This week’s guest for Monday Talk has said that the ongoing imprisonment of journalists, conditional releases that can be overturned at any time, the use of defamation suits by officials in high office, the use of the anti-terror law to stifle criticism and the failure to investigate police abuse of reporters covering demonstrations are issues of high concern for his international media freedom watchdog.
“Journalists described to us a climate of fear, characterized by public vilification, legal harassment, government pressure on newsrooms and police abuse of reporters covering street protests,” Joel Simon, executive director of the New York based non-profit organization the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has said.
CPJ and International Press Institute (IPI) delegations were recently in Turkey for consultations with journalists and meetings with senior Turkish government officials.
Simon told us that the government made three specific commitments, which were welcomed by the delegation, while saying it was up to the local press freedom community to hold the government accountable for keeping to these commitments.
Answering our questions online from New York after their visit, he elaborated on the issue.
Following the CPJ delegation’s meeting with some senior Turkish officials, CPJ Chairman Sandra Mims Rowe said in a CPJ press release that, “Although we disagree with government leaders on the role of news media, we are encouraged by their willingness to meet with us.” What are the main points of disagreement [between you] on the role of the news media?
The government’s perspective is that the media — both domestic and international — are biased and opposed [to it]. Of course the domestic media environment in Turkey is polarized, but this fact can never be used as a basis for restricting freedom of expression or cracking down on criticism.
The CPJ indicated — again in its press release — that “Turkey’s leaders aggressively defended their record on press freedom issues, denying that they had applied undue pressure.” How did this statement sound to you? Was it satisfactory?
Well the point of meeting with them was to engage in a dialogue and this statement accurately reflects the government position. We listened respectfully, but of course we fundamentally disagree. Prior to our meeting with the government, we carried out three days of consultations with Turkish and international journalists from a range of media organizations and with varying perspectives. Journalists described to us a climate of fear, characterized by public vilification, legal harassment, government pressure on newsrooms, and police abuse of reporters covering street protests.
What concerns did the CPJ delegation express to officials about freedom of expression in Turkey?
The concerns are far ranging and include ongoing imprisonments [of journalists]; conditional releases that can be overturned at any time — and which come with a travel ban; the overall legal climate, including use of defamation suits by officials in high office; the use of anti-terror law to stifle criticism; the failure to investigate police abuse of reporters covering demonstrations; and anti-press rhetoric from high-level officials that invariably triggers smear campaigns and threats against journalists who are critical. We also discussed the online environment and the crackdown on social media. There is a broad consensus among the journalists we consulted about these issues.
Gov’t made three specific commitments’
The CPJ indicated that Mr. [president Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan said in your meeting that he is against the Internet. Has this been a concern of yours?
To be clear, he made this comment in a specific context. He was talking about the use of social media by ISIS [the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL] to recruit followers. This is, of course, a legitimate concern. But I think the president’s remarks about the Internet — that he is increasingly “against it” — were intended to be provocative and suggest a deep ambivalence about the Internet as a whole. This ambivalence is reflected in a variety of government policies and actions, ranging from critical comments about social media — particularly Twitter — to the overly broad Internet Law which, until the intervention of the Constitutional Court, granted officials the authority block content without judicial review, and to collect and retain Internet users’ data.
What steps did the Turkish government commit to taking to address concerns raised by the CPJ delegation? Have you found the officials’ words sincere and promising in regards to resolving the freedom of expression issues in Turkey?
The government made three specific commitments all of which we welcomed. They are: To facilitate an independent legal review of outstanding cases[where journalists are] imprisoned; to continue with the process of legal reform around freedom of expression; and to respond to physical threats against journalists. It’s up to us — and the Turkish press freedom community — to hold the government accountable for these commitments. I do think that it is important the Turkey’s leadership was willing to sit down with us and discuss our concerns face-to-face.
Have there been cases of specific concern or have you been concerned about the imprisonment of journalists in general?
The CPJ currently counts seven cases of journalists imprisoned in retaliation for their work. While many of them have been convicted of serious anti-terror charges, our examination of the evidence, including reviews of the indictments, suggest there is a lack of evidence to support the serious charges. Our view, based on an examination of the legal records, is that they are in fact jailed in connection with their published work. We raised our concern with the justice minister, who pledged to make all files associated available to qualified legal experts for independent review. We intend to follow up on this commitment and will be contracting a Turkish lawyer to carry out this research. In more general terms, we remain concerned about the current legal framework in which journalists operate in Turkey, and which enables politically motivated prosecutions and imprisonment.
‘We intend to follow up on specific points of concern’
How do you plan to hold the government accountable for these commitments?
Now that we have direct engagement with the government, we intend to follow up on specific points of concern. As a first step, we are planning to send follow-up letters to the justice minister, the prime minister and the president to continue our dialogue and expand communication on the issues we discussed during our meetings in Ankara.
Although the number of journalists currently behind bars has gone down, politically motivated prosecutions continue to target critical journalists. What can be done?
The legal system in Turkey needs to undergo a meaningful, wholesale reform. Why? Because the problem is systemic. Whatever government is in power will use these laws to suppress the media, and this in fact has been the case for many different administrations.
Do you find the Turkish press freedom community strong enough to pressure the government on these issues?
