politics : culture : economics

Freedom of the press in Turkey, 1994-2010

In Democratisation, Media, Turkey on October 23, 2010 at 5:48 pm

Last week’s release of the 2010 edition of the annual Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index made for more uncomfortable Turkish reading. Turkey was placed in 138th position in a list of 175 countries, down from 99th position in 2002 when the index was first published and when Turkey’s current AKP government first came to power.

Another index of press freedom is provided by Freedom House’s annual Freedom of the Press report. In the table and chart below, I’ve summarised Turkey’s performance on this index between 1994 and 2010. I have also included a few other (rather haphazardly selected) countries for the sake of comparison.

My reason for dipping into the Freedom House index was to look for ratings that stretched further back than Reporters Without Borders, in order to get a sense of whether Turkey’s performance changed significantly with the emergence of the AKP in 2002. According to Freedom House, the answer would appear to be ‘no’. According to the chart below, Turkey records a clear improvement from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s, which dovetails fairly neatly with Turkey’s burst of EU-directed reforms. (On the Freedom House index, the lower the score the better. Ratings of 0-30 count as ‘free’, 31-60 means ‘partly free’ and 61-100 is ‘not free’.)

Freedom House’s account of the period from 2005 is surprising. At the foot of this page, below the chart and table, I’ve pasted in their annual summaries about Turkey from 2002 to 2010. The steady stream of negative news from 2005 makes it somewhat odd that Turkey’s overall ranking has dipped so slightly over the past few years. The contrast with the Reporters Without Borders index on this is stark. Whereas Reporters Without Borders shows Turkey plunging from 98th position in 2005 to 138th in 2010, during the same period Turkey dropped by just one position on the Freedom House index, from 105th in 2005 to 106th in 2010.

Freedom House: Freedom of the Press 1994-2010

Freedom House: Freedom of the Press 1994-2010
Turkey Russia Brazil Mexico Indonesia
1994 59 40 27 60 58
1995 73 55 30 54 71
1996 74 58 30 52 74
1997 65 53 30 52 77
1998 69 53 32 54 77
1999 69 59 35 54 53
2000 58 60 33 50 49
2001 58 60 31 46 47
2002 58 60 32 40 53
2003 55 66 38 38 56
2004 52 67 36 36 55
2005 48 68 40 42 58
2006 48 72 39 48 58
2007 49 75 42 48 54
2008 51 78 42 51 54
2009 50 80 42 55 54
2010 51 81 43 60 52

*****

Freedom House’s Map of Press Freedom, Turkey: 2002

The criminal code severely limits freedom of expression and of the press. The code forbids insulting state officials and incitement to racial hatred. The Anti-Terror Law prohibits separatist propaganda. Journalists are frequently imprisoned for discussing the military, Kurds, and political Islam; according to an annual European Commission report, some 80 journalists had been imprisoned for political activities or for allegedly infringing various laws between January and November 2001. Police attacked a TV cameraman. A magazine was banned and legal proceedings begun against its editor for “insults” against the army. Another journalist was threatened with imprisonment for “insulting” the judicial system. The Turkish language news programs of the BBC and Germany’s Deutsche Welle were banned. A constitutional amendment passed in October allows for broadcasts in Kurdish. However, in November authorities suppressed some media outlets that attempted to publish or broadcast in Kurdish.

Freedom House’s Map of Press Freedom, Turkey: 2003

In 2002, state reforms designed to gain EU membership yielded some improvements in the areas of criminal libel law and minority-language broadcasting. Nevertheless, overall gains in press freedom remained stagnant during the year. Article 26 of the constitution guarantees freedom of the press. However, recent amendments restrict this right in the case of national security and classified information. The Anti-Terror Law prohibits separatist propaganda. The criminal code further prohibits insults against the state and incitement to violence. In 2002, the government limited the penalty for such acts to a maximum of three years’ imprisonment. However, officials continue to strictly enforce these laws and journalists are frequently jailed for discussing the Kurds, the military, or political Islam. In August, parliament approved regulations allowing for Kurdish-language broadcasting. Yet, subsequent regulations restrict the number of hours for minority language programs and insist that all broadcasts take place on state-controlled stations. The government maintains a large degree of influence over both the public and private media.

