Defending journalism in Turkey

Last week I was on a mission to Turkey on behalf of the International and European Federation of Journalists to observe a number of trials of journalists, which have been on the increase since the failed coup of 15 July and the three month state of emergency introduced on 21 July. Under the state of emergency some 131 media organisation including three news agencies, 16 television channels, 23 radio stations, 45 daily newspapers, 15 magazines and 29 publishing houses have been closed according to Early Day Motion 474 tabled in the UK parliament on 15 September. The authorities can also hold suspects in detention without charge for 30 days with journalists frequently detained.

So it was against this background that together with the EFJ’s project officer Mehmet Koksal we made our way to the Caglayan court of justice in Istanbul on Tuesday 20 September. The first hearing was against journalists Ayse Düzkan, Ragip Duran, Hüseyin Akyol and Inan Kizilkaya. The four are being prosecuted for participating in a solidarity campaign with the Kurdish daily newspaper Özgür Gündem which had been shut down by the authorities. During the hearing in a tightly controlled court room, the defendants complained that following the raid by heavily armed special police on 16 August, the offices of the Özgür Gündem newspaper had been shut down and defendants did not have access to the building, to the files or their belongings. One spoke of being kept in isolation with very limited access to lawyers, family and friends. Inan Kizilkaya concluded: “We didn’t get any document from the prosecution, nor could we properly prepare my defence. All our work is related to journalism and freedom of expression and I don’t consider it a criminal activity”.

After a 20 minute hearing the judges decided to merge the case with 20 other similar cases and to resume on 15 December 2016. We only just got into the court to hear the case. A small room had been chosen which only seated some 40 observers. On leaving the court the defendants were greeted by dozens of supporters in the corridor who had been unable to get into the court.

Before the case started, supporters gathered outside the court house to make public statements of solidarity and we were joined by representatives from DISK Basin-Is members (journalists’ union), TGS members (journalists’ union), TGC (journalists’ association) Kurdish journalists, members of Turkish Parliament, members of DISK-confederation of workers’ associations, feminist activists and friends. It was impressive turn out, leaving me in no doubt that despite the post-coup increase in repression and atmosphere of fear, people were prepared to stand up for journalism and freedom of expression.

Asked by a local reporter why I was here, I replied: “Every trial against a journalist is important and we are here to express the solidarity of the international community for all our colleagues who are on trial for only doing their jobs. The situation is worse now than before 15 July because of the massive purges undertaken by the authorities. But the level of support shown this morning to the defendants shows the strong spirit of those defending press freedom and the public’s right to information”.

Afterwards we made a solidarity visit to Evrensel newspaper. This left-wing Turkish daily newspaper has recently been under heavy media attacks from other pro-governmental news organisations. Fatih Polat, the editor-in-chief gave examples of different types of threats they had received including the jailing of correspondents in Mardin and Diyarbakir, pressure on advertisers, penalties from the regulators. He explained the importance of international solidarity to put pressure on the authorities. He specifically thanked the IFJ /EFJ and other media organisations for sending letters to Turkish authorities which helped secure the release two Evrensel correspondents taken into custody for over 15 days.

That evening together with Ugur Güç, TGS president, I was interviewed on an evening news programme on IMC TV. We discussed the increasing number of prosecutions against journalists. Responding to a question from presenter Banu Güven, I explained that “one of our strategies is to put pressure on European decision-makers to speak out against press freedom violations in Turkey and make them more active on this issue.” I added that the IFJ/EFJ will continue its solidarity campaign, working with our affiliates in Turkey to improve the situation in order to guarantee public’s right to information as well as mobilising our international affiliated unions around the world. You can view the programme at: http://www.imctv.com.tr/efj-turkiye-gozlemcisi-gazetecilerle-dayanismaya-devam-edecegiz/

When we left the studio, the thunder storms and heavy rain had cleared, but there are more stormy times ahead.

Additional material  by Mehmet Koksal.

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