Aziz Tekin, a correspondent for the Kurdish-language newspaper Azadiya Welat, had the misfortune of becoming a news item himself over the weekend when he became the 105th journalist in Turkey to be put behind bars.
That places Turkey – a country usually hailed as an exemplar of democracy and Islam – ahead of such repressive regimes as Iran and China with the largest number jailed journalists in the world according to the Platform of Solidarity with Imprisoned Journalists.
Others take issue with exactly how many of the detainees are being held purely for doing their jobs, but they don’t deny that scores of media professionals are being detained and face laws and a judicial system that makes it easy to put and keep them behind bars.
“The press is quite pluralistic and rather free, but it remains dangerous for a journalist who writes a critical article against the government, especially on the Kurdish issue or criticizing the judiciary. The risk of getting arrested is really high,” Johann Bihr, head of the Europe desk at the international press freedom group Reporters Without Borders, told The Media Line.
The number of detentions has increased “exponentially” in recent months, he said. Turkey fell 10 places on Reporters’ International Press Freedom Index to 148 among 179 countries.
In December, some 30 journalists were rounded up in raids across the country targeting the Kurdish separatist movement. A day before Tekin was hauled in, a court in Istanbul refused to release 13 journalists including Ahmet Sık and Nedim Sener of the Oda TV news portal.
The wave of arrests prompted the U.S. author Paul Auster, whose books are popular in Turkey, to declare he is boycotting the country. “I refuse to come to Turkey because of imprisoned journalists and writers. How many are jailed now? Over 100?” Auster told the Istanbul daily Hurriyet this week.
The arrests come against a background of a changing power dynamic in Turkish politics. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), the first Islamist movement ever to rule in Turkey, is marking a decade in power, presiding over a booming economy while it gently inserts more religion into public life and its backers into key institutions like the courts and the military.
The army, which once dominated Turkish politics and served as a guardian of the country’s secularism, is in retreat.
Erkan Saka, who teaches at Istanbul Bilgi University’s communications school and blogs at Erkan’s Field Diary, said the arrests are part of that realignment, which is now encompassing the secular, establishment media. “Under normal conditions, mainstream media has values in parallel to establishment, but now establishment itself is changing,” he said.
The arrests almost always involve journalists linked to Kurdish separatism or a shadowy anti-government conspiracy called Ergenekon that officials have been investigating in what they say was a wide-ranging plot by the army and other members of the old elite to overthrow the AKP.
Critics say the judiciary, which is directly responsibility for the arrests, makes little effort to distinguish between people covering controversial issues and the people and movements they are covering. Thus last December, the scores people rounded up for alleged links with a Kurdish separatist movement included journalists and Kurdish activists alike.
“All their interrogations have focused on the articles they have written and trips they have made—why did you attend a conference by left-wing or pro-Kurdish academics? Why did you decide to cover a pro-Kurdish demonstration?” said Reporters Without Border’s Bihr. “It’s really likely that prosecutors have nothing on them except their profession.”
Arrests are not the only problem besetting the country’s media. Turkey has introduced tougher Internet censorship, has pursued what critics say is politically motivated tax cases against media groups and deals harshly with people who violate bans on denigrating the Turkish state.
Media observers blame the judiciary first and foremost for the arrests. Turkey’s anti-terrorism law and penal codes give them a lot of latitude to detain people and to keep them under lock and key without filing formal indictments. One of the reasons media experts are not sure about the number of journalists under arrest is that it is impossible to see the charges filed against them.
When the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) published in December its annual census of imprisoned journalists it could only verify that eight were actually being held for their writing and reporting, a fraction of the 64 or so others counted. The estimate triggered a sharp debate in the human rights community.
But Erdogan and others in the government have come to the defense of the country’s media freedom. “Turkey does not deserve the negative image portrayed to the world by the main opposition and some journalists and writers,” he said last week at an event marking the 25th anniversary of a pro-government newspaper, Zaman.
Others would beg to differ. They say that Erdogan has encouraged an atmosphere of press hostility with personal attacks on journalists who criticize him and his government and by personally pursing defamation lawsuits. Indeed, while defending the country’s record on media freedom, he decried in the same speech media conspiracies against the government.
“If you claim to have media freedom, you shouldn’t launch attacks on [newspaper] columnists who are critical of you. But he does that all that time,” Saka said. “That triggers anti-journalist feeling in the bureaucracy and judiciary.”