 

Freedom House’s Map of Press Freedom, Turkey: 2004

Constitutional provisions for freedom of the press and of expression are only partially upheld. In June 2003, the latest in a series of reform bills designed to facilitate Turkey’s candidacy for entry into the European Union was passed; the new law formally permits previously outlawed Kurdish-language broadcasts on private stations and repeals a law banning “separatist propaganda” that had been used against journalists sympathetic to the Kurdish minority. A law on the right to access government information was published in October. However, numerous laws are regularly invoked to restrict freedom, including those against insulting state institutions such as the army, aiding illegal organizations, and commenting on ongoing trials. For example, Turkish generals filed a lawsuit against the Islamist daily Vakit and one of its columnists in October for an article describing the generals as pretentious and incompetent. Sinan Kara, a journalist known for articles criticizing local political leaders, was imprisoned in October for allegedly threatening the son of a former prime minister; Kara claims he was attacked by one of the man’s bodyguards. Nevertheless, the number of journalists held in jail has dramatically declined in recent years, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. A wide variety of independent print and broadcast media outlets provides a diverse spectrum of views. Most media outlets are owned by a few large holding companies that have outside business interests and in many cases refrain from excessive criticism of the government. In addition, broadcast media are regulated by the High Board of Radio and Television (RTUK), which temporarily closed at least 15 radio stations during 2003 and is reportedly subject to some political pressure.

Freedom House’s Map of Press Freedom, Turkey: 2005

Constitutional provisions for freedom of the press and of expression are only partially upheld. As part of its ongoing reforms to prepare for membership in the European Union, Turkey passed another series of reforms in 2004 that affected press freedom. A new press code was adopted in June that includes heavy fines instead of prison sentences for some press crimes, permits noncitizens to own periodicals and serve as editors, protects against disclosure of sources, and prevents authorities from closing publications or hindering distribution. The government overhauled the penal code in September 2004. The new code, which was due to take effect in April 2005, reduced the minimum sentence for defamation. However, prison sentences remain in place for crimes such as stating that genocide was committed against the Armenians in 1915, instigating hatred in one part of the population against another (used against journalists who write about the Kurdish population), or calling for the removal of Turkish troops from Cyprus. Criminal defamation laws for insult against institutions such as the president, the military, and Turkish national identity stand as well, and sentences are in fact longer for members of the media than for others. As part of a package of reforms passed in June, the government removed the military member of the Supreme Council of Radio and Television (RTUK), the broadcast regulatory authority. Also in June, after considerable delay (the initial law was passed in August 2002), state television and radio began limited broadcasting in minority languages, including Kurdish. Critics protested that the broadcasts were too restricted and quality was poor, but the move was a major step forward for Kurdish rights and freedom of expression.

Censorship is not explicit, but content censorship and self-censorship occur among editors and journalists, who are concerned about violating the many legal restrictions. Often, the courts side against journalists, who continue to be jailed and face huge fines for various press offenses. In May, Hakan Albayrak, former editor of Mili Gazete, was sentenced to 15 months in prison without bail for insulting Kemal Ataturk (the founder of modern Turkey). Sabri Ejder Ozic, the former head of the Radyo Dunya station in the city of Adana, was sentenced to one year in jail in December 2003 after he criticized the government’s decision to allow foreign troops on Turkish territory and to send Turkish troops to Iraq. Ozic appealed the sentence and has not yet been imprisoned. In May, an Ankara court ordered three journalists of the Islamist-oriented newspaper Vakit to pay 551 billion lira (US$408,000) to 312 generals for allegedly insulting them in a 2003 article. Some media outlets were temporarily closed during the year. RTUK has the authority to sanction broadcasters if they are not in compliance with the law or its expansive 23 broadcasting principles. Although independent, RTUK, whose members are elected by the parliament, is frequently subject to political pressure. Thus, a local television station was shut down for a month in April 2004 after broadcasting songs in Kurdish, a language that has traditionally been banned in public. The pro-Kurdish newspaper Yeniden Ozgur Gundem was forced to close in February because of fines amounting to hundreds of thousands of dollars. In March, police officers attacked nine journalists in Diyarbakir who were covering a protest by a pro-Kurdish party over alleged rigged elections. Pro-Kurdish journalists continue to be victims of many kinds of pressure. In June, police detained 25 journalists from pro-Kurdish media outlets. Antiterrorist police searched the offices of pro-Kurdish news agency Dicle and arrested 16 journalists and staff. Antiterrorist police also searched the offices of the pro-Kurdish monthlies Ozgur Halk and Genc Bakis and arrested six staff members.

