Turkish journalists increasingly face legal and physical attacks

Attacks on journalists in Turkey from both inside and outside the legal system have challenged their sense of security. .

On May 3, World Press Freedom Day, Turkey’s journalists took the opportunity to once again draw attention to their plight. In a joint statement, the Association of European Journalists' (AEJ) Turkey Agency, Progressive Lawyers Association (ÇHD), and Press and Publishing Workers' Union of Turkey (DİSK Basın-İş) warned that the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has enhanced an authoritarian tendency that sacrifices press freedom.

“Freedom of the press has been sacrificed in the name of the interests of the country or the ambition for profit. There are, however, a few countries in Europe that have maintained their democracies and press freedom to some extent.  In this context, Turkey is among those with the worst record,” the statement said.

Özgür Öğret, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ)’s representative for Turkey, said that concerns about the pandemic have distracted attention from press freedom issues.

“In 2020, Turkey has been more concerned with questions of public health than with any issues about journalism,” Öğret told Ahval News in a recent podcast.

“That doesn’t mean that  press freedom has increased or that the number of ongoing trials have decreased, but press freedom was not the number one subject on Turkey’s agenda this year.”

According to CPJ’s tracking of journalists imprisoned worldwide, Turkey remains the world’s second-largest jailor of journalists, right after China. A total of 37 journalists are now behind bars while Turkish courts continue cases against others on charges such as “insulting the president,” “espionage”, or “spreading terrorist propaganda.”

Many of these charges are arbitrary, more often the result of the government’s displeasure with these journalists’ work than for any crime.

However, the number of journalists imprisoned now is actually lower than it was in 2019, with one prominent release being writer Ahmet Altan. Öğret cautions against reading too much into these developments as any indication that the Turkish government was relaxing its persecution of Turkey’s journalists.

He explained that there is “logic” to explain why Turkey releases some journalists but not others. Instead, he suggests, arrests and releases tend to be influenced by changes in the political climate rather than any concern for press freedom. .

“If you follow case by case, there is no way to explain why this journalist goes to prison and another is released,” Öğret explained. “Political shifts in Turkey result in different journalists being jailed.”

Even as some journalists are fortunate enough to go home to their loved ones, the general atmosphere that they are working within is becoming increasingly challenged.

An  example is the recent ban on filming police officers in public. In a circular, signed by General Director of Security Mehmet Aktaş, officers are ordered to prevent any audio and video recordings of active duty personnel, saying filming or recording police officers constituted the criminal offence of obstruction of duty.

Legal groups have balked at this decision as unconstitutional, and declared plans to challenge its legality. Öğret said the manner in which the ban was instituted, through a ministry directive, made the change difficult to justify on constitutional grounds. Further, the move is not even practical, given the plethora of existing footage showing police brutality against citizens or journalists.

“In practice, we can say that this does not work,” said Öğret. “Whenever you try to halt this journalist or that journalist in the field, other cameras will be turned on you.”

But there is a more sinister aspect to this increasing disregard to press freedom.

Assaults against prominent journalists in Turkey are not uncommon, especially if they are deemed to be in opposition to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) or its coalition partner  the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).

Assault victims report their attacks to the authorities, but they worry that these crimes are not taken seriously.

Öğret said that, up to now, the “necessary will and persistence by authorities” has been lacking and so defendants are treated lightly if they are even apprehended at all. He said that the expectation should be that Turkey becomes “more sensitive and willing” to investigate attacks on journalists.

“Turkey’s journalists are feeling more and more vulnerable when these attacks go unpunished,” Öğret said, adding that threats to journalists’ physical safety is already a risk many take. “But when attacks on journalists go unpunished, Turkish journalists cannot help living in fear.”