Fewer journalists in Turkish prisons, but new dangers ahead

Although there are still 23 journalists and media workers behind bars in Turkey, the lowest number for many years, journalists and other media activists are still being targeted by the authorities, the steering committee of the European Federation of Journalists heard last week.

The fact that Turkey no longer is the world’s leading jailer of journalists and other media workers has much to do with the campaigning within Turkey together with international solidarity action and support. Pressure for judicial reform has led to the release of a number of journalists brought about by the 4th Judicial Package, which, amongst other things, limited the period of pre-trial detention to 5 years (still far too long).

The recent election of President RT Erdogan, the former prime minister has done nothing to mend the bad relationship between him and the Gulen movement, his one – time ally. Writing at the end of last year, James Reynolds BBC News in Istanbul said that: ‘A decade ago, Recep Tayyip (RT) Erdogan changed Turkish politics by putting together an unofficial alliance of business leaders, the working class and the religious. This alliance included members of an influential, well-organised Islamic social movement led by the exiled scholar Fethullah Gulen (he lives in the US).

‘This wide base of support won Mr Erdogan three general elections. It allowed him to survive two weeks of popular, but unorganised Gezi Park and related protests in June 2013. But in recent weeks, Mr Erdogan has alienated one crucial element of his alliance – the Gulen movement. In return, many here believe that Mr Gulen’s supporters in the judiciary and the police have gone after the prime minister’s allies on corruption charges.’

This resulted in a number of high profile arrests at the end of last year. According to BBC reports at the time, mass arrests were carried out as part of an inquiry into alleged bribery involving public tenders. The sons of Interior Minister Muammer Guler, Economy Minister Zafer Caglayan and Environment Minister Erdogan Bayraktar were among those detained. Police also raided the Ankara headquarters of one of Turkey’s biggest banks, state-run lender Halkbank, and the headquarters of a large construction company owned by tycoon Ali Agaoglu. Police searching the home of detained Halkbank general manager Suleyman Aslan found $4.5m (£2.7m; 3.2m euros) in cash hidden in shoe boxes in his library, Turkey’s Dogan news agency reported. However, the government hit back quickly with the sacking of the police chiefs who reportedly oversaw a wave of high-profile arrests. Five police chiefs were removed in Istanbul a day after 52 people were picked up, including the three sons of cabinet ministers. A senior member of the government suggested the investigation was aimed at “tarnishing” its reputation.

According to the report we received at the EFJ, journalists working for pro-Gullen media are now regarded as ‘the enemy within’ and have become a new target for the authorities.

Meanwhile trials that were put on hold earlier this year are being rescheduled. The KCK trial which features 44 journalists, 10 of which are still in jail, will open on 5 November. They are facing terrorism charges and are accused of backing the illegal pan-Kurdish umbrella group, the KCK.

The Odatv trial, which I have been following for the EFJ, is expected to resume in January 2015 (see previous blogs). Whilst it’s clear to me that all the charges should be dropped, the authorities are likely to go to the wire, fearing that if they were to drop the charges, expensive and high profile legal claims for wrongful arrest and imprisonment could be brought against them.

So it’s progress of sorts, but the struggles continue and could intensify as does the need for international solidarity.

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