One of the biggest issues facing Turkey at the moment is that of a free press. Reporters Without Borders named Turkey as no. 149 in the World Press Freedom Index.
Kadri Gursel, a columnist for Al-monitor.com, was fired for writing a tweet in which he criticised President Erdoğan’s Syria policy. At the panel “Captured news media: the case of Turkey“, he said that journalists often question him about the fact that the issue of a free press is not a new situation for Turkey and spoke of his disdain for the comparison between media freedom now and in the old regime.
Gursel said that when we talk of the old regime there are certainly similarities to bear in mind with the current one. Oppression, media freedom and the imprisonment of journalists all fall under this category. However, there are also important differences. Turkey had independent media ownership until 2009. After that, there have been many seizures of newspapers and television channels and the new media landscape is reminiscent of a Putinesque media order.
The firing of journalists has become very common. According to CHP’s deputy chair, Sezgin Tanrikulu, in 2015, more than 770 journalists were fired. The imprisonment of journalists has also been an instrument to muzzle the press. In the 1990s, journalists who spoke out were killed by death squads, but Gursel firmly stated that “we are not grateful for not being killed”.
Rachael Jolley, editor of Index on Censorship magazine, explained how the magazine focuses on freedom of expression and the fight against censorship. Its issues have published a wide range work by playwrights and short story writers including Meltem Arıkan, a Turkish novelist and playwright who was forced to leave Turkey after receiving death threats for her work.
Baris Altintas, a blogger and journalist living in Istanbul, said that until 2013 there was editorial independence in the Turkish press. Since then, however, online media has been the only place to go for real journalism. The Turkish government has various methods of censoring the media, she said. For example, not only journalists but people of other professions have had repercussions, including jail sentence, for their statements against the president.
About 110,000 websites are banned in Turkey, Altintas continued, and the government is able to successfully slow users’ bandwidth in order to prevent them from reaching certain sites without blocking them. For example it has been recorded on such an occasion that it took 23 minutes to load a Twitter page, a length of time after which most people would give up. Alintas claims there are also government trolls which slander any opposition to the regime online and try to wear them down.
Altintas suggested that although Turkey’s state is alarming, it is not completely detached from the world. In order to improve the situation, she suggests that everybody, not just journalists, needs to speak up on the issue in order to show global solidarity.
Murat Coban, deputy editor of K24 said that there is a need for alternative news media. Sites can be blocked in less than a week and journalists have to think of new ways to get their content seen. One way is when editors and writers read out their blocked articles, video themselves doing it and then upload the videos to YouTube meaning that the site itself cannot be blocked. Acoording to Coban, censorship is a catalyst for creativity. He feels, however, that Turkey is past becoming a totalitarian state and that there is no going back.
Canan Coşkun, a legal affairs reporter for Cumhuriyet, is currently facing more than 23 years in prison for “insulting public officials over their duties”. The judge will make a decision about her case on the 26th May 2016. She said she believes darkness will come to Turkey and even more fascism.
Gursel said that he felt the Gezi protests of 2013 were the breaking point for Turkey. Since then, he feels that people have been less vocal. He also feels that Europe has lost its leverage with Turkey and is no longer in a position of power to negotiate with them.President Erdoğan is the biggest problem, he said, and without him things would be a lot better. He said that although they are not killing journalists, they are killing journalism. The atmosphere is so toxic and hostile that it is hard to find hope. Altintas also pointed out that living under a dictatorship is exhausting and it is no wonder that people are losing hope.
Overall the panel agreed that online media has become a refuge for Turkish journalists and that in order for the problem to be solved, everyone has to take an interest and express their solidarity. Without people other than Turks or journalists taking an interest it is hard to see a way forward.