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Café Pacific: Turkey branded as world's 'biggest prison' for journalists


Thriving Turkish national press in Istanbul. Image: David Robie

Café Pacific, David Robie

17 January, 2013

COMMENTARY: CAFÉ PACIFIC has returned from a Greek and Turkish odyssey – exploring ancient Greco-Roman cities and the like in mid-winter. Refreshing. Great to get away from the small island politics and pseudo media freedom issues and self-serving egotism of the South Pacific and grapple with serious issues for a change. Unlike Greece’s Euro travails, Turkey is enjoying an economic boom and even some market liberalism. On the face of it, it is a tribute to secularism in an Islamic state. However, scratch a little deeper and in spite of a thriving national media (more than 40 national dailies in Istanbul, 1000 plus private radio stations and 300 or so private TV stations competing with the state broadcaster TNT and countless online news websites) one of the most insidious contemporary campaigns against free speech is exposed.

In spite of efforts to clean up the media scene in line with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s aspirations to join the European Union, the country’s oppression against journalists has come in for some serious recent international condemnation. In spite of a raft of reforms, under Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code, “insulting the nation” is still a crime.

The military, Kurds and “political Islam” are also highly sensitive issues. So much so that a robust editorial or other expression of opinion can easily land a journalist in prison. Recent global freedom reports have cited Turkey as the world’s most notorious “media jail” – some 70 editors and reporters are reportedly still behind bars. This is embarrassing for Erdogan whose Islamist-leaning Justice and Development (APK) Party that won a third term of office in 2011 and is committed to joining the European Union.

In The Guardian’s quality Media Report, Peter Preston last week highlighted how the provocative but brave Turkish daily Taraf had finally been axed, noting that while the International Press Institute had ranked Syria and Somalia “top of the murder league”, Turkey was still “leader of the incarceration championship”.

For five years of feisty existence, a Turkish daily called Taraf (circulation just over 50,000) has told truth to power with brave élan. Its owner, a bookshop entrepreneur, cheered its editors on as they broke stories other papers wouldn't touch. He even picked up the bill when Turkey's prime minister sued for libel (and won) after Taraf called him "arrogant, uninformed and uninterested".

    But now the grinding of government axes offstage appears to have claimed another victim: the editor and his deputy have resigned. No one knows what will survive. Freedom doesn't necessarily die.

The Press TV website highlighted the pressure that Turkish journalists had faced ever since Erdogan had won office in 2002, quoting the Turkish daily Aksam saying: “Turkey is the number one violator of freedom of speech and the government intensified its suppression of press freedom in 2012.”

The daily said a large number of journalists critical of the Turkish government were arrested last year because Erdogan [did] not tolerate any criticism.

    Last month, press freedom watchdog, Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), named Turkey as the world’s worst jailer of the press in 2012. Reporters Without Borders has also named Turkey as the world’s "biggest prison" for journalists.

    According to the CPJ, Turkey detained 49 journalists as of December 1, with dozens of Kurdish reporters and editors held on terror-related charges. A number of journalists are also being held on charges of involvement in anti-government plots.

    The problem, say critics, is that the Turkish government fails to differentiate between “freedom of expression and terrorism”.

In Kuwait’s Arab Times Online, former Oil Minister Ali Ahmed Al-Baghli condemned the “disciplining of journalists” in both Turkey and Palestine in his regular column. While observing that the Middle East nations were “bedazzled by the economic success of Islamic Turkey” when compared with Islamic Iran, there was a tendency to ignore disturbing news coming from Istanbul.

One eye-catching aspect is that, most journalists who are jailed by Turkey are Kurds. They are accused of terrorism. The accounts and reports from the CPJ affirm they are mere prisoners of opinion.

    To add insult to injury the Islamic government of Erdogan has officially cemented that trait. Erdogan summoned the editors-in-chief of newspapers and ordered them to discipline their reporters.

    In one incident Erdogan called one of the Kurdish journalists a “traitor” for writing an article which did not go well with him and the next day he was fired by a hypocrite editor-in-chief of that particular newspaper.

    Here in Kuwait, we thank Allah the Almighty because we don’t see any journalist behind bars.

Just after Café Pacific left Turkey, journalists from nine countries gathered in Edirne for the region’s inaugural working journalists'  “Balkan Meeting”. Journalists from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Greece, Montenegro, Kosovo, Macedonia, Romania, Serbia and Turkey took part in discussing “common problems”. Said the Thrace Journalists Association president Ali Soydan: “We hope this will mark a beginning. We hope nice events and cultural changes would make news in the Balkans that became house to blood and tears for many years.”

We hope so too – but we also hope that they will be investigating ways to enhance the reporting of the tough stories impacting on the region. Fiji might learn something too.

Happy New Year everybody. Café Pacific usually hands out annual media freedom bouquets – and wooden spoons – at this time, but with such extensive travelling the awards were skipped this year.

Café Pacific 2010 media freedom awards

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 New Zealand Licence.

About the authors

PMC profile photograph

Café Pacific

David Robie's blog

Kia ora tatou and welcome to journalist David Robie's independent news media and politics commentary and analysis about Aotearoa/NZ and the Asia-Pacific region.

PMC profile photograph

David Robie

Professor, PMC Director

Professor David Robie is an author, journalist and media educator specialising in Asia-Pacific affairs.


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