Turkey now has the most journalists in prison in the entire world, according to a report from a press freedom watchdog, likely putting a damper on the country’s longtime bid to join the European Union.
In a report Monday, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) watchdog group said that 76 journalists have been jailed in Turkey as of August of this year. According to CPJ’s analysis, the vast majority of them, or 61, are being held in relation to their journalistic work. The other 15 are being held for reasons that are unclear.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government “has waged one of the world’s biggest crackdowns on press freedom in recent history,” the group said, adding that journalists have been detained and imprisoned on terrorism or on charges “such as denigrating Turkishness or influencing court proceedings.”
Furthermore, Erdogan himself has criticized journalists and called on media organizations to fire crucial staff members or punish them, while filing a number of defamation lawsuits, the watchdog said.
“His government pursued a tax evasion case against the nation’s largest media company that was widely seen as politically motivated and that led to the weakening of the company,” CPJ said in its report.
Turkey has a long history of going after journalists. In 1996, the CPJ points out, Turkey jailed as many as 78 journalists.
“Today, Turkey’s imprisonments surpass the next most-repressive nations, including Iran, Eritrea, and China,” it said.
This will likely hinder Turkey’s chance to join the EU, a bid that it launched in 1987. The EU has told Turkey that it needs to improve its human rights situation.
Around 70 percent of the imprisoned journalists are Kurds covering events in the southeastern portion of the country, where the Turkish government has long battled against separatist Kurdish militants, including the Kurdistan Worker’s Party, or PKK, which is labeled a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department and other Western governments.
Since 1984, the PKK–Turkey conflict has left more than 40,000 people dead, according to some estimates. In clashes two days ago, nine people were killed in the southeastern province of Hakkari, reported Al-Jazeera.
“Basic newsgathering activities—receiving tips, assigning stories, conducting interviews, relaying information to colleagues—were depicted by prosecutors as engaging in a terrorist enterprise,” the CPJ said of journalists’ situation when covering the conflict.
The Turkish government disputes the claims made by the CPJ. Justice Minister Sadullah Ergin responded to CPJ’s request for comment in a letter dated July 10, saying that the number of journalists who are in jail is inaccurate. It also said that many journalists’ credentials were rejected.
“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.”
“We are of the same opinion that the freedom of thought and expression is a fundamental source of legitimacy, which provides the foundation of the present democratic systems.” said Ergin in a letter to CPJ.
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