On the night of July 15, 2016, elements of the Turkish military staged an attempt to overthrow the democratically elected government. According to official figures, at least 241 citizens and security personnel were killed, and over 2,000 more injured during the clashes in the capital Ankara and Istanbul.
On July 21, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan declared a three-month state of emergency that has since been extended until January 2017 and might be prolonged again. It gives the president and government the power to rule by decree, bypassing parliament and the potential to challenge decrees via Turkey’s Constitutional Court. In one such emergency decree, issued on July 27, 2016, the government ordered the closure of 131 media outlets, including 45 newspapers, 16 TV channels, three news agencies, 23 radio stations, 15 magazines and 29 publishing houses with alleged ties to the movement of US-based Islamic cleric Fethullah Gülen whom the government accuses of masterminding the failed coup attempt.
On September 28, 2016, Turkish authorities used the same emergency decree to order the shut-down of 23 TV and radio stations popular among Kurds, Alevis and supporters of opposition parties; and on October 31, 2016, police detained 12 journalists and managers from one of the last remaining independent newspapers, Cumhuriyet. Ten were later formally arrested.
By December 2016, 140 media outlets and 29 publishing houses had been shut down via emergency decree, leaving more than 2,500 media workers and journalists unemployed. Hundreds of government-issued press accreditations have been cancelled and without accreditation journalistic activity in Turkey can be impeded. An unknown number of journalists had their passports revoked, thus banning them from all foreign travel.
Among these are several well-known writers and columnists, including Şahin Alpay, Nazlı Ilıcak, Ahmet and Mehmet Altan, Ali Bulaç, Aslı Erdoğan, Kadri Gürsel, Necmiye Alpay and the editor-in-chief of the opposition daily Cumhuriyet, Murat Sabuncu.
The attacks on independent media after the attempted coup was defeated in July marked an intensification of a crackdown on media freedom that had already been going on for over a year. Censorship of journalism has been going on for much longer. The authorities use ever more creative ways to silence serious reporting and news coverage that President Recep Tayyıp Erdoğan and the Justice and Development Party government disagree with.
Five trends stand out: first the use of the criminal justice system to prosecute journalists for terrorism, insulting public officials, or crimes against the state; second, threats and physical attacks on journalists and media outlets; third, government interference with editorial independence and pressure on media organizations to fire critical journalists; fourth, the government takeover or closure of private media companies; and fifth, fines, restrictions on distribution and closure of critical television stations. A sixth trend, the blocking of online news websites or internet access in general, is not discussed in this report. The large number of restrictions Turkey places on internet freedom constitutes an area of study in its own right.
This report aims to look at these five worrying trends by documenting some of the most egregious examples that illustrate how the Turkish government has been dismantling freedom of expression and speech. The report focuses on particular cases and new trends and does not aim to provide a comprehensive overview of all instances of violations of press freedom.
Journalists also spoke about limitations on access to geographical regions such as the predominantly Kurdish southeast where conflict has escalated since a ceasefire between the government in Ankara and the armed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) broke down in July 2015, leaving a tentative two-and-a-half-year peace process in tatters.
One important effect of the crackdown and the restrictive media atmosphere it has created is to impede the ability of the media to hold government authorities to account or scrutinize their activities.
Use of Criminal Justice System against Journalists
Turkey has long been using the criminal justice system to prosecute journalists simply for doing their work. Before the great increase in journalists imprisoned following the July coup attempt, the number in pretrial detention had significantly decreased between 2014 and 2016 mainly for reasons of international pressure on the issue of Turkey’s jailed journalists. However, most of the released journalists’ trials are still pending, and the Turkish authorities have found myriad other ways to silence the critical press.
While Turkey has a long tradition of misusing terrorism laws against journalists, the past year has seen journalists from mainstream media organs targeted. Many have been jailed or prosecuted on spurious terrorism charges or accused of espionage and other “crimes against the state” for legitimate reporting of leaked information the public has an interest in knowing about.
Human Rights Watch has also extensively documented the problem of arbitrary and abusive terrorism trials of mainly Kurdish political activists, journalists, lawyers, and students for their alleged links with the armed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Suspects under investigation on charges of membership of armed organizations are almost automatically placed in pretrial detention, due to the gravity of the charge. Courts, without providing compelling reasoning, have then repeatedly prolonged incarceration of defendants once their trials are underway and pending a verdict. A new trend has seen authorities jailing journalists under criminal investigation for spreading terrorist propaganda.
The trend to prosecute journalists for association with the Gülen movement has peaked following the failed coup attempt with an estimated 80 journalists jailed pending trial for association with the coup attempt and the Gülen movement. The government has categorized the movement as a terrorist organization, referring to it as the Fethullahist Terrorist Organization/Parallel State Structure (abbreviated to FETÖ/PDY).
The Turkish authorities have recently prosecuted a number of prominent journalists on terrorism and other “crimes against the state” charges. Can Dündar, former editor-in-chief of the independent daily Cumhuriyet and the paper’s Ankara bureau chief Erdem Gül received jail sentences for publishing a story on secret arms deliveries from Turkey to Syrian rebels by the Turkish National Intelligence Agency (MIT).
