The International Press Institute (IPI) obtained on 4 April a report from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) indicating that Turkey is currently holding at least 57 journalists in prison – apparently more than any other country.
The report followed an analysis of more than 70 journalists the OSCE conducted in conjunction with Erol Önderoglu, editor-in-chief of the BIANET Independent Communications Network in Istanbul.
While Iran and China topped lists last December by reportedly jailing some 34 journalists each, Turkey, a candidate for membership in the European Union, has nearly doubled that number five months later, raising questions about the country’s commitment to freedom of the press and the legitimacy of its democratic image.
The numbers in the report correspond with those given by the Freedom for Journalists Platform – an umbrella group representing local and national media organizations in Turkey, including IPI’s Turkish National Committee. One of the journalists jailed is IPI World Press Freedom Hero Nedim Sener, who reportedly stands accused of belonging to an armed terrorist organisation seeking to overthrow the government.
OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Dunja Mijatovic, who commissioned the study, called on Turkish authorities to bring the country’s media legislation in line with OSCE commitments on media freedom. She wrote in a letter to Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu that the survey was intended to show the need for media legislation reform, which she offered her office’s support in developing.
Estimating that there are between 700 and 1,000 ongoing proceedings that could result in imprisonment of journalists, Mijatovic said: “The sheer number of cases poses fundamental questions about the legal provisions governing journalism in Turkey, and it raises concerns that the number of journalists in prison can further increase.”
Mijatovic acknowledged that governments have a legitimate need to fight terrorism, but she said that national security should not be used as a ground to curb media freedom. She also commented that criminalization of speech should be restricted to clear instances of intentional incitement to terrorism or other forms of violence.
“It is very important that authorities protect objective reporting even on sensitive topics such as terrorism or national security,” she said. “The public’s right to know includes such issues.”
According to the report, another 10 journalists in Turkey are awaiting trial. An additional journalist, whose location is unknown, is subject to a search warrant, and two other journalists have been convicted but subsequently released.
The report found that most of the jailed journalists are imprisoned under articles of Turkey’s anti-terror law relating to criminal code provisions on terrorist offences and organizations, or assisting members of or making propaganda in connection with such organizations; or under criminal code prohibitions on establishing, commanding or becoming member of an armed organization with the aim of committing certain offences.
It also found that prosecutors have sought and courts have imposed extremely long sentences. Vedat Kurºun and Emine Demir of the Azadiya Welat newspaper were sentenced to 166 years and 138 years in prison, respectively, while Bayram Namaz and Ibrahim Cicek of the Atilim newspaper each face up to 3,000 years in prison. Mustafa Balbay of Cumhuriyet newspaper, Mehmet Haberal of Kanal B Television and Tuncay Özkan of Kanal Biz Television all face dual life sentences, plus further time.
Journalists also face several trials, the report noted, such as Halit Güdenoglu of Halit Yürüyüs magazine, who currently faces 150 court cases.
The OSCE said in a release accompanying the study that both laws and their implementation need to be reformed, insofar as court practices vary widely throughout the country. The group also noted that writing about sensitive issues, including issues of terrorism or anti-government activities, is often viewed as support for those activities, and that imprisoned journalists are often placed in high security prisons with the most dangerous criminals.
IPI Board Member Ferai Tinc, who is also chairperson of IPI’s Turkey National Committee, said: “These journalists are in jail because of Turkey’s anti terrorism law, which has become a law that threatens press freedom in Turkey. Every investigative journalist is threatened by this law. We find this unacceptable. We have asked the government to change this law, but, unfortunately, the government does not listen to the voices of professional journalism organizations.”
IPI Director Alison Bethel McKenzie added: “Turkey, at the crossroads between east and west, is a major regional power with an ancient cultural heritage. The country is also often held up as an example of a healthy Muslim democracy, and IPI held its high-profile annual World Congress in Istanbul in 2007 in recognition of the pivotal bridge-building role the country plays.”
“For Turkey to step away from this history and to jail more journalists than any other country in the world is damaging. We call on the Turkish government to respect the right of freedom of the press and to release all journalists detained because of their work.”
The OSCE noted in its report that in many cases it could not access full information, meaning details could not be stated with precision. The organisation also pointed out that in many cases classified as secret defence lawyers were not even given access to trial documents.
This press release is supported by the South and East Europe Media Organization (SEEMO), an IPI affiliate.