Turkey has an active press freedom community and we’ve worked together over many years. Our work seeks to give international visibility to the concerns of Turkish journalists and the press freedom community. The challenge for Turkey, and for many other countries, is overcoming the ideological and political divisions that characterize the media itself. Journalists need to unite beyond the concept of free expression and in support of their colleagues.
I was happy to read in the CPJ press release of Oct. 3 that Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu had told the CPJ delegation: “If any journalists are under threat they can turn to my office and we will provide protection,” Davutoğlu said, adding, “Any threat to Amberin Zaman is a threat to me.” Unfortunately, those assurances have not been given in Turkish; I haven’t read or heard anywhere that Davutoğlu said this. Have you learned from Amberin Zaman if she was assured by the government that she would be protected?
I can assure you that he said it. And whether it was said in Turkish or English the meaning is the same. The prime minister has made clear that threats to Amberin Zaman, or any other journalist for that matter, are unacceptable. We have been in touch with Amberin, and while she has some healthy skepticism she also believes that the prime minister must be taken at his word. I agree — the proof of his commitment will come with meaningful government action to safeguard the physical integrity of Turkish journalists.
‘There is hunger for new and independent sources of information’
Have you also spoken with President of the Constitutional Court Haşim Kılıç? Do your impressions differ about his approach to the issue of freedom of expression in Turkey?
Two members of our delegation did participate in the meeting with Kılıç, although I was not personally able to attend. In fact, our delegation met with the widest possible variety of political actors, both from the government and the opposition. Certainly, the Constitutional Court has made a number of important decisions that safeguard and protect the right to freedom of expression, including overturning the bans on YouTube and Twitter.
Turkey has a high concentration of media ownership in the hands of business conglomerates. Would you give us examples of how this issue has been resolved in more developed democracies?
The problem of concentration of media ownership is hardly unique to Turkey. We see this as an issue in the developing world, notably in Latin America, but also throughout the developed world, including the United States and Europe. But what makes the situation in Turkey even more complex is the structure of the business conglomerates that own these media properties, many of which consist of commercial or business interests that depend on government contracts. This of course is a source of pressure that the Turkish government has regularly applied. In fact, several journalists with whom we consulted during our visit described the media properties as a sort of tax that the large business conglomerates pay as a cost of doing business with the government.
Any other issue that you’d like to address?
Yes, there is one thing. I’d like to return to the polarized media environment in Turkey. As I noted, this is not strictly a press freedom concern and it should never be used as a basis for restricting the right to freedom expression, which is fundamental. But it is my personal view, after making many visits to Turkey over many years, that there is a hunger for new and independent sources of information, which is why there has been an explosion of social media. Today we get regular calls from Zaman reporters asking for comment on the latest press freedom development in Turkey. But previously the work of the CPJ was largely ignored and sometimes criticized in the pages of Zaman and Today’s Zaman. Support for freedom of expression must be principled, and not opportunistic. This is why the efforts of Zaman’s leadership to be frank and transparent with its readers about its editorial evolution is welcome and important.
‘Gov’t sought to discredit us. … But they were not successful’
The European Union recently released the Strategy and Progress reports regarding candidates, including Turkey. The report on Turkey noted that according to Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) statistics, as of June 2014, there were 22 journalists in prison; since then, one more has been released. Turkey remains among the countries with the most journalists in prison, and the government claims that there are no journalists in prison as a result of articles written or speeches made. What is your comment on this issue?
As we told the justice minister in our meeting, the CPJ’s conclusions are grounded in research. We have reviewed the indictments and believe that the seven journalists who remain in prison in Turkey have been jailed in relation to their work. When we declared Turkey the world’s leading jailer of journalists at the end of 2011, the government sought to discredit us and challenge our research. But they were not successful. Today, most of the 61 journalists who were imprisoned at that time have been released.
The EU report also expresses concerns about the fact that the new law on the Turkish intelligence service, adopted in April, contained provisions for prison sentences of up to nine years for journalists, editors and others who publish classified intelligence. What are your views on this?
No journalist should be in jail for his or her coverage. The government has every right to investigate the leaking of classified information, but such investigations should not implicate journalists, whose job is to keep the public informed.
‘This is the most dangerous and repressive period for journalists’
You have an upcoming book, “The New Censorship: Inside the Global Battle for Media Freedom.” Congratulations! Can you tell us about the content and aims of the book?
Thanks! The book examines emerging threats to journalists and press freedom around the world. If you look at the CPJ statistics, this is the most dangerous and repressive period for journalists ever, and the system of global information on which we depend is under grave threat. The book includes an extensive section on Turkey, so I hope it will be of interest to your readers.
Would you elaborate on this a little more? Why is it the most dangerous and repressive period for journalists? What are the dangers?
First, of all, let’s look at the numbers. In the last few years, we’ve seen record numbers of journalists killed and imprisoned around the world, according to CPJ data. In terms of violence against journalists, Syria is off the charts. More than 70 journalists have been killed covering that conflict, both international and local reporters. About 90 have been kidnapped. We’ve also seen a record number of journalists imprisoned around the world in places like Iran, China and until recently Turkey. What unites these two trends is a growing awareness of the relationship between power and control of information. The information monopoly that journalists once exercised has been shattered by new technologies. Thus information is more valuable than ever, and journalists are more vulnerable. This is the basis of the new censorship — and why it’s the title of my book.