Despite overt government restrictions, independent domestic and foreign print media provide diverse views, including criticism of the government and its policies. Turkey’s broadcast media are well developed, with hundreds of private television channels, including cable and satellite, as well as commercial radio stations. Media are highly concentrated in a few private conglomerates, which subtly pressure their editors and journalists to refrain from reporting that will harm their business interests. This could include avoiding criticism of the government, which often has contracts with other arms of the companies and advertisers. As the strength of these media groups continues to grow unchecked, they could become a bigger obstacle to press freedom than the state. The quality of the Turkish media is low. About a quarter of the population accessed the Internet in major cities, with a growing percentage in rural areas.

Freedom House’s Map of Press Freedom, Turkey: 2006

Constitutional provisions for freedom of the press and of expression exist but are only partially upheld in practice. Although many positive reforms have been passed in recent years in preparation for membership in the European Union-most significantly a new press code in 2004, which mandates heavy fines instead of prison sentences for some press crimes, permits noncitizens to own periodicals and serve as editors, protects against disclosure of sources, and prevents authorities from closing publications or hindering distribution-implementation appeared to lag in 2005 in favor of more restrictive measures. The revised penal code passed in September 2004 was scheduled to enter into force on April 1, 2005. However, implementation was delayed in response to protests by journalists in March over provisions that were too broad and that singled out journalists for more severe punishment than others committing the same crime. The code ultimately went into force in June after some revisions. Press groups continued to denounce the new code because provisions remained that could send journalists to prison, in contradiction of the 2004 press code, for crimes such as stating that genocide was committed against the Armenians in 1915, instigating hatred in one part of the population against another (used against journalists who write about the Kurdish population), or calling for the removal of Turkish troops from Cyprus. Media also can face large fines. Today, prosecutions and in particular convictions are less common than previously but still can drag on for months.

The Supreme Council of Radio and Television (RTUK), whose members are elected by the Parliament, has the authority to sanction broadcasters if they are not in compliance with the law or its expansive broadcasting principles. It is frequently subject to political pressure. Censorship is not explicit, but self-censorship occurs among editors and journalists, who are concerned about violating the many legal restrictions. Often, the courts rule against journalists, who continue to be jailed and face huge fines for various press offenses. Rights groups estimated that 60 Turkish writers, publishers, and journalists were facing prosecution or incarceration in 2005. In February, an Austrian journalist who has covered the cases of political prisoners was jailed temporarily for belonging to a terrorist organization that she had often reported on; she was ultimately acquitted for lack of evidence. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan launched defamation suits against several members of the media in 2005, including cartoonists who depicted him. Most prominently, Orhan Pamuk, an internationally renowned Turkish author, went before a court in December for comments he made to a Swiss newspaper earlier in the year; the judge postponed the trial until 2006. Pamuk’s views on the mass killings of Armenians by Turks in 1915 have resulted in death threats and protests against him.

Turkey’s broadcast media are well developed, with hundreds of private television channels, including cable and satellite, as well as commercial radio stations. State television and radio provide limited broadcasting in minority languages, including Kurdish. This is a major step forward for freedom of expression, although critics say that the broadcasts are too restricted and quality is poor. Media are highly concentrated in a few private conglomerates, which subtly pressure their editors and journalists to refrain from reporting that will harm their business interests. This could include avoiding criticism of the government or potential advertisers, both of which could have contracts with other arms of the companies. The quality of Turkish media is low, but independent domestic and foreign print media are able to provide diverse views, including criticism of the government and its policies. An estimated 13 percent of the Turkish population was able to access the internet in 2005, and the government refrains from restricting the internet beyond the same censorship policies that it applies to other media.

Freedom House’s Map of Press Freedom, Turkey: 2007

While efforts to meet European Union (EU) membership requirements have resulted in the passing of positive reforms, including a new Press Law in 2004, the greater national debate over Turkey’s accession to the EU has fueled a nationalist movement that is driving a legalistic crackdown on free expression by journalists and writers. Constitutional provisions for freedom of the press and of expression exist but in practice are only partially upheld and have been increasingly undermined by the more restrictive measures of the new Turkish penal code, which came into force in June 2005.

According to Bianet, a Turkish press freedom organization, the number of prosecuted journalists, publishers, and activists rose to 293 in 2006 versus 157 in 2005. The same organization reports that 72 individuals were tried in 2006 under the new penal code’s especially controversial Article 301 alone. This provision allows for prison terms of six months to three years for “the denigration of Turkishness” and has been used to charge journalists for crimes such as stating that genocide was committed against the Armenians in 1915, discussing the division of Cyprus, or writing critically on the security forces. Book publishers, translators, and authors have also faced prosecution for “insulting Turkish identity.” Among the most prominent cases is that of Hrant Dink, editor of the Armenian weekly Agos, who was prosecuted for a second time under Article 301 in July 2006 following an interview with Reuters news agency where he confirmed his recognition of Armenian genocide allegations. In a more hopeful development, charges brought under the same article against Orhan Pamuk, the Nobel Prize–winning Turkish novelist, were dropped in January 2006. Article 277 of the penal code was invoked to charge several journalists covering controversial court cases with “attempting to influence court decisions,” including Hrant Dink and four of his Agos colleagues for their coverage of a judge’s decision to ban a conference on the Armenian genocide. Article 216 penalizes “inflaming hatred and hostility among peoples” and has been used against journalists who write about the Kurdish population. Human rights groups report that nationalist lawyers groups, such as the Turkish Union of Lawyers and Unity of Jurists, are leading the push for prosecutions.

