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Turkish journalism in its death throes

Thousands of people hold placards that read
Thousands of people hold placards that read "We will not surrender!" during an anti-government rally, condemning the arrests of opposition journalists, academics and politicians, in Istanbul, 20 November 2016

AP Photo/Halit Onur Sandal

This statement was originally published on rsf.org on 20 January 2017.

In this release, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) examines the persecution of Turkey's journalists and media under the state of emergency proclaimed exactly six months ago today, and urges Turkey's national assembly to repeal all the decree-laws that are incompatible with its constitution and its international obligations.

In the increasingly arbitrary clampdown on media freedom during the past six months, the authorities have jailed around 100 journalists without trial, closed 149 media outlets, rescinded 775 press cards, withdrawn journalists' passports and seized their assets without justification.

In a letter sent today to the national assembly's commission of enquiry into human rights, RSF asks Turkey's parliamentarians to repeal the decree-laws issued under the state of emergency. A detailed legal analysis accompanying the letter shows that the decrees are unconstitutional and incompatible with Turkey's international obligations.

"After six months of this state of emergency, journalism is dying in Turkey," RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire said. "Pluralism is in the process of being destroyed and the remaining media outlets live under a permanent threat, in a climate of fear and intimidation fuelled by certain leaders' comments. It is time to end these arbitrary practices and return to the constitution's guarantees of media freedom."

Four months after its report entitled "State of emergency opens way to arbitrary rule", RSF has conducted the following new evaluation of the increasingly arbitrary methods used by Turkey's authorities against critical journalists.


Journalists imprisoned without trial

Neither charged nor released

The vast majority of the journalists imprisoned immediately after the failed coup attempt of 15 July are still awaiting the start of their trials. The requests for their release submitted by their lawyers have for the most part been rejected by magistrates subservient to the regime, without any plausible legal grounds being offered.

In a very few cases, imprisoned journalists have been released provisionally but continue to await trial. They include Arda Akın, a reporter for the newspaper Hürriyet, who was released on 9 September after 24 days in detention; former Zaman columnists Lale Kemal and Nuriye Akman, who were freed on 12 October after being held for more than two months; and two Özgür Gündem columnists, novelist Aslı Erdoğan and translator Necmiye Alpay, freed on 29 December after more than four months in prison.

More than 80 journalists are being held because they worked for media outlets sympathetic to Fethullah Gülen, the influential US-based Muslim cleric who was an ally of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan before turning into his bête noire. Fewer than 30 of them have been issued with an indictment.

The trial of some of these journalists - a group from the southern province of Adana - is finally scheduled to begin on 10 March on a charge of "belonging to an illegal organization." They include Aytekin Gezici and Abdullah Özyurt, who by then will have spent nearly eight months in detention.

The trial of a second group of 28 journalists - of whom 25 are still in prison - is due to begin shortly thereafter. The defendants, who include Murat Aksoy, Atilla Taş, Hanım Büşra Erdal and Cihan Acar, will also face possible ten-year sentences on the same charge of "belonging to an illegal organization."

"I haven't seen a single prosecutor in the six months I've been held," Zaman columnist Şahin Alpay said. "After being interrogated by the police, we were taken directly before a court [which ordered detention pending trial]. I am the oldest. I had my 73rd birthday in prison. My columns had nothing to do with the Gülen movement. I ask for my trial to start as soon as possible."

Several journalists have appealed to Turkey's highest court, the Constitutional Court, requesting their release, but it has yet to respond. In reaction to its silence, the lawyers of two of these journalists have filed submissions to the European Court of Human Rights accusing Turkey of "illegal detention."

Many imprisoned journalists in strict isolation

In accordance with the decree-laws adopted under the state of emergency, police are present when detainees talk to their lawyers and video cameras record their conversations. Journalists arrested for alleged links with the Gülen movement are subjected to especially strict isolation rules. They are held in Section 9 of Silivri prison, 70 km outside Istanbul, where they are denied access to mail and media, and their visitation rights are extremely limited.

These rules are being applied to the detained Zaman journalists and to the 11 detained Cumhuriyet employees who are accused of changing the newspaper's editorial line to suit the Gülen movement.

According to the prosecutor's office, Cumhuriyet's coverage of sensitive stories such as Turkey's arms deliveries to Jihadi groups in Syria, human rights abuses during military operations against Turkey's Kurdish rebels and the alleged torture of suspected participants in the July coup attempt is all evidence of the newspaper's "complicity" with the Gülen movement.

Ten of the newspaper's employees, including editor-in-chief Murat Sabuncu, columnist Kadri Gürsel, cartoonist Musa Kart and head of administration Bülent Utku, were arrested on 31 October.

Ahmet Şık, a well-known investigative journalist who wrote occasional articles for Cumhuriyet, was also arrested as part of the same case on 29 December. Accusing Şık of supporting the Gülen movement is absurd because he spent a year in prison in 2011 and 2012 for criticizing the influence that the movement wielded within the state apparatus at that time.

