By Zavig Mkrdech
WASHINGTON, D.C. – The risks to freedom of press in Turkey have worsened in recent months, leaving news outlets and journalists helpless facing accusations of terrorism. Turkey has a growing list of nearly 2,000 cases of journalists, academics, and others who face trial and imprisonment for insulting Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
This week, a Turkish government-appointed trustee committee decided to close down Zaman Newspaper, Zaman.com.tr, Cihan News Agency, Cihan Media Distribution, Küre.tv, and Feza Publishing Group, effective May 15, 2016. Turkish authorities took over Zaman and Cihan News Agency in March, accusing these news outlets of supporting Fethullah Gülen, who openly opposes Erdogan. A similar action was taken against the Ipek Group. All of its platforms, Kanaltürk, Bugün TV, Bugün Newspaper, Millet Newspaper, and Kanaltürk Radio, are to close as well.
Opposition news agencies stand no chance in the growing authoritarian climate of Turkey. They are often accused of supporting the overthrow of the government, or of being too sympathetic towards groups labeled terrorists, such as the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).
As a result, government propaganda against opposition news outlets is endangering journalists. Today, in an assassination attempt against Turkish journalist Can Dundar, an assailant fired three gunshots and yelled “traitor” at Dundar before being apprehended by police.
Dundar, the Editor-in-Chief of Cumhuriyet, was previously arrested for publishing a story in May 2015 of Turkey’s state intelligence agency, called MIT, transporting weapons to Islamists in Syria. Infuriated, President Erdogan announced that “Whoever wrote this story will pay a heavy price for this. I will not let him go unpunished.” Erdogan then went on to file a lawsuit against Dundar and Erdem Gul, the former Ankara Bureau Chief, in November 2015. Erdogan claimed the video footage was a state secret, and by publishing it Cumhuriyet had engaged in an act of espionage. In a verdict decided on May 6, the two Turkish journalists were sentenced to five years in prison on charges of revealing state secrets, but acquitted of espionage charges.
“In the space of two hours we have experienced two assassination attempts: one was done with a gun, the other was judicial,” Dundar said, speaking in front of the court after the verdict was announced. “The [jail sentences] we received are not just to silence us. The bullet was not just to silence us. This was done to all of us, to scare us into silence, to make us stop talking. We all have to be courageous, despite all of this, and defend the freedom of the press and the freedom to information.”
In another case last month, the Turkish court sentenced Cumhuriyet journalists Ceyda Karan and Hikmet Cetinkaya to two-year jail sentences for reproducing the cover cartoon of the Charlie Hebdo “Survivors Issue,” the first issue published after the January 2015 attack on the Paris-based magazine. They were convicted under article 216.1 of the criminal code of “inciting hatred and hostility” of a religious nature by including small versions of the cartoon in their columns.
“Convicting Ceyda Karan and Hikmet Cetinkaya is intolerable. Not only have these journalists never incited hatred but, on the contrary, they were the leading victims of a violent campaign unleashed against Cumhuriyet,” Reporters Without Borders Secretary General Christophe Deloire stated. “The justice system seems to have legitimized this campaign by imposing exceptionally harsh sentences. We urge the appeal court to overturn this conviction on the constitutional grounds of freedom of expression.”
No wonder Turkey, now ranked 151st on the international press freedom index out of 180 countries, shows no signs of succumbing to international or domestic pressure to limit its growing restrictions on free press.
Featured Photo (L-R): Cumhuriyet Ankara Bureau Chief Erdem Gul and Editor-in-Chief Can Dundar