Pressure from the EU and international press freedom watchdog groups prompted Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to declare his commitment to revising Article 301 in September, but at year’s end no progress had been made on this. Erdogan himself continued to launch defamation suits against members of the media, however, filing a total of 59 cases in 2006. Rights groups report that the total number of defamation cases increased from 2005, along with the fines issued as punishments. Convictions against journalists are made much less frequently than are prosecutions, but trials are time-consuming and expensive. A total of seven convictions were made for charges under Article 301 in 2006.

Causing further alarm, the Parliament approved amendments to the Antiterror Law in June that allow for imprisoning journalists for up to three years for the dissemination of statements and propaganda by terrorist organizations. The new legislation raises concerns that the broad definition of terrorism could allow for arbitrary prosecutions, particularly for members of the pro-Kurdish press who are sometimes charged with collaborating with the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK). For example, Rustu Demirkaya, a reporter with the pro-Kurdish news agency DIHA, was charged with collaborating with the PKK in June and then with disseminating terrorist propaganda for covering the return of an army private who had been kidnapped by the PKK in August. Journalist Ilyas Aktas, reportedly threatened by the police previously, was shot amid violent clashes between Kurdish demonstrators and security forces in southeastern Turkey in April and died a few weeks later.

The Supreme Council of Radio and Television, whose members are elected by the Parliament, has the authority to sanction broadcasters if they are not in compliance with the law or its expansive broadcasting principles. It is frequently subject to political pressure. Censorship is not explicit, but editors and journalists practice self-censorship out of fear of violating legal restrictions; Turkish press freedom advocates contend that self-censorship has become even more prevalent as a result of the onslaught of prosecutions under the new penal code. Further, media are highly concentrated in four major conglomerates, which subtly pressure their editors and journalists to refrain from reporting that will harm their business interests. This could include avoiding criticism of the government or potential advertisers, both of which could have contracts with other arms of the companies.

Turkey’s broadcast media are well developed, with hundreds of private television channels, including cable and satellite as well as commercial radio stations. State television and radio provide limited broadcasting in minority languages, including Kurdish; this marked a major step forward for freedom of expression, although critics say that the broadcasts are too restricted and quality is poor. The quality of Turkish media is low, but independent domestic and foreign print media are able to provide diverse views, including criticism of the government and its policies. An estimated 21 percent of the Turkish population was able to access the internet in 2006, and the government refrains from restricting the internet, although on occasion it has accessed user records in the name of national security. Police must obtain permission from a judge or higher authority before obtaining such information.

Freedom House’s Map of Press Freedom, Turkey: 2008

With heightened polarization regarding issues of secularism, nationalism, and separatism, reform efforts toward enhanced freedom of expression stalled in 2007. The restrictive measures of the new Turkish penal code, which came into force in June 2005, continued to overshadow and undermine positive reforms achieved in the country’s effort to meet European Union (EU) membership requirements, including a new Press Law in 2004 that replaced prison sentences with fines. The EU accession process and perceptions that the ruling Justice and Development Party intends to undermine the country’s secular traditions have prompted a nationalist movement that is driving a legalistic crackdown on free expression by journalists and writers.

Constitutional provisions for freedom of the press and of expression exist but are matched with restrictive provisions and, in practice, are only partially upheld. According to Bianet, a Turkish press freedom organization, the number of prosecuted journalists, publishers, and activists dropped to 254 in 2007 from 293 in 2006 (after a dramatic jump from 157 in 2005). Yet the same organization reports that 55 individuals were tried during the year under the penal code’s especially controversial Article 301 alone. This provision allows for prison terms of six months to three years for “the denigration of Turkishness” and has been used to charge journalists for crimes such as stating that genocide was committed against the Armenians in 1915, discussing the division of Cyprus, or writing critically on the security forces. Book publishers, translators, and intellectuals have also faced prosecution for “insulting Turkish identity.” In January, Hrant Dink—editor in chief of the Armenian weekly Agos, who was prosecuted for a second time under Article 301 in July 2006 for confirming his recognition of Armenian genocide allegations—was the victim of a carefully plotted assassination carried out by a 17-year-old. Charges against Dink under Article 301 were subsequently dropped, but both his son and the owner of Agos were convicted on the same charges for the same case in October. In November, two policemen were charged with knowing about plans to kill Dink and failing to report them; the trials of all 19 people charged in connection with the murder were ongoing at year’s end.

