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Press freedom in Turkey fades to black under AKP rule

ISTANBUL - Hürriyet Daily News | 11/4/2010 12:00:00 AM | ÖZGÜR ÖĞRET

The AKP has accomplished much during its eight years in charge but decreasing press freedom under its rule presents a far more depressing picture.

The ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, has accomplished much during its eight years in charge, including presiding over the most spectacular economic growth in Europe, minor steps forward on the Kurdish issue and reducing the power of the military. Aside from such good news, however, decreasing press freedom under the current government presents a far more depressing picture.

With a tax fine totaling billions of dollars levied against the country’s largest media group, journalists forced to resign due to government pressure and more and more journalists facing prison time as the result of changes made to the country’s media laws, many journalists believe their situation has regressed under the current government.

“The change in the Turkish Penal Law in 2005 led to the related article of the Press Law on the violation of a trial’s secrecy, which brought compensation sentences and then prison sentences. That led to a negative direction,” said İsmail Saymaz, a journalist for daily Radikal.

There is unquestionably more variety in the current Turkish media landscape, yet the near-decade of AKP rule has been marked by increasing polarization of the press; while one side of the media depicts a ruling party that can do no wrong, the other paints a picture of a government that is evil incarnate. Although there is both a small middle ground and a number of journalists who attempt to cover the news objectively, many must read the same story in three different newspapers in order to grasp all the facts.

Figures from Reporters Without Borders indicate a depressing, downward trend in terms of press freedom under the AKP. When the party took the reins of power in early 2003, Turkey was ranked 116th in worldwide press freedom. While this figure was already distressing, the country has since slide further: in 2009 it was 122nd and in 2010 it fell to 138th. “A historic low,” the organization said.

[HH] From newsroom to courtroom

While the AKP’s clashes with the military-backed, bureaucratic status quo slowed the pace of the party’s reform measures and forced them to accept compromises, it is clear that there was no outside force exhorting them to implement more draconian laws on the freedom of the press and speech, resulting in thousands of banned websites and hundreds of journalists on trial.

A tightening of the screws on press freedom has meant that thousands of websites have been banned for violating various laws and trials for numerous journalists.

There are currently 27 articles in the Turkish Penal Code that limit the freedom of the press in addition to two in the Anti-Terror Law.

Most intriguingly, anti-government journalists have not been the only members of the media to run afoul of the law during the AKP’s time in power.

Helin Şahin from daily Star, a newspaper considered pro-government or even partisan, faces 57 years in prison due to her reporting on some alleged coup plot cases. There are 80 ongoing investigations and 40 cases against her.

Mehmet Baransu, an award-winning reporter for the anti-military daily Taraf, is currently facing approximately 40 trials. Most critically, the journalist could be sentenced to 10 years in jail for “exposing secret documents of the government.”

Baransu has so far been ordered to pay fines of 20,000 Turkish Liras for two of his offenses and 25,000 liras for another two.

Saymaz, who is not a journalist sympathetic to the AKP, is currently facing 10 cases and 83 years in prison for alleged press violations.

“The change in the Anti-Terror Law in 2006 regarding making propaganda for a terrorist organization is more often used against ‘non-famous’ reporters,” Saymaz said, adding that the AKP was responsible for all the changes.

Some 47 Turkish journalists are currently under arrest or on trial, while more than 700 criminal and civil cases involving journalists are ongoing.

[HH] Kurdish press experiencing difficulties

In previous years, journalists all over the country saw some of their stories arbitrarily banned before they went to print – and thus a large white space in the newspaper – as well the shuttering of newspapers by the will of a single official and lifelong prison sentences.

While such treatment is rarely now experienced by journalists in the western part of the country, the same cannot be said for journalists in areas with high Kurdish populations.

Adil Zozani, a columnist and editor for the Kurdish-language daily Azadiya Welat (Free Homeland), who has been an active journalist since 1992, said he saw many colleagues killed during the dark days of the 1990s in eastern Turkey.

“At that time, despite all that pressure, the prosecutor did not have the authority to shut down newspapers; a court order was needed. We were able to publish the paper with an empty part, writing, ‘This story has been censored,” Zozani said.

“Not being shot in the streets notwithstanding, we are yearning for the 90s under the AKP era,” he said.

Zozani said Kurdish journalism still had no legitimacy in the eyes of the government.

“We, as Kurdish journalists, have never been tried in Turkey within the scope of the [law on] freedom of opinion and expression,” he said, referring to the controversial Article 301, a law that bans “insulting Turkishness” and has caused trouble for many.

Many Kurdish journalists also face trials based on Article 7 of the Anti-Terror Law for praising crime or criminals, according to Zozani.

Vedat Kurşun, Azadiya Welat’s former news editor, faced a prison sentence of 525 years when he spoke to the Hürriyet Daily News; he was finally sentenced to 166.5 years in prison in May.

“Being a Kurdish journalist in Turkey automatically means being subjected to double standards,” said Zozani, adding that the oppression extends beyond the courtroom. “When the police see our newspaper on a table at a teahouse, he may consider it criminal evidence against the owner. People who distribute our newspaper are under pressure.”

Metin Alataş, a 34-year-old Azadiya Welat distributor, was found dead April 5, hanging from a fruit tree in the southern province of Mersin. Alataş had been receiving threats for some time, according to his family and the daily’s lawyer, Vedat Özkan, who said they did not believe the death was a suicide.

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