Journalist and Turkey representative of Reporters Without Borders Erol Önderoğlu is currently facing trial – along with many others - on charges of spreading propaganda for a terrorist organization after participating in a solidarity campaign in which he acted as a symbolic co-editor for a day with the pro-Kurdish daily Özgür Gündem in Istanbul. The paper was temporarily shut down by court order on August 16, 2016 and permanently closed down by emergency decree on October 29, along with 14 other media organizations, effectively wiping out all media with a following among the Kurdish minority in Turkey.
On the day Ozgur Gundem was closed down, employees of the paper detained included editor-in-chief Zana Kaya and editor İnan Kızılkaya, both formally arrested on August 23, 2016. In a move which drew international outrage, the award-winning writer and Özgür Gündem columnist and advisory board member Aslı Erdoğan, and prominent linguist, writer, and advisory board member Necmiye Alpay were also arrested. Along with Kaya and Kızılkaya, Erdoğan and Alpay will stand trial with five others on December 29, 2016 on charges of “spreading terrorism propaganda,” “membership of an armed organization” and “attempting to destroy the unity of the state and territorial integrity of the country.“ If convicted on the latter charge they face a possible sentence of aggravated life imprisonment.
On August 29, 2016, Turkish police raided the office of Diyarbakir-based Kurdish language daily Azadiya Welat and detained at least 23 employees, six of whom were later formally arrested. The paper was one of those shut down entirely via emergency decree on October 29, 2016.
On October 31, police detained twelve senior staff members of the independent opposition newspaper Cumhuriyet, including the daily’s editor-in-chief Murat Sabuncu, prominent columnist Kadri Gürsel and cartoonist Musa Kart. Six days later all three of them were formally arrested on terrorism charges and placed in pretrial detention, along with six of their Cumhuriyet colleagues. They are accused of committing crimes on behalf of both the PKK and the Gülen movement (referred to by the government as FETÖ/PDY). Akın Atalay, the paper’s CEO, was detained at Istanbul’s Atatürk airport after arriving from Germany on November 11, 2016.
Threats and Physical Attacks
Journalists who have worked in the southeast over the past year have told Human Rights Watch that after a brief period during which the Kurdish issue could be reported with relative freedom due to the rapprochement between the government and the PKK, they face serious obstacles to their work in the region again. Access has become extremely difficult. Some of those interviewed said that threats, physical violence and criminal investigations against those reporting on the ongoing conflict have become increasingly common.
The attacks have taken place in an environment in which smear tactics by politicians against critical journalists have become commonplace. Most journalists Human Rights Watch spoke to said that they received threats, either directly or via smear campaigns led against them, in some documented cases even by government officials themselves.
Firing of Journalists Critical of Government
Many journalists have lost their jobs because of critical reporting or commentary. According to a report released by Turkey’s Journalists’ Association, 898 journalists were fired or forced to resign in the first five months of 2016 due to government interference and political pressure on editors or the owners of their media outlets. Calls by government officials to media outlets, putting owners and editors under pressure to curb critical reporting and to interfere with staff decisions, became routine over the past few years. Another problem is that many major media outlets in Turkey are owned by business people who rely on government contracts in other sectors of their work, and are therefore very susceptible to pressure and interference from the authorities.
Government Takeover or Closure of Independent Media
Taking advantage of the state of emergency in force since July 21, 2016 the AKP government has permanently shut down over 160 media and publishing outlets via decree.
But the crackdown on private media companies precedes the July coup attempt. In the past year, the government effectively took over two private media companies İpek (part of the much larger Koza İpek group) and the Feza group, by appointing trustees to run them. As a result, the two companies, both of which had links to the Gülen movement, were compelled to change their editorial policies and reinvent their publications and television channels as pro-government organs. The trustees subsequently closed down İpek media while the circulation of the Feza group’s Zaman newspaper dropped dramatically before it too was closed down with over 100 other media outlets with alleged Gülenist ties following the abortive coup.
Closure of Critical TV Channels
The government has also clamped down on critical television stations, closing them down or ensuring that they lose their distribution on satellite and cable providers. After the July 2016 coup attempt, 16 TV channels with alleged affiliations to the Gülen movement were closed down entirely. Pro-Kurdish TV channels were taken off Turkey’s main satellite provider, and several TV channels faced fines after airing critical coverage, or coverage at odds with the government. This crackdown intensified as the government moved to shut down 23 pro-Kurdish TV and radio stations in September under emergency decree No.668. The decree, issued on July 27 under the state of emergency, allows the government to shut down publishers and media outlets if they are deemed to “entertain links to a terrorist organization” and to be a “threat to national security”. One channel closed down but subsequently allowed to broadcast again in November was Zarok TV that translated popular cartoons such as “The Smurfs” into Kurmanji Kurdish and Zazaki.
The Turkish government’s erosion of media freedom and continuing readiness to limit freedom of expression damages Turkey’s democratic credentials and international reputation and violates its obligations under human rights law.
The Turkish government’s intensifying crackdown is decimating the country’s media organizations and its community of independent journalists. As one journalist told Human Rights Watch: “In the past journalists were killed in Turkey. This government is killing journalism in its entirety.”