Thursday, 10 June 2010

Turkey's Press battles for freedom

Something that is not, perhaps, generally known about Turkey is its vigorous, fearless and forceful news media. Journalism flourishes in Turkey. Almost incredibly, more than 30 newspaper titles appear daily in Istanbul. They range from the xenophobic to the Marxist, the nationalist to the libertarian, not to mention the ethnic dailies that include the established Armenian, Greek and Jewish press as well as the emergent Kurdish-language media.

Given what we know about the current régime, and the fundamentalist direction in which the country has been led by prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, it may not be too surprising to learn that large parts of the media are virtually constantly at daggers drawn with the government. The history of Erdogan's AKP régime is besmirched with a constant succession of protests and complaints against the media, backed by the blocking of access to YouTube and to Google websites, efforts to boycott particular titles, by cancelled accreditations and by one draconian tax fine against Turkey's leading media group.

In 2005, some three years after Erdogan came to power with a massive majority of 363 seats out of a total of 550, the government introduced a series of legislative reforms. Included in the revised penal code was what has since become known as the "notorious" Article 301. This provision categorised as crimes: "the denigration of Turkishness, the Republic, and the foundation and institutions of the State," and prescribed draconian penalties for activities so designated.

Article 301 was perceived both internally and by international observers as a focused attack on freedom of speech in general, and freedom of the Press in particular. It aroused world-wide condemnation and, following continual pressure, in 2008 the Turkish parliament approved a cosmetic reform of the controversial Article. The changes did little to widen freedom of speech.

Last February a comprehensive report on violations of media freedom was submitted to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) in Strasbourg by British MP Andrew McIntosh. In it he warned that Turkey was in violation of Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights in respect of Article 301, on the grounds that it restricts freedom of expression for members of the media. In view of this, the report concluded, the European Court of Human Rights was entitled to impose sanctions on Turkey.

“The Assembly welcomes amendments made to Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code [TCK]," said the report, "but deplores the fact that Turkey has not abolished Article 301. Criminal charges have been brought against many journalists under the slightly revised Article 301, which still violates Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights.”

Between April and June 2009, according to the Turkish monitoring organization Bianet, 125 people, 57 of them journalists, were on trial for their opinions. In September 2009 there were more than 70 current outstanding cases of journalists and writers facing criminal investigation or trial in Turkey for their opinions. Of those, 27 individuals faced possible criminal prosecution under Article 301. Meanwhile, only yesterday Hurriyet Daily News reported that journalist İrfan Aktan has been sentenced to a 15-month prison term for “making terrorist propaganda” based on his quoting of members of an outlawed organization in a news story about the country’s Kurdish issue.

Shortly after the PACE report appeared, Prime Minister Erdoğan launched an intemperate attack on newspaper columnists. He accused them of focusing on the negative, even of driving down the Istanbul Stock Exchange. He demanded that newspaper owners fire columnists straying outside the narrow band of his approval.

Anthony Mills, press freedom manager for the Vienna-based International Press Institute, remarked after Erdoğan’s outburst:

“Although this is not the first time the prime minister has criticized the media, the comments he made are extremely worrying. Because what he seems to be suggesting, if I understand correctly, is that newspapers get rid of columnists who overstep boundaries that are defined by him.”

As a result of Erdogan's threat, an online petition was initiated by a group of Turkish newspaper columnists. The petition, which included names of columnists from a range of the best-known and most widely-read of the Turkish media, read:

“We, the undersigned columnists, think that the statement by Prime Minister Erdoğan, saying newspaper bosses must control their columnists, is against the freedom of the press, to which we owe our existence, and generally against the ideal of a ‘democratic Turkey,’ and we protest this statement.”

But the red-blooded gentlemen of the Turkish press were not content to leave the matter there. Turkey's leading newspaper group, which publishes the country's major English paper, the Hurriyet Daily News, decided to present a full, free and frank account of the nation's long struggle for press freedom and the problems the Turkish media are currently facing. And that is exactly what has been appearing every day this week – so far without comment from government circles. One trusts the fearless journal will be allowed to publish the articles in full.

Editor Stefan Martens, along with reporters Özgür Öğret and Mustafa Akyol, have produced a diverse, complex and many-faceted portrait of the state of play between Turkish governments past and present, and the press. As the newspaper itself puts it: "The leitmotif in this long-running media symphony is struggle. It has never been easy. It is not so today. But Turkish journalists are undaunted and still 'pressing for freedom.'"

The series started on Monday with an historical review: "Nearly two centuries of struggle." The Tuesday effort was entitled: "Turkey's own 'McCarthyism'", to be followed yesterday by "Majority rule, unruly reporters." Today the paper presents a piece subtitled: "Drawing up the media battle-lines," and the concluding article, promised for Friday, is to be called: "Democracy when? Freedom for whom?"

One cannot help feeling that as long as a press as feisty as this persists in the country, all hope is not lost of Turkey eventually reasserting its post-War of Independence character – basically non-fundamentalist, if not positively secular.

Whether or not this hope is overly-optimistic, a paragraph that appeared in Hurriyet Daily News three days after the Gaza Freedom Flotilla incident is most unlikely to have been pleasing to Prime Minister Erdogan, or to members of his administration. Quite remarkably, perhaps, given the atmosphere prevailing at the time, the paper wrote:

"Our cartoon yesterday, a caricature of a Hassidic Jew holding a Torah dripping with blood, was precisely the kind of casual stereotyping we abhor. Rushed deadlines are no excuse. We apologize for the offense, as does our cartoonist Turgay Karadağ. It is an offense we will not repeat."

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