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OSCE study confirms nearly 100 journalists currently in prison

(IPI/IFEX) - VIENNA, Apr. 2, 2012 – The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) today released a detailed study finding that the number of journalists imprisoned in Turkey nearly doubled over the past year, prompting the group to call for immediate reform of the country's broadly interpreted anti-terror laws.

The report – an update to a similar report released one year ago – found that 95 journalists are currently behind bars in Turkey, compared to 57 at this time last year.

The report, commissioned by the OSCE's Freedom of the Media Office, was conducted by Erol Önderoğlu, a representative of press freedom group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) in Turkey and the editor-in-chief of the BIANET Independent Communications Network in Istanbul.

The updated figure appears to confirm Turkey, an OSCE member state and candidate for membership in the European Union, as one of the world's leading jailers of journalists – by some accounts ahead even of notorious press-freedom offenders Iran and China.

“The sheer number of imprisoned journalists raises fundamental questions about the law and policy on journalism and free expression in Turkey,” OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Dunja Mijatović said. “I am concerned that the threat of imprisonment will lead to further widespread self-censorship.”

Mijatović called on the Turkish government to change two laws that the study indicates are most commonly used to jail journalists: Articles 5 and 7 of the Anti-Terror Law – which relates, in part, to propagandising on behalf of terrorist groups – and Article 314 of the country's Criminal Code, which prohibits forming or participating in an armed organisation with the aim at committing certain offences.

The interpretative scope of those provisions is so wide, the report noted, that “media outlets reporting about sensitive issues (including terrorism or anti-government activities) are often regarded by the authorities as the publishing organs of illegal organizations”. It added: “Courts often consider reporting about such issues as equal to supporting them.”

Mijatović said that while Turkey had a “legitimate right” to combat terrorism and ensure its citizens' safety, “objective reporting about all issues, including sensitive topics such as terrorism, is a fundamental part of democratic societies and journalists play an indispensable role by providing information to the public”.

The OSCE study also highlighted “exceptionally long prison sentences” handed down to convicted journalists, many of whom also face multiple trials. According to the study, one journalist, Bayram Namaz of Atilim, risks 3,000 years in prison; another, Halit Güdenoglu, is charged in approximately 150 court cases.

Mijatović noted that extended pre-trial detentions remain a serious concern, with judges rarely agreeing to release journalists pending trial. One notable exception is an Istanbul court's decision last month to free four journalists on trial in the Oda TV case, which is named after a nationalist news website that has been critical of the government and its investigation of the alleged “Ergenekon” plot by secularists and ultra-nationalists to overthrow the government of Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Citing the amount of time the journalists had been imprisoned and the low likelihood that they could tamper with evidence in the case, the court freed IPI World Press Freedom Hero Nedim Şener, who faces 7 1/2 to 15 years in prison on charges of aiding an alleged terrorist group, as well as journalist Ahmet Şık and two writers for Oda TV: Sait Çakır and Coskun Musluk.

Representatives of IPI and its Turkish National Committee were on hand to greet the journalists following their release from the Silivri prison, west of Istanbul.

Another exception came last Thursday, when a court in Diyarbakır ordered the release of Dicle News Agency (DİHA)'s Batman representative, Erdoğan Altan, and the agency's Diyarbakır representative, Kadri Kaya, pending trial. Both had reportedly been held since April 17, 2011.

IPI Press Freedom Manager Barbara Trionfi said: “While we welcome Turkey's rise on the world stage, we are concerned that press freedom in the country is coming under ever greater threat. Turkey has an extraordinary opportunity to shine as an example of a healthy democracy – but this can only be accomplished if the country respects its citizens' right to information via a free press. The government in Ankara should view active, investigative journalism as an asset to the county's future success, not as a threat, and immediately release those journalists whose only crime is doing their job.”

Despite repeated calls from several leading government figures, including Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç, to change the laws being used to prosecute journalists, little progress has been made.

Trionfi emphasised: “Any restriction on press freedom must serve a legitimate aim and be necessary in a democratic society. Turkey's anti-terrorism laws certainly do not fulfil these criteria.”

Turkey has come under increasing fire for its alleged failure to protect press freedom. Last November, a judge at the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) said Turkey had the worst press-freedom record among all 47 member states of the Council of Europe.

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