Turkey – a tough place to be a journalist

The National Union of Journalists yesterday marked Word Press Freedom Day 2013 with a public meeting focused on the plight of journalists in Turkey: a multi-party state and would-be EU member that doesn’t warrant the term democracy given the behaviour of the majority party toward its critics. Turkey recognises in law a thousand and one varieties of “terrorist”, and has a reputation for jailing large numbers of journalists.

Modern-day Turkey is a dangerous environment for journalists. Since 1992 Eighteen have been murdered, 14 of them with impunity. Sixty-six Turkish and Kurdish journalists remain in prison, with many on remand awaiting trial for offences that carry life sentences. The charges against them are mostly related to alleged association with banned political organisations that the Islamist-lite AKP government deems terrorist. Proscribed groups range from Kurdish secessionists to secular nationalists (Kemalists) accused of plotting to overthrow the government.

One Kemalist-inclined journalist who fell foul of the AKP regime is academic and newspaper columnist Coşkun Musluk, who spent more than a year in prison before being released in March. Musluk was jailed for alleged participation in a purported plot known as Ergenekon, with which a number of senior military figures have also been associated.

Musluk spoke to the meeting last night via a video link, providing considerable detail on the situation facing journalists in his country. For example, legislation implemented in 2005 arbitrarily labels as terrorist any number of political activists, social commentators and journalistic reporters. Musluk quipped that for every profession, trade and community group in Turkey there exists an associated terrorist organisation.

In Turkey there is no independence of the judiciary from the executive, and evidence against journalists who cross the government often comes in the form of computer files which Musluk citing technical details argues must have been planted. Journalists and political dissidents are then detained for such long periods without trial that acquittal is not seen as an option given the negative PR that would ensue for the government should the accused clear their names.

Musluk insists that international campaigning on behalf of persecuted Turkish journalists resonates strongly within the country. The government is now engaged in a dialogue with the armed Kurdish opposition, and has an eye on future EU membership. The AKP can only cope with so much bad press for Turkey on the world stage.

“The campaign is very important to imprisoned journalists. Please send them letters and postcards, and write about their situation in newspapers and blogs. Please make their voices heard.” [Coşkun Musluk]

Brussels-based journalist and International Federation of Journalists Turkey campaigner Mehmet Koksal presented photographs taken during a recent visit to the country which included a number of Belgian politicians. Belgium is involved in a number of projects with Turkey subject to formal international agreements, and the Belgian political establishment is rather concerned with the parlous state of Turkish democracy.

“In jail you are afraid of being forgotten, which is what the government wants. This is why international support is so important.” [Mehmet Koksal]

Sean Bamford, the TUC officer with special responsibility for the “Ottoman Empire” spoke next, reporting on the disgraceful events which took place on Wednesday of this week at the Mayday rally in Istanbul. Legions of riot police blocked access to Taksim Square in the city centre, the mobile phone network was jammed, and there was much state violence perpetrated against rally participants set on marking the anniversary of the massacre which took place there in 1977. Trade union headquarters were blockaded by the police, with tear gas canisters thrown into the buildings, the doors of which were then locked from the outside.

International Federation of Journalists president Jim Boumelha reported that the vast majority of cases brought before the European Court of Human Rights in recent times are related to Turkey, as are a third of all terrorism charges. But government peace talks with the Kurds are a potential game changer, says Boumelha. For that reason pressure must be kept up on the Turkish government when it comes to the human rights of Turks and Kurds alike.

The final speaker was Amnesty International researcher Andrew Gardner. Amnesty’s 2012 report on Turkey is wide ranging, and Gardner is especially interested in legal issues and mass media ownership. Within Turkey there is discussion of the report among journalists, but editors will not touch it for fear of antagonising newspaper proprietors and the political establishment.

Following the guest speakers there were many contributions from the capacity audience at Headland House, with Turkish and Kurdish journalists prominent among them.