Article 277 of the penal code was invoked in 2007 to charge 14 people with “attempting to influence court decisions.” Article 216 penalizes “inflaming hatred and hostility among peoples” and is used most frequently against journalists who write about the Kurdish population or are perceived to degrade the armed forces. Twenty-three people were charged on this count in 2007, and in May 2007, a court of appeals overturned the prior acquittal of two professors charged under this article in 2005 for a report in which they discussed the term “citizenship of Turkey” as it relates to minorities, a concept being debated in preparation for a new “civil” constitution. The court ruled that the discussion constituted a “social danger” and more specifically “a danger to the unitary state and the indivisibility of the nation.” Nationalist lawyers’ groups such as the Great Lawyers Union, credited by many human rights groups with leading the push for prosecutions, continued to bring insult suits throughout the year.

Despite a September 2006 declaration of commitment by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to revise Article 301 and heightened pressure from international press freedom watchdog groups to abolish it following Dink’s murder, no progress was made by year’s end; many believe the government dropped the issue in the context of election concerns. Erdogan himself continued to launch defamation suits against members of the media; in October, newly elected president Abdullah Gul promised changes in the period ahead. Convictions against journalists are much less frequent than prosecutions, but trials are time-consuming and expensive. A total of six convictions were obtained for charges under Article 301 in 2007 (nine other defendants were acquitted). In a positive development, the Supreme Court of Appeals confirmed a lower court’s prior decision to drop the Article 301 case against Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk in August.

While Bianet also reports that the number of threats and attacks on the press increased in 2007, threats and harassment remain significantly more prevalent than acts of violence. The Dink assassination marked the culmination of a deliberate plot believed to have been developed by nationalist forces, or the “deep state”—a vague network involving members of the state bureaucracy, military, and intelligence apparatus. The murder of journalists is not a common crime, and reporters’ work is not regularly compromised by fears of violence. Instability in the southeastern part of the country does infringe upon journalists’ freedom to work, however. In April, three employees of a Christian publishing house in the Malatya province of southeastern Turkey were brutally murdered, and a newspaper owner was killed in the southeastern province of Van in September, though that murder did not appear to be related to freedom of the press. The issue of police violence against journalists was raised by the abduction and assault of, and death threats against, journalist Sinan Tekpetek by police in Istanbul in late July.

June 2006 amendments to the Antiterrorism Law allow for imprisoning journalists for up to three years for the dissemination of statements and propaganda by terrorist organizations. The new legislation raises concerns that the broad definition of terrorism could allow for arbitrary prosecutions, particularly of members of the pro-Kurdish press who are sometimes charged with collaborating with the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK). According to Bianet, 83 people were charged in cases of “terrorism” during the year.

The Supreme Council of Radio and Television, whose members are elected by the parliament, has the authority to sanction broadcasters if they are not in compliance with the law or its expansive broadcasting principles. It is frequently subject to political pressure. Some editors and journalists practice self-censorship out of fear of violating legal restrictions, and Turkish press freedom advocates contend that self-censorship has become more prevalent as a result of the onslaught of prosecutions under the new penal code. The owner of the weekly Nokta magazine stopped its publication in April after the magazine’s investigative articles on the military prompted a police raid on its offices. Charged with spreading PKK propaganda under the Antiterrorism Law, the Gundem newspaper was suspended for 15- to 30-day periods four times during the year. Broadcasting bans were reportedly issued against a few stations during the preelection period, and the government censored coverage of PKK attacks in southeastern Turkey in October.

