Turkey: a black hole for journalists?

On the 16th of April 2017, Turkey will hold a referendum on a new constitution that would significantly increase the powers of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. “We are now in the final phase of a countdown for journalism and democracy in Turkey,” said Yavuz Baydar,  co-founder of the independent media platform P24, at the beginning of the panel “Turkey: a black hole for journalists”.

Baydar expressed his fear for the current and future situation of journalism in Turkey. “For the past four years, since the Gezi Park protests, there were more and more attacks against journalists while an authoritarian regime is emerging,” he stated. It erupted fully after the coup attempt in summer 2016 and the declaration of the state of emergency. The result was mass firings, the unprecedented arrests of editors, reporters and columnists and nearly 200 private media outlets shut down. Yavuz Baydar was one of the journalists who left the country after the coup.

A high number of journalists in jail

“I would like to rename this panel and change ‘Black Hole’ into ‘Big Limbo’, because Turkish journalists are actually in a big limbo,” Gulsin Harman said at the very beginning of her speech.

Harman, country coordinator for International Press Institute (IPI)’s  digital project On the Line, described the situation of Turkish journalists stating that either they are in jail, either they use self-censorship. If they work for international outlets, they get threats for being a “traitor” but they can also be under trials and police investigations.

Yavuz Baydar added that in Turkey around 150 journalists are currently in prison, making Turkey the biggest jailer of journalists in the world. In addition to this, almost all media outlets in Turkey are controlled by the government.

What is a crime in Turkey?

According to Gulsin Harman, the rise of Erdogan as an authoritarian leader is not a surprise. “Even if he seemed progressive, I did not vote for him because I never trusted him,” she said. Harman also explained that Erdogan gathered a lot of support because he has built a strong propaganda during the last 15 years in power. To do so, “he took a very good use of the cracks of the system that were already existing. Turkey was not a democratic paradise before Erdogan,” Harman added.

As a result, journalists can easily be arrested or investigated because nothing concretely defines what is legal or illegal. Marta Ottaviani, foreign correspondent at La Stampa in Istanbul, also revealed that “since the state of emergency started, most of the journalists have not been arrested for a crime related to their jobs but for terrorist crimes.”

Gulsin Harman went further and asked: “what is a crime now in Turkey? Sharing cartoon on social media became a crime. Therefore, on standing in this panel: is it a crime? Working for international outlets, is it a crime? In Turkey, we don’t know what is a crime, and that is giving more power to authorities.”

A war on Twitter

Another phenomenon reveals abuses from the regime against freedom of expression: Twitter censorship. During Gezi Park protests, Twitter played a key role in spreading information and became Erdogan’s target. In March 2014, Twitter has been shut down after allegations on president’s corruption started surfacing on the platform.

Efe Kerem Sozeri, Turkish journalist and academic, studied the evolution of the censorship on social media. After 4 years of censorship, Sozeri observed a growing number of Twitter accounts being suspended. The data shows around 530 accounts that have been suspended in 2015 and more than 900 in 2016.

In Turkey, censorship is generally done through the law: “court orders have proven to be most efficient whenever it comes to get content removed from Twitter,” Efe Kerem Sozeri explained. As a matter of fact, there has been 15 more times court orders sent to Twitter than from the rest of the world.

The most striking fact is that Twitter censored Turkish accounts of verified journalists, including Kurdish new agencies and Bülent Kenes, former editor-in-chief of Today’s Zaman. “There were verified accounts so they knew they were journalists but they still censored them based on Turkish court requests” Sozeri explained.

Foreign journalists are also threatened

Not only Turkish journalists are fearing for their safety, but also foreign correspondents. Marta Ottaviani said that it has always been difficult to be a journalist in Turkey, but she started to be afraid in 2013. According to her, foreign journalist are facing two kinds of problems.

On one hand, they can be threatened by the authorities. One can be followed by the police, another one can be rejected at visa controls. “I don’t know if I will be able to enter the country next week. Nothing can be sure now” Ottaviani said.

On the other hand, the biggest issue for her is the changing attitude of Turkish people towards foreign journalists. “This is my personal opinion but I think Erdogan wants to put Turkish people against Europeans. People were suspicious but now they became angry,” Ottaviani said.

In her opinion, “a government can change its attitude but until people are fighting against it, this is fine. The worst situation is when people are also starting to change.”

People have to stand for journalism in Turkey

One of the questions raised by the audience was: “What to do now for Turkish journalists?” For Gulsin Hamran, people should not normalise things and always reject what is not acceptable.

She added: “when a journalist is attacked, it’s also your very right of information that is under attack. People have to understand that, and should stand for journalists and journalism.”

She explained that being informed of the situation and support journalists in jail can also have an impact. At the end of the panel, Amnesty International asked the participants to raise a yellow paper for its campaign #FreeTurkeyMedia. Even if we can’t really measure the impact of such an action, the image of journalists from all over the world standing for Turkish journalists is already a strong message.