The Human Rights Watch 2019 Report, published just one day before the critical Sozcu daily’s columnists were tried at an Istanbul court, claims that Turkey remains the world leader in jailing journalists, with an estimated 175 journalists and media workers in detention or serving sentences.
The report highlights that Turkey uses anti-terror law broadly and therefore many journalists have been charged with terror-related crimes. According to the report, almost one-fifth (48,924) of the total prison population (246,426) has been charged with or convicted of terrorism offences since the 15 July 2016 failed coup attempt.
“Turkish media promotes governments political line”
The HRW report criticised the Turkish media for the “lack of independence, and promoting government’s political line”, and claimed that politically motivated Turkish courts were finding journalists guilty based on unsupported terrorist organisation links or the coup attempt and that most cases were on appeal.
Sozcu columnists Emin Çölaşan, Necati Doğru and Sözcü, the editor in chief Metin Yılmaz, news coordinator Yucel Ari, and online editor Mustafa Cetin’s trials on charges of “deliberately assisting FETO armed terror organisation while not participating in the hierarchical structure” were held at Istanbul’s 37th High Criminal Court last week. Famous columnist, Colasan, defended his 42 years of journalism experience saying that he has always followed the ethical rules of journalism.
The report claims that writers and commentators, Ahmet Altan, Mehmet Altan, and Nazlı Ilıcak were sentenced to life imprisonment without parole on trumped-up coup charges in February. “A court bailed Mehmet Altan in June after a January Constitutional Court ruling and a March European Court of Human Rights ruling ordered his release. Ahmet Altan and Nazli Ilicak remain jailed.” The report also claims that all the defendants appealed to the Court of Cassation after the regional appeal court upheld the convictions on October 2.
According to the HRW report, Turkey’s media crackdown on the secular elite’s newspaper, Cumhuriyet daily, whose trial ended in April last year, fourteen journalists, executives and the editor of the Cumhuriyet were convicted on trumped-up terrorism charges. They were given sentences ranging between two and eight years, and three were acquitted. Turkish government has accused Cumhuriyet’s team of supporting Fethullah Gulen, who Ankara blames for the failed coup attempt, as well as Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and ultra-left Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party-Front.
The journalists and executives who were convicted in April last year include the chief executive, Akin Atalay, the editor in chief, Murat Sabuncu, cartoonist, Musa Kart, and prominent columnist, Kadri Gursel. Dundar, Cumhuriyet’s internationally well-known former editor-in-chief, was sentenced to five years imprisonment in 2016 for revealing state secrets after publishing reports on alleged government arms smuggling to Syrian rebels. Dundar was released pending appeal and has since been living in exile in Germany.
Also included in the report were claims that verdicts in trials on terrorism charges of 31 journalists and media workers from the shuttered Zaman newspaper were concluded in July, with writers Ahmet Turan Alkan, Şahin Alpay, and Ali Bulaç spending up to two years in pretrial detention and receiving a sentence of eight years and nine months, but that they were “at liberty at time of writing”. Mustafa Ünal and Mümtazer Türköne remained jailed, receiving 10 years and six months sentences.
HRW emphasised that Turkish government’s pressure on the Kurdish media was continuing, as the police raided the pro-Kurdish newspaper, Free Democracy (Özgürlükçü Demokrasi), in March last year. “The newspaper was closed by decree in July, and 21 printworkers and 14 journalists are being prosecuted in separate trials. A total of 13 printworkers and journalists are being held in pretrial detention at the time of writing. The newspaper’s printing works and assets were turned over to the state,” HRW reported.
Freedom of expression thwarted
In the section on freedom of expression, HRW reported that “the blocking of websites and removal of online content continued, and thousands of people in Turkey faced criminal investigations and prosecutions for their social media posts. Wikipedia remains blocked in Turkey.”
Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has already silenced most of the mainstream media through politically motivated Turkish courts, and the report stated that “journalists working for Kurdish media in Turkey continued to be arrested and jailed repeatedly, obstructing critical reporting from the southeast of the country”.