Oct. 22 (Bloomberg) -- Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey leads the world in jailing reporters and is engaged in “one of the biggest crackdowns on press freedom in recent history,” the Committee to Protect Journalists said.
The Turkish government has criminalized basic news-gathering activities, intimidated the press into self-censorship and imprisoned more journalists than China and Iran combined, the New York-based group, also known as CPJ, said in a 53-page report on Turkey released today.
“Erdogan has publicly deprecated journalists, urged media outlets to discipline or fire critical staff members, and filed numerous high-profile defamation lawsuits,” the report said. “Turkey’s press freedom situation has reached a crisis point.”
While Erdogan’s government started official membership talks with the European Union in 2005 and boasts of expanding democracy in the nation of 75 million, the report underlines concern about intolerance of criticism after 10 years in power. About 30 percent of Turkey’s imprisoned journalists are accused of plots to overthrow the government, according to CPJ. The rest are mostly reporters from Turkey’s Kurdish minority who are accused of aiding and abetting terrorism, it said.
There were 76 journalists imprisoned in Turkey as of Aug. 1, at least 61 of whom were being held in direct relation to their work, CPJ said. That’s the highest figure globally in the last ten years, it said.
“Turkey’s imprisonments surpass the next most repressive nations, including Iran, Eritrea, and China,” it said. Iran had 42 journalists in jail, Eritrea 28 and China 27, it said. Turkey’s imprisonments have accelerated in the past two years, with two-thirds of those imprisoned detained in 2011 and 2012, according to the report.
Turkey’s government disputes both the allegations and the number of journalists in jail, rejecting many of the journalists’ credentials and citing a record of passing legislation to harmonize with the EU.
“Turkey is making an effort to strike the right balance between preventing the praising of violence and terrorist propaganda, and the need to expand freedom of speech,” Justice Minister Sadullah Ergin was quoted as saying in a letter to the group published with the report.
In one of the most high-profile cases, journalist Nedim Sener faced charges of forming the media wing of an alleged secularist network that plotted to topple Erdogan’s Islamic-rooted government. Sener had written a book alleging official negligence in the 2007 assassination of an ethnic Armenian journalist, Hrant Dink.
Ahmet Sik, who was tried along with Sener, had been preparing a book about the alleged infiltration of Islamists into the police force. Both Sener and Sik were released in March pending trial. Sik was promptly charged upon his release with “insulting a public official” for saying that the judges and prosecutors behind the detentions should be in jail instead. He faces as much as seven years in prison for the remark, according to the state-run Anatolia news agency on June 3.
Joel Simon, executive director of the CPJ, called on Erdogan to “cease his attacks on the press and instead provide justice for journalists while pursuing reforms that guarantee freedom of expression,” according to a statement accompanying the report.
The European Commission expressed “serious concern” over the growing number of court cases related to freedom of expression in a report published Oct. 10. Pianist Fazil Say stood trial last week for blasphemy after making what he said was a comment in jest about religion on the website Twitter. Writer Orhan Pamuk was tried for “insulting Turkishness” in 2005. Pamuk went on to win Turkey’s first Nobel Prize for Literature the next year.
The report is evidence of the government becoming more “autocratic,” Erdogan Toprak, deputy leader of the main opposition Republican People’s Party, was quoted as saying on Milliyet newspaper’s website. “There is a major operation of pressure and intimidation underway against newspapers, televisions, media in general, intellectuals, artists and democrats.”
Turkey’s penal code already allows authorities to “criminalize basic news-gathering activities such as talking to security officials or obtaining documents,” CPJ said. Meanwhile, frequent court cases brought by government officials, including Erdogan himself, for alleged defamation or insult “have resulted in toned-down, airbrushed coverage of news events” in a trend that may get worse, it said.
A proposed clause in the government’s draft for a new constitution would further restrict coverage of everything from court cases to issues concerning “public morality” and would “enshrine in the nation’s governing document the suppression of critical news and opinion,” the CPJ said.
As many as 5,000 criminal cases were pending against journalists at the end of 2011, the CPJ said, citing Turkish press freedom groups. The group also criticized Turkey for “increased filtering of domestic news sources, including opposition and pro-Kurdish media” and for broad bans on websites.
“Prime Minister Erdogan and his government must exert the political will to abandon the systemic suppression of critical views and dismantle the country’s vast system of media repression,” the CPJ said.
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