29/06/2018 / Turkey vs Freedom of the Press

Turkey vs Freedom of the Press

Peace, Democracy and Law, 29/06/2018

By Alan Rusbridger, Amy Goodman and Khadija Ismayilova

Orhan Erinç, Chairman of Cumhuriyet Foundation, in front of the newspaper's headquarters in Istanbul, 2016. Photo: Kaan Sağanak.

Orhan Erinç, Chairman of the Cumhuriyet Foundation, in front of the newspaper’s headquarters in Istanbul, 2016. Photo: Kaan Sağanak.

 

Since the attempted coup d’état on July 15th, 2016, the world has witnessed an unprecedented crackdown on freedom of opinion and expression taking place in Turkey. Independent news outlets are rapidly disappearing, as Erdogan’s government undertakes to silence dissenting voices, in an alleged attempt to “combat terrorism”.

The declaration of State of Emergency, that now has been extended for almost two years, and which allows the government to swiftly adopt executive decrees, has dramatically affected the work of independent press, and the very existence of democratic institutions in the country.

For the past two years, international human rights mechanisms have, time and again, urged the government to respect its international obligations and to refrain from violating its citizens’ rights. In November 2016, the United Nation’s Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, Mr. David Kaye, concluded a visit to the country and noted alarmingly that the “state of emergency cannot justify the adoption of disproportionate and arbitrary measures representing a severe blow to freedom of expression, media freedom and access to information in Turkey.” [1]

According to the Stockholm Centre for Freedom, to date 62 journalists had been convicted, 192 arrested and 142 are wanted [2] by the government since the attempted coup. Hundreds of media outlets have been shut down or dismantled, as Turkey remains the country with the largest number of jailed journalist in the world. It comes with no surprise that it has recently ranked 157 out of 180 countries in the 2018 World Press Freedom Index, compiled by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) [3], rapidly approaching the positions occupied by countries with the world’s poorest records on press freedom.

On April 25th, after a lengthy 17-month political trial, the world watched appalled as the Turkish Judiciary took a step further in restricting press freedom and condemned fourteen employees of Turkey’s most prominent independent newspaper Cumhuriyet.

The harsh, disproportionate and unlawful ruling was received with outrage by both Turkish and the international community as 14 reporters, cartoonists and executives were sentenced to between two-and-a-half to seven-and-a-half years in prison, pending appeal, on account of their professional activities. Most had been held in prolonged pre-trial detentions, including Executive Member of Cumhuriyet foundation, Akin Atalay, who was unjustifiably kept deprived of liberty for 541 days, up until the final verdict was released. On the same occasion, three further staff of the newspaper were acquitted.

Cumhuriyet’s staff was falsely convicted of supporting and aiding three different groups which are proscribed as terrorist organizations in Turkey, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party-Front, and the Gulenist movement (FETO). The charges relate directly to the journalistic activities of the newspaper, and their critical stand against Erdogan’s government. Accountant Emre Iper, for example, was sentenced to 3 years 1 month and 15 days in prison on account of his Twitter activities. This comes after the initial charges levelled against him, of downloading the Gulenist linked ByLock encryption program, were deemed to be unfounded by the Ankara Republic Chief Prosecution. [4]

Since its creation in 1924, Cumhuriyet has been Turkey’s most important independent newspaper. In 2016, it was presented with the prestigious Right Livelihood Award, known as the ‘Alternative Nobel Prize’, “for their fearless investigative journalism and commitment to freedom of expression in the face of oppression, censorship, imprisonment and death threats”.

In times of exception, Cumhuriyet has continued to bravely honor its commitment to truly independent reporting, upholding the principle of freedom of the press and the public interest first, against all odds. Over the years, five of their staff have been assassinated and yet they have persisted in providing its public with critical information on issues of human rights, gender equality, secularism and protection of the environment.

Facing yet another daunting obstacle, Murat Sabuncu, Editor-in-Chief, who received a 7 years and 6 months long sentence, declared: “Freedom is a really wonderful thing and one realises its value on losing it. Both Cumhuriyet newspaper and journalists tell the truth under all circumstances and we have always done so. Journalism is not a crime.”

The newspaper and its staff have proven over and over again that the voice of democracy won’t be silenced. Despite all odds, Cumhuriyet will continue its fearless investigative journalism and strong commitment to freedom of expression, and we remain by their side.

 

Alan Rusbridger, Right Livelihood Award Laureate (United Kingdom)

Amy Goodman, Right Livelihood Award Laureate (USA)

Khadija Ismayilova, Right Livelihood Award Laureate (Azerbaijan)

 


 

[1] Report of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression on his mission to Turkey, 35th session of the Human Rights Council (last accessed 28 June 2018)

[2] Jailed and wanted Journalists in Turkey- Updated List (last accessed 28 June 2018)

[3] Turkey drops 2 spots to rank 157th out of 180 countries in 2018 World Press Freedom Index (last accessed 28 June 2018)

[4] Emre İper released after 267 days (last accessed 28 June 2018)

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