Turkey’s broadcast media are well developed, with hundreds of private television channels, including cable and satellite, as well as numerous commercial radio stations. State television and radio provide limited broadcasting in minority languages, now including four local radio and television stations in Kurdish. This marks a major step forward for freedom of expression, although critics say that the broadcasts are too restricted and quality is poor. Media are highly concentrated in four major conglomerates, which subtly pressure their editors and journalists to refrain from reporting that will harm their business interests. This could include avoiding criticism of the government or potential advertisers, both of which could have contracts with other arms of the companies. The quality of Turkish media is low, with a prevalence of columns and opinion articles over pure news, but independent domestic and foreign print media are able to provide diverse views, including criticism of the government and its policies. An estimated 22.5 percent of the Turkish population accessed the internet in 2007. The video-sharing website YouTube was blocked in March and again in September for airing videos perceived to insult government leaders and the founder of the Turkish republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

Freedom House’s Map of Press Freedom, Turkey: 2009

Heightened political polarization in 2008—including the threat of a ban on the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and ongoing fears of Kurdish separatism—continued to inhibit genuine freedom of expression reforms and, according to local watchdog groups, contributed to a spike in press-related prosecutions. Over the last few years, the European Union (EU) accession process and perceptions that the AKP intends to undermine the country’s secular traditions have fueled resistance in the form of a nationalist movement and a related legalistic crackdown on free expression. In 2008, both the AKP and the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party faced possible closure by the Constitutional Court for antisecular activity and separatism, respectively, and journalists covering these issues encountered a number of obstacles.

Constitutional guarantees of freedom of the press and of expression are undermined by other provisions, and in practice they are only partially upheld. Despite some minor amendments in 2008, the restrictive new penal code, which came into force in 2005, continued to overshadow positive reforms that had been achieved as part of the country’s bid for EU membership, including a 2004 Press Law that replaced prison sentences with fines. According to Bianet, a Turkish press freedom organization, the number of prosecuted journalists, publishers, and activists climbed from 254 in 2007 to 435 in 2008, continuing a trend that had seen the figure increase from just 157 in 2005.

Bianet also reports that 82 individuals were tried during the year under the penal code’s controversial Article 301 alone, up from 55 in 2007. This jump came despite amendments to the article in May following intense pressure from the EU. Article 301 had assigned prison terms of six months to three years for “the denigration of Turkishness” and has been used to punish journalists for stating that genocide was committed against the Armenians in 1915, discussing the division of Cyprus, or writing critically about the security forces. The May amendments—which substituted “Turkish nation” for “Turkishness” and “State of the Turkish Republic” for “Turkish Republic,” and reduced the maximum prison sentence from three years to two—were deemed largely cosmetic. Nationalist lawyers’ groups such as the Great Lawyers’ Union, credited by many human rights groups with leading the push for prosecutions, continued to file insult suits throughout the year. Very few of those who are prosecuted under Article 301 receive convictions, but the trials are time-consuming and expensive. A total of five convictions were obtained in 2008.

Article 277 of the penal code, which prohibits “attempting to influence court decisions,” was also invoked during the year. Alper Turgut, a journalist with the Cumhuriyet newspaper, was fined 20,000 liras (US$15,000) for reporting that a torture case was thrown out because too much time had elapsed. In January, the Constitutional Court ruled against the closure of the pro-Kurdish Rights and Freedoms Party, and the decision was seen as a precedent that could place statements about the Kurdish problem within the boundaries of free speech. However, Article 216 of the penal code, which penalizes “inflaming hatred and hostility among peoples,” continued to be used frequently against journalists who wrote about the Kurdish population, in addition to those who allegedly degraded the armed forces. Twenty-three people were charged under this article in 2008, and in late October, two journalists at a pro-Kurdish paper were sentenced to a year in jail for publishing a declaration by the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) militant group calling for recognition of the Kurdish language and other rights. Amendments to the Antiterrorism Law in 2006 allow journalists to be imprisoned for up to three years for the dissemination of statements and propaganda by terrorist organizations. The legislation raises concerns that the broad definition of terrorism could lead to arbitrary prosecutions, particularly of members of the pro-Kurdish press who are sometimes accused of collaborating with the PKK.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan continued to launch defamation suits against members of the media. He filed his fifth suit against satirical magazines for an unflattering cover image, and in September he threatened the Dogan Media Group for covering a corruption scandal involving a Turkish charity that had allegedly channeled funds to certain individuals and companies. The newspaper Hurriyet reported that the prime minister’s office had revoked the accreditation of seven senior reporters without explanation in November.

Threats against and harassment of the press remain significantly more common than acts of violence. The murder of journalists is relatively rare, and reporters’ work is not regularly compromised by the fear of physical attacks, although instability in the southeastern part of the country does infringe upon journalists’ freedom to work. The January 2007 assassination of Hrant Dink—the editor in chief of the Armenian weekly Agos who was prosecuted for a second time under Article 301 in July 2006 for confirming his recognition of Armenian genocide allegations—marked the culmination of a plot believed to have been developed by nationalist forces or the “deep state,” an alleged network consisting of members of the state bureaucracy, the military, and the intelligence apparatus. As of the end of 2008, 20 suspects accused of complicity in planning or carrying out the murder had been brought to trial, but no convictions were secured. Eight members of the gendarmerie are also facing charges for failing to act on warnings that Dink was being targeted, but no police officers have been prosecuted yet.

