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Hostage-taking prompts latest case of Turkish censorship

People attend the funeral ceremony of prosecutor Mehmet Selim Kiraz at the Justice Palace in Istanbul, 1 April 2015
People attend the funeral ceremony of prosecutor Mehmet Selim Kiraz at the Justice Palace in Istanbul, 1 April 2015

REUTERS/Osman Orsal

This statement was originally published on rsf.org on 2 April 2015.

Reporters Without Borders condemns the quickly-imposed ban on media coverage of the courthouse drama in Çağlayan, Istanbul, on 31 March, when a prosecutor was taken hostage and was finally murdered after eight hours of fruitless negotiations between the authorities and his two kidnappers, who were themselves killed in a shootout with police.

Compounding the ban, reporters from media critical of the government were barred from the prosecutor's funeral yesterday, while four newspapers are now being investigated for alleged “terrorism propaganda.”

Yet again demonstrating that censorship is the Turkish government's first reflex in any difficulty, it was the prime minister's office that issued the media gag order shortly after ultra-leftist gunmen took prosecutor Mehmet Selim Kiraz hostage.

“In Turkey, every sensitive affair is now the subject of a publishing ban,” said Johann Bihr, the head of the Reporters Without Borders Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk.

“This is nothing less than censorship and the fact it has become commonplace is especially disturbing when it is the government that increasingly assumes the responsibility for imposing it. By so doing, it is trampling on the public's right to be informed about a subject of general interest.”

Hostage-taking censored

Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu decreed the “temporary publishing ban” shortly after midday on 31 March under article 7 of the law regulating the activities of the Radio and TV High Council (RTÜK), which provides for such a ban in the event of a “threat to national security or public order.” The decree did not say when the ban would end.

After the decree was issued, the main TV stations suddenly terminated their live coverage from the courthouse. Citing the prime minister's decision, the 24-hour news channels subsequently limited themselves to reporting the few official statements – and then only long after the hostage-taking was over.

“The only effect of the ban was to fuel rumours and prevent people from getting accurate information,” Bugün TV and Kanal Türk CEO Tarık Toros told the newspaper Today's Zaman.

The desire to control information was also reflected in the way the police mistreated journalists outside the courthouse. Ece Aydın, a reporter for the BirGün newspaper and Yol TV, was arrested in the evening and only released in the middle of the night. Police manhandled Danish reporter Nanna Muus and told her: “Go back to your country or we will arrest you.”

Dozens of sensitive affairs have been the subject of “publishing bans” in recent years. They include the parliamentary enquiry into former ministers suspected of corruption, the deadliest riots of the past 30 years, the hostages seized from the Turkish consulate in Mosul (in northern Iraq), the alleged arms convoy to Syria and the deadly bombings in the southeastern city of Reyhanli.

Critical media accused of being “terrorist accomplices”

It was also on the prime minister's orders that many media critical of the government were prevented from attending the prosecutor's funeral at Istanbul's Eyüp Sultan Mosque. Reporters from two news agencies (Cihan and Doğan), ten newspapers (Zaman, Hürriyet, Posta, Sözcü, Taraf, Millet, Cumhuriyet, Ortadoğu, Yeniçağ and Birgün) and five TV stations (Samanyolu TV, IMC TV, Kanaltürk, CNN Türk and Bugün) were turned away whether or not they had official press cards.

After the funeral service, the prime minister acknowledged that he had “given the order to deny access” to certain media. “From now on, everyone will take care with their behaviour,” he said, criticizing those who had “published terrorist propaganda.”

The prime minister's office and pro-government newspapers were more explicit, denouncing media that published a photo that was posted online by the hostage-takers. It showed the prosecutor with a gun to his head in front of posters of the DHKP/C, a Marxist-Leninist party on the government's list of terrorist organizations.

The photo was immediately circulated on social networks and was widely reproduced. Some media were also criticized for not referring to the hostage-takers as “terrorists.”

Reporters Without Borders joins the TGC journalists' union and the Press Council in condemning this act of discrimination by the authorities.

“A debate within the media about journalistic ethics is justifiable but the government's arbitrary actions are helping to make it impossible,” Bihr added. “It is not the prime minister's job to dictate editorial policies to the media or to vet who is allowed to cover an event of this importance.”

Yesterday evening, the Istanbul prosecutor's office began investigating four newspapers – Hürriyet, Cumhuriyet, Posta and Bugün – under article 7.2 of the Terrorism Law on suspicion of having published “terrorism propaganda.”

Reporters Without Borders calls on authorities to abandon the investigation, which it regards as an act of persecution.

Turkey is ranked 149th out of 180 countries in the 2015 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index.

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