ISTANBUL—As thousands of protesters took to the streets in Istanbul at the end of May and tear gas shrouded parts of the city center, most Turkish media remained silent.
Those that did report on the unrest between protesters and police, especially in the first few days, were few. According to the Turkish Journalist Union those journalists are now facing enormous pressure.
Ercan Ipekci head of Turkish Journalists Union said that a total of about 500 staff, including journalists, editors, and other workers from various media lost their jobs over the past two months.
A report by the International Press Institute puts forth a more modest number saying that 37 journalists resigned, 21 journalists were fired, and 14 have been on compulsory leave since the end of May when the Gezi Park protests in Istanbul started.
“Freedom of the press has been destroyed by the political power in Turkey. Journalists cannot carry out their jobs freely,” Ipekci said in an interview with Epoch Times.
Ipekci believes journalists are not to blame for the fact that many Turkish media outlets downplayed the protests. “Media owners have become slaves of political power and they keep journalists under heavy pressure. Therefore journalists cannot conduct their jobs freely,” he said.
A year ago renowned journalist Can Dundar received a warning from his boss, the owner of the daily Milliyet, that his articles were “too harsh,” Dundar told the daily Radikal. Tensions peaked after he wrote articles about the Gezi Park protests, and he was subsequently laid off.
The Gezi Park protests escalated after police forcibly removed environmentalists protesting the construction of a shopping mall on the site of the park. It sparked weeks of nationwide protests against the government and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
“My boss found my articles too harsh,” Dundar said, and added “Disapproval by a media boss might be a factor for the dismissal, however I think most importantly it was not approved by the government.” He said that media owners feel threatened by heavy tax fines. He was also dismissed from NTV two years ago for similar reasons.
For years NGOs have criticized the deficiency of press freedom in Turkey. A report published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace think tank published in January this year said, “The state of press freedom in Turkey is a stain on Ankara’s democratic reputation, economic standing, and diplomatic position.”
At the moment 63 journalists are in prison due to allegations related to terrorism and crimes committed against the state.
“In addition, there are around 120 journalists who are currently being tried without detention in various cases. They are still under threat of imprisonment,” Ipekci said.
After a five-year process, on Aug. 5, 2013, the Turkish court tried 275 suspects including former army generals, politicians, journalists, and academics in the “Ergenekon” trial related to an alleged conspiracy to overthrow the Turkish government ruled by the Justice and Development Party (AKP).
Of the 63 imprisoned journalists, 6 were sentenced in connection with the “Ergenekon” coup plot. Those journalists have already spent four to five years in pretrial detention, receiving prison sentences from nine years to life imprisonment. Fifteen more were tried without detention and received prison sentences ranging from 6 to 19 years. They will be sent behind bars if the Supreme Court approves the decision.
In February Erdogan answered a question about imprisoned journalists during a joint press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He said, “In fact the number of imprisoned journalists in Turkey does not exceed a dozen. The reason for their imprisonment is not related to their writings.”
Erdogan added, “The reason is either a coup attempt against the government or being involved in these attempts or possession of illegal weapons or taking part in an activity connected with the terrorist organization.”
The International Press Institute (IPI) has expressed alarm over a Turkish court’s convictions of journalists. IPI Executive Director Alison Bethel McKenzie said on IPI website: “We have long feared that many of the journalists in Turkish prisons were detained in retaliation for their work, a conclusion that appears bolstered here by the numerous, troubling accusations of due process violations in this case. Given that most of these journalists have already spent years behind bars in connection with these allegations, we urge authorities to release them pending appeals that we anticipate they will file.”
Journalists convicted recently included former journalist Tuncay Ozkan, who was sentenced to life in prison plus an additional 16 years behind bars. Ozkan was given an “aggravated” life sentence, meaning he is set to serve his term in solitary confinement with only one hour of fresh air a day according to IPI.
On July 24 Erdogan released a message to celebrate Journalists’ Day in Turkey and said, “Our institutions of the press should not ignore the interest of the country, public order, societal dynamism and the moral values that their occupation brings while pursuing a free, objective and responsible way of doing their jobs.”
On that same day, the main Opposition Party in Turkey The People’s Republican Party (CHP) published a report on imprisoned journalists, titled “World’s Biggest Prison for Journalists: Turkey.” It said the news and columns of the journalists who have been imprisoned are viewed as anti-government.
“Even in lawsuits solely related to their professional activities, the anti-terrorism laws are being used. Expressions of political views, which are found to be inappropriate by the government, are treated as “acts of terrorism” the report states.
CHP members interviewed imprisoned journalists. Renowned journalist, writer, and Turkish MP Mustafa Balbay who was sentenced to 34 years in the recent “Ergenekon” trial said during one of those interviews, “I am a Cumhuriyet Newspaper writer and I am being tried on the allegation that I am a member of the same organization which has bombed the newspaper office. Could there possibly be a heavier torture?”
According to the 2013 World Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders, Turkey ranks 154th out of 179 countries, below Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. The report states, “The political importance of Turkey, has grown even more because of the armed conflict in neighboring Syria but it has again fallen in the index. It is currently the world’s biggest prison for journalists, especially those who express views critical of the authorities on the Kurdish issue.”
Another journalist Banu Guven, who worked at NTV for 14 years, resigned from her position in 2011 after an invitation to Kurdish MP Leyla Zana to her program turned into a crisis. In April 2013, she joined a new TV channel, Arti 1. However, she quit after facing pressure from a media executive regarding the “Gezi Park Protests” reports. She said in her blog: “What I really want in this country is to have a TV channel that is independent and suitable to the description of our work.”