The Supreme Council of Radio and Television, whose members are elected by the parliament, has the authority to sanction broadcasters if they are not in compliance with the law or its expansive broadcasting principles. The council is frequently subject to political pressure. Some editors and journalists practice self-censorship out of fear of violating legal restrictions, and Turkish press freedom advocates contend that self-censorship has become more prevalent as a result of the onslaught of prosecutions under the new penal code.

Turkey’s broadcast media are well developed, with hundreds of private television channels, including cable and satellite, as well as more than 1,000 commercial radio stations. State television and radio provide limited broadcasting in minority languages, now including four local radio and television stations in Kurdish. The introduction of Kurdish-language stations marks a major step forward for freedom of expression, although critics say that the broadcasts are too restricted and quality is poor. Several hundred private newspapers operate across the country in a very competitive print environment. Media ownership is highly concentrated in four major conglomerates, which subtly pressure their editors and journalists to refrain from reporting that will harm their business interests. This can include avoiding criticism of the government or potential advertisers, as both could have contracts with the conglomerates. The quality of Turkish media is poor, with an emphasis on columns and opinion articles rather than pure news, but independent domestic and foreign print media are able to provide diverse views, including criticism of the government and its policies.

An estimated 35 percent of the population accessed the internet in 2008. The video-sharing website YouTube was blocked again in 2008 (including twice in January) for airing videos deemed insulting to the founder of the Turkish republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, and two pro-Kurdish websites were suspended indefinitely in April. Also during the year, Google’s blog services were shut down by a magistrate’s court based on a complaint by the television station Digiturk that some bloggers were illegally posting video content owned by the station.

Freedom House’s Map of Press Freedom, Turkey: 2010

The government, led by the Justice and Development Party (AKP), continued to crack down on unfavorable press coverage in 2009. A tax authority controlled by the Finance Ministry fined one of the country’s major media companies, the Dogan Group, 826 million lira (US$537 million) in February and 3.7 billion lira (US$2.4 billion) in September for purported tax evasion. The Dogan Group has consistently reported on the ruling party’s shortcomings and involvement in an Islamic charity scandal in 2008, and the tax case was widely viewed as politicized.

Constitutional guarantees of freedom of the press and expression are undermined by other provisions, and in practice they are only partially upheld. Despite some minor amendments in 2008, the restrictive 2005 penal code continued to overshadow positive reforms that had been implemented as part of the country’s bid for European Union (EU) membership, including a 2004 Press Law that replaced prison sentences with fines for media violations. According to Bianet, a Turkish press freedom organization, the number of prosecuted journalists, publishers, and activists declined from 435 in 2008 to 323 in 2009, reversing a recent upward trend. The U.S. State Department noted a decrease in the number of individuals accused of violating Article 301 of the Turkish penal code, which provides for prison terms of six months to two years for “denigration of the Turkish nation.” While the Turkish Justice Ministry received 424 complaints based on Article 301, it rejected 358 of them, and only four were allowed to proceed, compared with 70 cases that were given permission to proceed in 2008. In total, only 18 individuals were prosecuted in 2009 under Article 301, which has been used to punish journalists for stating that genocide was committed against the Armenians in 1915, discussing the division of Cyprus, or writing critically about the security forces. The 2008 amendments were deemed largely cosmetic, substituting “Turkish nation” for “Turkishness” and “State of the Turkish Republic” for “Turkish Republic,” and reducing the maximum prison sentence from three years to two. Nationalist lawyers’ groups such as the Great Lawyers’ Union, accused by many human rights groups of leading the push for prosecutions, continued to file insult suits throughout the year. Very few of those who are prosecuted under Article 301 receive convictions, but the trials are time-consuming and expensive.

Article 216 of the penal code, which covers “inflaming hatred and hostility among peoples,” continued to be used frequently against journalists who wrote about the Kurdish population, in addition to those who allegedly denigrated the armed forces. In 2009, a total of 21 people were prosecuted under Article 216, including journalists Ercan Oksuz and Oktay Candemir from Dicle News Agency (DIHA), who each received six-month jail sentences for interviewing witnesses of the 1930 Zilan massacre. The incident involved the reported killing of Kurdish civilians by Turkish troops. Amendments to the Antiterrorism Law passed in 2006 allow journalists to be imprisoned for up to three years for the dissemination of statements and propaganda by terrorist organizations. The law raised concerns about arbitrary prosecutions, since members of the pro-Kurdish press are sometimes accused of collaborating with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a designated terrorist organization. During 2009, some 47 individuals were tried under the Antiterrorism Law. In January, Vedat Kursun, editor of Azadiya Welat, was detained and charged with multiple counts of spreading PKK propaganda and aiding the rebel group; he remained in jail at year’s end.

