Progress Report: Pressure on the media continues

Progress Report: Pressure on the media continues

“There was a decidedly mixed picture in the area of fundamental rights,” said the European Union’s Turkey 2013 Progress Report.

The reason for the confusion is that the European Commission has listed a series of positive trends, especially when it comes to freedom of expression. However, despite this it also witnessed several worrisome situations in Turkey in the opposite direction. Let’s try to shed light on this mixed picture. First, the positive developments…

The fourth justice package is praised by the EU because the new adjustment introduced has redrawn the border between freedom of expression and terror propaganda in accordance with European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) practices.

Another praised development is that there has also been “progress in terms of the opening-up of space for free debate on topics perceived as sensitive, such as the Kurdish and Armenian issues.” Right after this, it is emphasized that “parts of the media in Turkey continued to be outspoken.” The use of the Kurdish language in public being partially normalized and the fact that thousands of titles have been removed from the list of banned publications are counted among other positive developments.

However, except for such positive developments, negative comments predominate assessments regarding freedom of expression and media. The report generally outlines that freedom of expression is restricted in practice. According to the EU, problems remained in freedom of expression because “pressure on the media by state officials continued.” The report also mentioned “intimidating statements by politicians” as a category of pressure, as well as the “statements of state officials.”

The report pointed out that these statements “had a chilling effect” on the media and “instigated investigations by public prosecutors.” Another dimension of the issue is stated in the report as being that “state officials themselves continued to launch suits against critical journalists and writers.”

The problem is formulated as such in the report: “This, together with the high concentration of media ownership in the hands of industrial conglomerates with interests going far beyond the free circulation of information, continued to lead to widespread self-censorship by media owners and journalists.”

The next sentence contains quite a general expression: “In particular, the mainstream media hardly reported on the Gezi Park protests in early June.”

Right after this, the following sentence, “Columnists and journalists were fired or forced to resign after criticizing the government,” pointed to the widespread problem in a section of the media after the Gezi Park resistance.

Among other negativities that the EU points out is the issue of detained journalists. “Dozens of mostly left-wing or Kurdish journalists are still detained,” it said.

The EU report criticized the restrictive interpretation by the judiciary of Article 216 of the Turkish Criminal Code, which has led to a number of public figures being convicted for critical remarks on religion. Pianist and composer Fazıl Say’s prison sentence is recalled in this section.

On several occasions, the report said, high-level officials have also criticized social media as a threat to society.

Internet restrictions were again criticized in the report, as last year. “The Law on the Internet, which limits freedom of expression and restricts citizens’ right of access to information, needs to be revised in line with European standards,” it said.

Those criticisms against the fines and warnings of the Supreme Board of Radio and Television (RTÜK) on the grounds of “denigrating morals and national values” are harsher compared to last year’s report.
Sanctions issued by the RTÜK continue to raise concerns, the report said. “Similarly, the concept of obscenity is vaguely defined, which leaves room for interpretation,” it added. The RTÜK’s independence has been a matter of concern for a long time, according to the report, due to its political composition.

In a nutshell, the overall picture on freedom of expression in the Progress Report is not one that the government would be proud of.

Sedat Ergin is a columnist for daily Hürriyet in which this abridged piece was published on Oct. 25. It was translated into English by the Daily News staff.