, before a nasty 2013 split left them locked in a struggle to capture and control the power and resources of the state. It also ignores Erdoğan’s vows to punish the paper for its 2015 publication of photos and video of a border search that found weapons in Syria-bound trucks owned by Turkey’s intelligence agency, calling into question his denials that the country was arming Islamist rebels.

Left unsaid is the role imprisoned Cumhuriyet journalists might have played in the April referendum to convert Turkey from a parliamentary to a presidential system if they had not been prevented by their detention from offering commentary or analysis. The changes, which also gave the president greater control over the judiciary, were narrowly approved 51-49 per cent in a vote marked by allegations of electoral misconduct and suppression of the opposition campaign.

Protests bear fruit

Twelve Cumhuriyet defendants were ultimately placed in pre-trial detention. Most waited six months before prosecutors issued an indictment in April. However, its “evidence” seemed cherry-picked to show guilt and ignore exculpatory facts. It focused on news reports and commentary, and on innocuous or unavoidable contacts – or even attempts at contact to which the accused never responded – with individuals who had a secretive app on their mobile phones that was used by Gülenists.

International groups gave the case heavy publicity, arguing that it was an attempt to criminalise journalism, punish Cumhuriyet and send a warning to others. Despite the authorities’ refusals to meet international groups or allow us to visit journalists in prison, we travelled to Turkey, where we stood in solidarity with journalists’ families and representatives and foreign diplomats.

When trials began in July, we were there again to send a clear message to journalists and to Turkey’s government that the world was watching. IPI and other international groups also attended hearings in September and October, with invaluable assistance from the defendants’ well-organised supporters.

They provided summaries of the indictment and defendants’ arguments. They steered us through crowds clamouring to pass barricades controlling access and got us into the courtroom. They translated the proceedings into English in real time, sharing information through a mobile phone application so observers in court and around the world could follow them. They organised daily protests outside the courthouse, where journalists, lawyers and politicians held banners, chanted slogans and gave impassioned speeches.

Seven Cumhuriyet defendants ultimately were released pending trial in July and an eighth joined them in late September. Sadly, four others still languish in Silivri prison near Istanbul. But without the international groups’ work to bring attention to the case, now viewed as a bellwether for respect for human rights and rule of law in Erdoğan’s “new Turkey”, it is likely that all of them would still be behind bars.

Efforts to push international bodies and leaders to stand up for journalists in Turkey have borne similar fruit. As awareness of what is happening in Turkey has grown, international leaders who offered only muted criticism of Turkish authorities’ actions following the coup attempt have started to speak up, generating pressure. Many have also sent diplomatic personnel to observe journalists’ trials.

In Europe, which faces an acute challenge on migration and fighting violent extremism if Turkey destabilises further, leaders have begun to publicly focus on the gravity of the situation and to urge restraint and a return to respect for human rights.

The European Parliament called for a freeze in Turkey’s EU accession bid, as did German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Her criticism was welcomed, as many in Turkey’s civil society had viewed her as having sold them out in a 2015 deal with Erdoğan for help in stemming the flow of refugees into Europe. Rapporteurs from the UN, the Council of Europe and the OSCE condemned journalists’ detentions and rights violations.

That pressure generated more attention and the ECHR took note. It agreed to give priority review to 10 cases in which journalists challenged their pre-trial detention, arguing that they could not obtain relief from Turkey’s constitutional court. The court drew praise in February 2016 when it freed then-Cumhuriyet chief editor Can Dündar and a colleague in a case over the intelligence agency trucks report. Its ruling that the journalists’ pre-trial detention violated press freedom infuriated Erdoğan, who vowed not to respect it.

But after the coup, three of the court’s judges were detained as suspected Gülenists. Thereafter, it maintained a low profile, disclaiming jurisdiction to examine alleged rights violations under the state of emergency and declining to rule on journalists’ challenges to pre-trial detention. That failure left many imprisoned journalists in limbo. Coupled with the perception that judges and prosecutors lack any independence amid increasing government moves to control the judiciary, it has devastated belief in any current rule of law in Turkey.

Imprisoned journalists and their supporters regularly stress that they look to the ECHR as the last hope for upholding their rights, so top international media freedom watchdogs and rights defenders, including IPI, banded together to intervene in support of the challenges before the Strasbourg court.

In addition to the Cumhuriyet defendants and others, challengers include German-Turkish journalist Deniz Yücel, a Die Welt correspondent detained in February this year on accusations that he made terrorist propaganda and incited hatred to support Gülenists. His detention has played a significant role in drawing European attention to the situation in Turkey and in the chill in its relations with Germany.

Bringing cheer behind bars

They also include the journalist Murat Aksoy and the singer Atilla Taş, former contributors to Gülen-linked media outlets who were among 29 people held in September 2016 and accused of attempting to overthrow the government. In March, a three-judge panel ordered the pair and 11 others released, but they were re-arrested before leaving prison and the judges were suspended and investigated as suspected Gülenists.

Aksoy and Taş were finally freed pending trial in October, leading some observers to speculate – in light of the Cumhuriyet releases and the ECHR’s deadline that Turkey file a response to the challenges by mid-November – that it was part of a bid to undercut the ECHR cases. A decision by the European court is expected in coming months.

So international groups’ publicity and their other efforts created attention, which led to pressure from world leaders and more attention, and releases of some journalists, and now, action by the ECHR. But just as importantly, those efforts gave strength to Turkey’s civil society, a group keen to turn back from the path to autocracy. They also gave strength to imprisoned journalists themselves and their families.

Despite 14 years under Erdoğan’s rule, a vibrant civil society committed to plurality, human rights and democracy still exists in Turkey, although it is shrinking. Risking their own freedom, individuals courageously speak out, share information on rights violations, organise protests, attend trials and give outsiders the context and perspective necessary to begin understanding Turkey’s complexities.

Their strength is remarkable, but the pressure exacts a toll. The warm gratitude that they and journalists’ families show to those who stand with them in protest outside courts and prisons, or who sit crammed into courtrooms with them through hours of proceedings, or who merely work from abroad to tell their story, shows the importance of evidence that they are not alone.

So, too, does the look on imprisoned journalists’ faces in the courtroom – first surprise, then a grin, accompanied by an excited wave of one or both arms – when they recognise friends and colleagues who have travelled great distances to show continuing support and bear witness to injustice. Those interactions are small, but they add up. Collectively, they are a powerful reminder of the vital role of solidarity in sustaining resistance. The situation in Turkey is dire, but there is still value in making a fuss.

Steven M Ellis is programme director for the Vienna-based International Press Institute, a global network of publishers, editors and leading journalists working to protect and promote the free flow of news and information.