The Supreme Council of Radio and Television, whose members are elected by the parliament, has the authority to sanction broadcasters if they are not in compliance with the law or its expansive broadcasting principles. The council is frequently subject to political pressure. Print outlets can also be closed if they violate laws restricting media freedom, and a number of closures occurred during the year. Some editors and journalists practice self-censorship out of fear of violating legal restrictions. Turkish press freedom advocates contend that self-censorship has become more prevalent as a result of the onslaught of prosecutions under the new penal code.

Ongoing investigations surrounding an alleged plot to overthrow the government, referred to as “Ergenekon,” have included the wiretapping of telephones at the daily newspaper Cumhuriyet. The surveillance was reportedly conducted without the approval of a court and included conversations between Cumhuriyet correspondent Ilhan Tasci and the deputy president of the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), Kemal Kilicdaroglu. In addition, Mustafa Balbay, the Ankara representative of Cumhuriyet, and Nadiye Gurbuz, the broadcasting coordinator of Izmir Democratic Radio, were arrested in March for alleged involvement in the Ergenekon plot. While Gurbuz was released in September, Balbay, charged with “attempting to change the constitutional order with armed force,” remained in custody at year’s end.

Threats against and harassment of the press remained much more common than acts of violence. Journalists are rarely killed, and their work is not regularly compromised by the fear of physical attacks, although instability in the southeastern part of the country does infringe on journalists’ freedom to work. The 2007 assassination of Hrant Dink—the editor in chief of the Armenian weekly Agos, who was prosecuted under Article 301 for a second time in 2006 for confirming his recognition of Armenian genocide allegations—marked the culmination of a plot that was believed to have been developed by nationalist forces or the “deep state,” an alleged network consisting of members of the state bureaucracy, the military, and the intelligence apparatus. The case was still open at year’s end. In the only murder of a journalist in 2009, editor Cihan Hayirsevener of Guney Marmara’da Yasam was killed in mid-December after receiving several death threats for his newspaper’s coverage of local corruption.

Turkey’s broadcast media are well developed, with hundreds of private television channels, including cable and satellite, as well as more than 1,000 commercial radio stations. State television and radio provide limited broadcasting in minority languages, now including four local radio and television stations that broadcast in Kurdish. The introduction of Kurdish-language stations marks a major step forward for freedom of expression, although critics say that the broadcasts are too restricted and quality is poor. An Armenian-language radio outlet, Nor Radio, began broadcasting over the internet in January 2009. Several hundred private newspapers operate across the country in a very competitive print sector. Media ownership is highly concentrated, with four major conglomerates that subtly pressure their editors and journalists to refrain from coverage that could harm the parent company’s business interests. This can include avoiding criticism of the government or potential advertisers. The quality of Turkish media is poor, with an emphasis on columns and opinion articles rather than pure news, but independent domestic and foreign print media are able to provide diverse views, including criticism of the government and its policies.

An estimated 35 percent of the population accessed the internet in 2009. The video-sharing website YouTube has been blocked since 2008 for airing videos that were deemed insulting to the founder of the Turkish republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. The social-networking site MySpace was unblocked in October 2009 after it resolved disputes with the Turkish music industry. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe reported that approximately 3,700 websites were blocked between 2007 and 2009. The law allows prosecutors to block sites if their content “incites suicide, pedophilia, drug abuse, obscenity or prostitution,” or attacks Ataturk.

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  1. [...] Freedom of speech in Turkey, 1994-2010 by istanbulnotes [...]

  2. I didn’t expect that Turkey in the nineties of the last century would be more open. But I sincerely expected that Turkey would have make more progress the last 5 years since the wolrd became more global and Turkey repeated over and over again that they were working towards EU membership; freedomof expression is key stone in this process so Turkey follows its own way. You can also the current status of Turkey regarding freedom of press with all those countries 5 years before they became EU member. That would give a more grim picture for Turkey.

  3. [...] is at all a new thing, you have not even read the Wikipedia article on Turkey. To steal Mr. Collins’ phoenomenal graph (higher = less [...]

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