Just lay low and enjoy the press freedom

Just lay low and enjoy the press freedom

The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is using numbers to prove that there is no pressure on journalists in Turkey. There are still at least 15 journalists in prison, but the government insists that none of them are under arrest or have been convicted for “journalistic activities.”

Leaving aside the fact that doing stories about outlawed groups such as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) or the Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party/Front (DHKP/C) is enough for a reporter in Turkey to be arrested on charges of “being the member of a terrorist group,” or even “working on behalf of a terrorist group without being a member of it” (yes, this is an actual crime according to Turkish laws), I’m happy to see that most of the jailed journalists in Turkey have been released in the last year.

But of course, the pressure is not only about putting journalists in jail. Just noting some recent incidents reveals the government-led pressure not only on journalists but also citizens.

On May 13, when a reporter asked a question to Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu about a recent Freedom House report that deemed that the press was not free in Turkey, citing Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s alleged phone calls to top media officials as an example, Davutoğlu made a very comprehensive definition of press freedom.

“If a member of the press has the freedom to ask a question directly or indirectly insulting that country’s prime minister at a press conference held by the foreign minister and that journalist can easily go home, if he can continue to do his work tomorrow, if he can ask such a question at another press conference, then there is no need to say more. This is an obvious indication of the freedoms in Turkey. I don’t need to say more,” the foreign minister said.

It was worth noting that the reporter who asked the question was from daily Zaman, another of whose reporters was told “not to stay there and change papers” by Erdoğan last month following another unwelcome question.  

On May 20, Erdoğan accused a BBC Turkey reporter of hiring two actors to pose as relatives of dead Soma miners. BBC Turkey described the criticism as an “unfounded allegation” and stood by its video, but the reporter behind the story was already a target of AKP supporters on social media. In the same speech, Erdoğan called one columnist “reptile” and another one “low life” for their somewhat defamatory tone in criticizing the Soma disaster (which I do not share) and called on their boss to fire them “or I understand that you share their views.”

Also on May 20, Der Spiegel magazine withdrew its reporter from Turkey, Hasnain Kazim, after he received death threats over a piece that quoted in its headline the reaction of a miner in Soma, where 301 coal workers were killed in a mine last week, who said, “Go to hell, Erdoğan.”

Kazim has reportedly received over 10,000 threats via email, Facebook and Twitter. One of the messages even threatened to “slit his throat.”

The German magazine’s deputy editor-in-chief told German daily Die Zeit that it had taken the decision as it considered the safety of its reporter to be more important than covering the news in Turkey.

Add the prime minister’s alleged punch on a local in Soma, and the apparent kick by Erdoğan’s aide on a mourner held down by two special forces police, and the picture is quite clear: Neither journalists nor citizens are safe from the government.

To be fair, we can still report that prime ministerial aide Yusuf Yerkel obtained a medical report allowing him to miss work for seven days, due to injuries sustained to the leg that he used to kick the aforementioned mourner, and go home. And we can still question the role of the government officials in the murder of the 301 coal miners.  

This is the luxury you can only enjoy if you are a journalist working in a country where “the media is freer than in European countries.”