What a day to celebrate press freedom in Turkey
July 24 used to be celebrated by Turkish journalists as the anniversary of the abolishment of official press censorship in Turkey.
It began in 1908 after the second constitutional revolution toppled the Ottoman Sultan Abdülhamid II along with his oppressive censorship on the press—even before the collapse of the Turkish Empire through WWI and an Independence War led to a republic in 1923.
Press Freedom Day in Turkey has not been celebrated for years but marked by journalistic associations. This year, it is marked with an additional meaning. By coincidence or not, 11 members of the press for the center-left daily Cumhuriyet are expected to appear before court for the first time on the 267th day of their arrests. (Meaning “republic” in Turkish, Cumhuriyet is the oldest newspaper in print in Turkey, since the declaration of the Turkish Republic.)
Cumhuriyet colleagues are accused of helping two different terror organizations at once by printing the details of a security operation in 2015 about the Turkish intelligence trucks carrying military equipment to rebel forces in Syria in 2014. These details had been published in part but later put under restriction by the court due to national security reasons.
The security operation itself was understood to be an inner fight within the state between the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its arch-enemy turned former ally Fethullah Gülen, the Islamist preacher living in the U.S. Can Dündar, the editor-in-chief who printed the story is now living in Germany after being released after spending some time in prison. Because he wrote in his prison memories that his news source were not Gülenists but “a member of parliament” of the social democratic main opposition, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), Enis Berberoğlu, a former journalist and a former editor-in-chief of Hürriyet, was sentenced to 25 years and put in jail on June 14, 2017 on charges of espionage and for helping a terrorist organization. Their mobile signals were found to be in the same spot on one of the days Berberoğlu visited the Cumhuriyet office. Berberoğlu’s sentencing triggered the “Justice March” from Ankara to Istanbul by CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, for 25 days starting on June 15.
By the way, on July 20 the daily Güneş, owned by the construction contractor and defense industrialist Ethem Sancak, who is also a member of the Central Decision and Executive Board of the ruling AKP, targeted Berberoğlu’s daughter, Dilara Berberoğlu, a young lawyer who works for the Istanbul based Refugee Rights Center. With the headline “Father’s daughter takes over,” the paper claimed that because the center receives funds from the European Union and since there was similar funding for the Amnesty International meeting in Istanbul that was busted by the police last week and led to the arrest of six participants, another diplomatic crisis was triggered with Germany, as one of the arrested human rights defenders was a German citizen. In an attempt to make things uglier, that, according to the paper made Berberoğlu’s daughter a “spy.”
With such a background, Cumhuriyet reporters, columnists, a political cartoonist and managers are accused of helping not only the illegal network of Fethullah Gülen, believed to have masterminded the July 15 military coup attempt in Turkey, indicted as the “Fethullahist Terror Organization or FETÖ,” but also, the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Those who will appear before court today on July 24 include Kadri Gürsel, for example, who is the foreign policy columnist and head of the Turkish chapter of the International Press Institute (IPI)—which I am also a member of—who has been writing against violence all throughout his career and has had an open stance against both the PKK and the Gülenists. Ahmet Şık, another journalist on trial, had spent two years in jail because of writing a—then unpublished—book against the wrongdoings of Gülen’s network within the state under the rule of the AKP.
According to the Turkish Journalists Association (TGC), there are 159 reporters and media employees in prison waiting for their cases to be concluded.
President Tayyip Erdoğan says only two of them have press cards and they have not been tried because of what they had written or said but because of their criminal activities.
Indeed, almost all media employees are tried against either for being a member of or for helping a terrorist organization or for espionage under the state of emergency decree declared after the coup attempt, since there is no censorship in Turkey by law. “The press is free and cannot be censored” according to the 28th article of the constitution.
Today is July 24, the 108th anniversary of press freedom in Turkey. Sounds like a perfect day to mark freedom of the press, doesn’t it?