"Of the 168 hours that make up a week, I am allowed to see human beings for only two hours - an hour with my wife and an hour with my lawyer," Sabuncu said. "We should have the right to visits from three other people but this rule is no longer being implemented."


Increasingly arbitrary sanctions

Hundreds of press cards rescinded

No fewer than 775 journalists have had their press cards withdrawn by the General Directorate for Information and Media (BYEGM), an offshoot of the prime minister's office, since the start of the state of emergency. They include T24 journalists Hasan Cemal and Doğan Akın, who were stripped of their cards at the end of October.

Although Nevzat Onaran has been a journalist for 17 years, the BYEGM told him on 16 December that his press card would not be renewed because of an old conviction on a charge of "putting people off military service."

The BYEGM withdrew the well-known journalist Amberin Zaman's press card at the start of this month on the grounds that she had "incited hatred and hostility" by writing on social networks that "the Kurds constitute the most important force in the fight against Islamic State."

Assets of 54 journalists seized

On 1 December, an Istanbul magistrate ordered the seizure of the assets of 54 former Zaman employees, including Şahin Alpay, Mümtazer Türköne, Ali Bulaç, Hilmi Yavuz, İhsan Duran Dagi and Hamit Bilici, whose trial for alleged links to the Gülen movement has not yet started and who should in the meantime benefit from the presumption of innocence.

Hounding exile journalists, relatives

Dozens of journalists have fled abroad in the past six months to escape the arbitrary actions of the courts and government officials. Former Cumhuriyet editor Can Dündar left after being sentenced to five years and ten months in prison in May and does not plan to return until the state of emergency is lifted. But his wife, Dilek Dündar, is stuck in Turkey. Her passport was cancelled without explanation on 4 August, as she was about to leave.

Journalists who have fled the country now face another threat. Under Decree-Law No. 680, which took effect on 7 January, persons suspected of (or charged with) "subversive activities," "attacks on the president," "crimes against the government" or "membership of an illegal organization" can be stripped of their Turkish nationality if they do not respond to a summons within three months.


Pluralism dying

149 media outlets dissolved at the stroke of a pen

A total of 149 media outlets considered sympathetic to the Gülen or Kurdish movements have been dissolved by decree or administrative decision since 20 July. The first decree dissolving 102 media outlets at the end of July has been followed by similar orders. Two dozen TV and radio stations were closed at the start of October. Fifteen Kurdish media were closed at the end of October. The range of pluralism in Turkey has been reduced to pro-government media.

Twenty of the closed media have finally been allowed to resume operating. Decree No. 675, for example, authorized the reopening of 11 local media outlets. But the scope of this relaxation is extremely limited, given the modest influence of these outlets and the enormous gaps remaining in the media landscape.

Most of the media closed by decree, including opposition TV channels Hayatın Sesi and İMC TV, are still awaiting a response from the administrative courts to which they appealed. They also plan to refer the closures to the European Court of Human Rights because the Constitutional Court announced in October that it was not competent to hear cases linked to decrees issued under the state of emergency.

Tighter grip on broadcasting

The decree-laws have strengthened the powers of the High Council for Broadcasting (RTÜK), which can now suspend any radio or TV station for a day if it is deemed to have contravened the media law. For subsequent breaches, the suspension can be for five days, then 15 days, and then its licence can be withdrawn for good.

A provision recently added to the RTÜK's statutes prohibits "media coverage of terrorist acts, their perpetrators and their victims when it contributes to terrorism's objectives."

The RTÜK can also now deny a licence to any media outlet that allegedly poses a "threat to national security, public order or the general interest." And it can deny a licence if the police or intelligence services identify any "links" between the outlet's personnel and a "terrorist organization."

Unprecedented control of the Internet

Twitter, YouTube and Facebook are now routinely blocked after every bombing or other emergency situation. But the authorities crossed a new threshold when they temporarily rendered the messaging services WhatsApp, Skype and Telegram inaccessible at the start of November.

Internet service providers were also ordered to restrict access to a dozen VPNs and the Tor network, which allow users to circumvent censorship and encrypt all traffic. At the same time, Internet access was disconnected entirely for several days in Turkey's mainly Kurdish southeastern regions.

In response to the growing abuses, RSF reiterates the calls made in its report entitled "State of emergency opens way to arbitrary rule", starting with the repeal of the unconstitutional decree-laws and the immediate release of journalists who have been imprisoned in connection with their work. RSF also calls of an end to the isolation of journalists held in Section 9 of Silivri prison.

Turkey is ranked 151st out of 180 countries in RSF's 2016 World Press Freedom Index.

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Hoy en #Colombia se reconocen a los periodistas como @jbedoyalima que le dicen no a la #impunidad @ipysvenezuelahttps://t.co/sWUSOfK4De