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Outcry Over Rampant Jailing Of Journalists In Turkey

  • Robert Tait

A makeshift memorial to journalist Hrant Dink at the site of his muder in Istanbul in January 2007

A makeshift memorial to journalist Hrant Dink at the site of his muder in Istanbul in January 2007

It reads like a morality tale emblematic of modern Turkey.

In a rational world, the killing of Hrant Dink -- a prominent Turkish-Armenian journalist and newspaper editor who was shot dead in 2007 -- should have been a wake-up call to democracy advocates in a country supposedly reforming to meet European Union membership standards.

Instead, it has triggered an unfolding saga that illustrates in microcosm the dangers to life and liberty faced by Turkish journalists who dare to probe figures of authority.

Nearly four years after Dink was gunned down in front of witnesses outside his Istanbul office, no one has been convicted of his murder. The trial of 20 defendants has rumbled on inconclusively for three years, with the alleged gunman facing a maximum 20-year jail sentence.

That penalty and the desultory nature of the proceedings against Dink's alleged assailants contrasts with the authorities' vigorous pursuit of the slain journalist's friend, Nedim Sener, for writing a controversial book, "The Dink Murder And Intelligence Lies", which alleges official complicity in the affair.

Wider Resonance

Until recently, Sener -- a journalist with the "Milliyet" newspaper -- faced a possible 32-year sentence after being charged with a range of offenses, including publishing classified documents and "targeting people involved in antiterrorism campaigns."

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan: Charismatic but increasingly authoritarian, critics say
Despite being acquitted of the most serious charges, Sener could still serve 12 years if convicted of remaining charges. He says his case has wider resonance.

"It shows [the limitations on] press freedom in Turkey,"" says Sener. "This is a good indicator for the Turkish press situation."

Indeed, Sener's plight pales in comparison with the problems faced by many other journalists in Turkey.

According to the International Press Institute (IPI), a Vienna-based monitoring group, 48 Turkish journalists are currently in jail, while another 700 face lengthy sentences under cases brought by prosecutors who accuse them of violating Turkey's penal, press, and antiterrorism laws.

Some of the severest sentences could be handed down to journalists who have reported on investigations into alleged coup plots the Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) government says were designed to topple it from power.

Overzealous Prosecutors?

Ismail Saymaz, a reporter with the pro-secularist "Radikal" newspaper, could be sentenced to terms totaling 79 years after being accused of crimes including "violating the secrecy of an investigation" following a series of articles about an alleged antigovernment conspiracy, known as "Ergenekon," that was said to have involved hundreds of secular-minded army officers, lawyers, writers, and other figures.

Another reporter, Helin Sahin -- whose newspaper, "Star," is considered pro-government -- could be imprisoned for up to 57 years for reporting on Ergenekon and another supposed coup plan, known as "Sledgehammer," according to the English-language "Hurriyet Daily News and Economic Review."

Turkish journalists commonly say they are being prosecuted for publishing documents already in the public domain and accessible on the Internet. Senior AKP figures have blamed the rash of cases on overzealous prosecutors and undemocratic laws passed, they say, after a 1980 military coup.

But Ferai Tinc, the chairperson of the IPI's Turkey National Committee, says journalists are being pursued and jailed under far more recent legislation, enacted by the AKP ostensibly as part of a reform program designed to satisfy EU membership criteria.

"The prison sentences regarding the journalists were introduced during the Turkish reforms which Turkey was obliged to make for the European Union," Tinc says. "We have problems in the penal code, which was prepared by the previous government but introduced by our AK Party government and the press law, which is introduced by the AK Party government, and the antiterror law. In these three laws, we have articles which foresee the imprisonment for journalists, and now in Turkey we have a lot of problems related to these articles."

Authoritarian Trend

Some see the prosecutions as part of a worrying authoritarian trend inspired by Turkey's charismatic prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has frequently hit out angrily at critical journalists. Erdogan's government has been condemned by the U.S. State Department, the European Commission, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) for imposing a $3 billion fine on Turkey's biggest media group, Dogan -- whose publications have criticized government policies -- for alleged tax evasion.

The prime minister has previously called on his supporters to boycott critical newspapers and also reportedly urged publishers to fire columnists for commentaries which, he said, undermined Turkey's economy.

Anthony Mills, IPI's press freedom manager, says the treatment of journalists has deteriorated under Erdogan's government, exacerbating an underlying suspicion of free speech that has long existed in Turkish official circles.

"It is [Erdogan's] government that is in charge of the investigation into the so-called Ergenekon plot, so we would expect that government to allow the media to report on these trials, information about which is without any question at all in the public interest," Mills says. "I think it would be fair to say that we are seeing a number of issues that appear to be linked to directly to him and to the current government."

Sener, whose endeavors have earned him the IPI's World Press Freedom Hero award, agrees. He says Erdogan has the power to change the situation.

"He is the prime minister; he is responsible for all things in Turkey," argues Sener. "When the law accuses the journalists, the responsible [party] is our prime minister and all the government. Maybe they can change the law for the accusing of journalists and they can [pass] a new law. Journalists who are in prison they can send out of prison. They can free all journalists."

For the AKP -- which has promoted itself as a Westernizing reformist party despite its roots in political Islam -- press freedom has hitherto not been a priority. A government-backed constitutional amendment package approved in a referendum last month failed to address the issue and focused instead on weakening the judiciary and armed forces, previously all-powerful bastions of secularism.

However, Huseyin Celik, the AKP's deputy chairman, insists the government recognizes the problem and plans to address it by passing a parliamentary amendment before the next general election, due in 2011.

"The point of the amendment will be to enlarge freedom of expression, enlarge rights for the journalists, and...make it impossible for journalists to go jail," says Celik

Richard Howitt, a British member of the European Parliament, says an improvement in how Turkey treats its journalists could be rewarded by an advancement of the country's EU membership negotiations, currently bogged down despite having recently past their fifth anniversary.

"It will do Turkey's membership ambitions good if reforms take place that ensure that human rights are fully respected," says Howitt, a member of the EU-Turkey Joint Parliamentary Committee. "In the long run, if a free, independent, and pluralistic media is embedded within Turkey, that is going to advance Turkey's European ambitions, and I have to say, it's good for Turkey as a democracy itself."

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