Increasing attacks on journalists, jailings, limits on collective bargaining, increasing restrictions on the right to report, more prosecutions and less press freedom. These were some of the key issues discussed at a conference held in Istanbul on 17/18 September, entitled “Turkey: Fighting for journalists’ rights and freedoms in a politically polarised country”, which I attended and spoke on behalf of the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ).
The conference featured prominent speakers and panellists including Can Dundar, editor in chief of Cumhuriyet daily newspaper, who outlined recent attacks on the media both political and judicial and gave the recent historical background. “We discuss whether or not the press has ever been free in Turkey, but there has never actually been freedom of the press.” He referred to the harsh conditions under military rule in the country in 1980 and fast forwarding to the present day said that “even then I never saw a police state and fascism like this.” He continued that “One is free to write anything in Turkey but have to accept the possibility that there will be a price to pay and sometimes that price can be very heavy.”
International Federation of Journalists’ president Jim Boumelha reminded the conference of the impact which globalisation and the drive for greater profits also had on good quality journalism and pledged the Federation’s continuing support for journalists in Turkey. Andreea Schmidt, a member of the Delegation of the European Union to Turkey, said that they recognised and were concerned about the targeting of journalists by the authorities.
Other sessions included discussions on the work of the Journalists Union of Turkey during the past five years in campaigning against the jailing of journalists while at the same time building their membership and signing new collective agreements; reports on attacks by the authorities on Kurdish journalists and media especially in Kurdish regions; monitoring of journalists’ trials and international solidarity; the need to build trade union organisation in the media and the representation of women in the union and the media. Former EFJ president Arne Konig spoke about experiences covering journalists’ trials and suggested setting up a wider coalition drawing in people from civil society to defend and promote freedom of expression. In a session on Labour rights I spoke about the importance of building trade unionism in the media. “We also strengthen our professional and ethical standards when we have good workplace and trade union organisation,” I told the conference.
Organised jointly by the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ), the Journalists Union of Turkey (TGS) and the Journalists Association of Turkey (TGC) the conference drew up a series of recommendations and priorities covering action in the coming period up to the national election on 1 November and beyond. These were announced at a joint press conference held at the end of the conference which outlined proposals for continuing to strengthen the union by building on the recent collective agreements with media employers and continuing to resist media censorship and fight for freedom of expression and journalists’ right to report without interference. For further details of the conference go to the EFJ web site at: www.europeanjournalists.org and for the conference conclusions go to: http://www.ifj.org/fileadmin/images/Europe/turkey/Istanbul_conclusions_PR-1.docx
Following the conference a delegation from the IFJ and EFJ with colleagues from the TGS visited the Dicle News Agency (DIHA) in Istanbul. The previous day the conference had heard of the specific problems faced by Kurdish journalists and media following the ruling AKP’s attack on outlets when the former vice prime minister Bulent Arinc described pro-Kurdish and two leftist newspapers as “crime machines.” According to the dossier presented to us the news agency web site had up until 15 September been blocked 17 times. This meant that within Turkey their web sites could not be reached. The dossier also highlighted attacks on journalists resulting in injuries, arrests and imprisonments. The report concludes “It is worth reminding that for long years DIHA and independent Kurdish press have paid a heavy price to share the truth and will always continue to reveal and serve true news. As DIHA workers and reporters we will keep standing up with dignity and no compromises on the truth as we have done for the past 12 years.” Outside Turkey you can visit their web site at: www.diclehaber.com/en
Meanwhile the European Union and the United States have expressed concern at the attacks on press freedom in Turkey and accusations of terrorist propaganda against critical media. “The decision to open criminal proceedings against the Dogan Group, following allegations that its coverage of the fighting between government and the (outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party) PKK amounts to terrorist propaganda, is the latest in a series of disquieting infringements of media freedom within Turkey” the European |Commission said in statement. Dogan’s Hurriyet daily was also attacked twice by a pro-government crowd earlier this month. “We have been very clear about what our hopes and expectations are for Turkey moving forward. It is distressing to see media freedom curtailed for any purpose,” said US spokesperson John Kirby and reported in the Hurriyet Daily News weekend edition 19/20 September.
The same English edition of the newspaper reported that the Istanbul prosecutor is seeking prison sentences of up to 26 years in a number of cases, including Samanyolu Media Group Chair Hidayet Karaca (whose arrest I reported in my 1 February blog and which included details of my visit to the company in Istanbul in January) on charges of “membership in armed organisation, forgery of official documents and slander.” The prosecutor’s office also said that a separate investigation was underway into Ekrem Dumanli a columnist and editor in chief of the Zaman newspaper. Samanyolu TV chair was also detained in a parallel state investigation for alleged ties with Gulen movement (also featured in my 1 February blog).
Turkish society is entering a crucial period in the run-up to the 1 November elections. Journalists know that they play a key role in defending fundamental rights including freedom of expression and the right for the public to be informed and to talk truth to power. The situation is best summed up by Serkan Demirtas writing in Hurriyet Daily News on 19/20 September. “…In today’s Turkey, those who are in government are trying almost every way to harass and silence independent media and journalists. A multifaceted effort is bring conducted with the participation of the president, the government, government officials, judiciary, auditing institutions, pro-government media outlets etc. World history will surely mark this period in Turkey as the dark age of press freedom.” It is fearless journalists who are shinning the light into the dark corners to prevent such a dark age becoming a reality.