Journalists in jail and other rights issues in Turkey

Journalists in jail and other rights issues in Turkey

Whenever the question is asked to Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, Justice Minister Bekir Bozdağ or EU Affairs Minister Ömer Çelik during their travels abroad, they give the standard answer that there is no journalist or writer in jail in Turkey for what they have written or said.

That is partly true, as almost all the accusations made are on terrorism charges. Indeed, that is actually a common practice in most of the countries where journalists and writers are in jail: They are accused of terrorism, espionage, or treason. 

In Turkey, most of the journalists and writers in jail (143 according to Turkish Journalists’ Association) are accused of links with either the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) or the illegal network of Fethullah Gülen (or “FETÖ” as prosecutors call it), an Islamist preacher living in the U.S. who is widely believed to be behind Turkey’s failed coup attempt of July 15, 2016.

Some of the jailed journalists are even accused of links to both, like Kadri Gürsel, the head of the Turkish chapter of the International Press Institute (IPI) who is arrested along with nine colleagues from the center-left daily Cumhuriyet newspaper.

It is certainly right that being a journalist or writer doesn’t make anyone immune to criminal accusations. Like everyone else in society, he or she should be tried before independent courts if there is evidence that they have committed any crime. But it is also right to demand that journalists and writers should not be kept in pre-trial arrest unless there is hard evidence about the attributed crime.

Anyway, we do not know whether there is any evidence that Gürsel, a center-left intellectual, is a member of an armed Kurdish secessionist group committing acts of terror or a clandestine Islamist network committing a coup attempt, because despite being under arrest for 126 days as of March 11 there is still no indictment by a prosecutor. Neither he nor his colleagues have appeared at court yet. Meanwhile, the arrest period without an indictment is 226 days for Nazlı Ilıcak, 225 days for Şahin Alpay and Ali Bulaç, and 170 days for novelist and columnist Ahmet Altan.

Perhaps one of the most striking cases is that of Ahmet Şık. He was released from jail in 2012 after being under arrest for 375 days over an unpublished book he wrote about the illegal network of Gülen in the state. Şık’s case was often cited later as the worst example of the evils of pro-Gülen prosecutors and judges plotting against their rivals and the country. The Turkish Foreign Ministry also cited it, particularly after last year’s coup attempt. 

However, Şık, a sworn rival of the Gülenists and a government critic as a left-wing journalist, is once again in jail, today marking his 72nd day inside. Remarkably, he is now accused of having links with the Gülenists.
In another notorious case, an Istanbul prosecutor on March 9 demanded 13 years in jail for seasoned journalist Hasan Cemal over a series of articles he wrote about the Kurdish issue. At the time he wrote those pieces a few years back, Cemal was actually supporting the government’s policy of dialogue with the PKK. 
Turkey is still under a state of emergency, which was first declared right after the coup attempt. The Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) government of prime minister Binali Yıldırım has turned down numerous demands and reports about allegations of rights from domestic and international institutions. 

Referring to a recent report claiming rights violations, severe loss of lives, and displaced people during security operations, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein stated on March 10 that Turkey had “contested the veracity of the very serious allegations.” The Monitoring Committee of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) on March 8 also called for Turkey to be subjected to monitoring in order to “strengthen its cooperation with the Turkish authorities and all forces in the country and thus ensure respect for fundamental freedoms, the rule of law, and democracy.” Meanwhile, Ankara has already rejected a report by the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission, published on March 10, which states that the new constitution shifting Turkey to an executive presidential system – a long-time target of President Tayyip Erdoğan and due to be voted on in a referendum on April 16 - marks “a dangerous step backwards” for democracy.

Overall, this is not a good picture for a country that should be trying to improve the quality of its democracy after defending it against a coup attempt, and that says it still remains committed to democratic European values.