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Turkish government “contributes to creating and sustaining the repressive atmosphere.” finds new report on freedom of expression

27 July 2021, a new report looking into the state of freedom of expression in Turkey has been jointly released by Expression Interrupted and the Platform for Independent Journalism (P24).

The report, titled Turkey’s journalists “cannot breathe”, is the second periodic report in their Freedom of Expression and the Press Agenda series and covers the months of May and June 2021.

The report provides an in depth review of freedom of expression and the press agenda in Turkey and covers “major developments regarding legislation and government policy to the extent they contribute to creating and sustaining the repressive atmosphere.”

According to the reports findings:

“Throughout May and June, 109 journalists appeared before a court in 51 ongoing trials. 4 of them were sentenced to 9 years, 8 months and 2 days in prison. Criminal investigations were filed against at least 6 journalists; at least 4 journalists were indicted.”

Over the same period, the organisations monitored an increase in police violence against journalists, while 5 journalists were physically attacked by civilian actors.

The total number of journalists jailed actually fell over the reporting period, with Mehmet Aslan, who had been jailed pending trial since January, and Cuma Ulus and Erkan Acar, who had been imprisoned since July 2016, being released. According to the report this brought the total number of journalists jailed in Turkey to 65, down from 87 on the first day of 2021.

Aslan was released pending trial at the end of his first hearing in May; Ulus and Acar were released on 30 June 2021 upon completing their respective sentences, having spent five years behind bars.

However, it is worth noting there are often discrepancies between such estimates. This is because many jailed journalists and media workers in Turkey might not be counted as such, by virtue of not holding official media cards or due to being regarded as “terrorists” under Turkish law.

As of June 2021, the International Observatory of Human Rights estimates that there are still 169 journalists either in prison or awaiting trial in Turkey with 167 on a wanted list living in exile.

However, this belies the appearance of improvement. The report emphasises that overall, “ the judicial pressure faced by the media in the country has not improved…Prosecutors launched new trials against at least four journalists while six journalists faced new investigations in the same period. At least three journalists were taken into custody.”

The government has continued its verbal commitment to introduce a set of legislative changes known as the 4th Judicial Reform Package. The set of prospective reforms fall under the Judicial Reform Strategy Document of 2019, which were widely applauded by States during Turkey’s last United Nations Universal Periodic Review in January 2020. However, the report concludes that:

“In practice, thanks to repressive government policies combined with discriminatory practices of politicized public institutions and judicial violations, the situation of freedom of expression and the media deteriorated further”

The report also covered the shocking revelations made by organised crime leader Sedat Peker in June, who stunned the country by releasing a series of videos alleging grave crimes committed by Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu and a number of other people close to the government.

The videos concern the historic murders of journalist Kutlu Adalı, who was killed by unknown assailants in Turkish Cyprus in 1996, and of Uğur Mumcu, an investigative journalist who was killed in 1993 in Ankara.

Peker alleges that he sent his own brother, Atilla Peker, to Turkish Cyprus to kill Adalı “after he was told by former Interior Minister Mehmet Ağar and former military and intelligence official Korkut Eken that Adalı was an enemy of the nation.”

Atilla Peker confirmed these allegations in a written statement presented to a prosecutor.

Although historic, and pre-dating the Erdogan government, these revelations have brought the issue of the state’s role in crimes against journalists and impunity to the forefront of Turkish consciousness once again.

The report highlights how there was “no progress towards the execution of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) judgments in the cases of jailed business person Osman Kavala and jailed politician Selahattin Demirtaş.”

In contrast, the reporting period was characterised by an increase in police brutality and interventions targeting reporters, leading the report to conclude that:

“physical attacks on journalists were among the most significant issues faced by the media in Turkey in May and June 2021.”

This increase in police interventions and brutality against reporters was contributed to a circular issued by the General Directorate of Security in late April; the circular prohibited citizens from capturing any audio and video recording during public demonstrations. This was later used by police as justification for the use of :“disproportionate force on demonstrators and journalists alike during May Day demonstrations and this year’s Pride Parade on 26 June”

Additionally, the government introduced controversial amendments to the Press Card Regulation, “which are widely criticized for introducing arbitrary, vague and political criteria to become eligible to receive a press card.”

In April 2021, press freedom groups in Turkey celebrated as the nation’s top administrative court, the Council of State, suspended 2018 rules that made it easier for the authorities to cancel or refuse press cards. The changes had transferred authority over press cards to the presidency and had been used to clamp down on freedom of expression.

However, in June 2021 this small win was reverted when the Directorate of Communications of the Presidency issued a revised Press Card Regulation. According to the renewed Press Card Regulation, journalists who apply to get a press card will be required to have no prior conviction on charges of “establishing an organization for the purpose of committing crimes, membership of or aiding such an organization.”

Additionally permanent press cards may also be cancelled if its holder; engages in activities that are clearly against national security and public order or openly supports these activities; creates content that will encourage violence and terrorism and undermine the fight against all kinds of organizational crimes; or l engages in activities that will incite or encourage crime and undermine the fight against crime.

Since the failed coup attempt of 2016, thousands of journalists have had their press cards cancelled, while hundreds await renewal of existing cards. The report concludes that:

“For journalists’ associations, the new Press Card Regulation has once again tied the eligibility to receive a press card to arbitrary, vague and political criteria.”

Turkey ranked 153rd out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders 2021 World Press Freedom Index.

You can read the whole report HERE.

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