All of the 33 employees of Hedef Halk, a local newspaper in the Black Sea province of Samsun, Turkey, quit after the owner signed a protocol that would stop the newspaper from publishing reports about blackmail, theft, murder, suicide, traffic accidents, rape and sexual abuse. Luckily, the newspaper’s owner, Sabahattin Poyrazoglu, withdrew his signature from the protocol amid the employees’ protest, and the newspaper resumed publication.
The story, published by hurriyetdailynews.com on May 25, highlighted the (self-)censorship still commonly practiced in Turkey, the country that the West likes to refer to as a model of democracy in the Islamic world, especially among the “Arab Spring” countries.
In a recent high-profile case that received international media attention, a Turkish court accused journalist Nedim Sener, an investigative journalist working for the newspaper Milliye, of plotting with a terror network to overthrow the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Human rights activists said the move was a government tactic to muzzle its critics, an allegation that the government strongly denied.
Sener was released along with three other journalists in March, pending trial for charges of conspiracy to overthrow the government. The court accused them of being members of Ergonekon, an alleged ultra-nationalist group seeking to topple Erdogan’s Islam-inspired AK Party government.
In a workshop with visiting Indonesian journalists, senior writers and members of the Turkish media said that freedom of expression remained a major challenge in their country, where censorship has already been in place for as long as they could remember.
Particularly sensitive issues are those related to the military, founding father Kemal Ataturk, political Islam, “conspiracies” against the government and rebellions by the Kurds, who aspire to found an ethnic homeland in the southeastern territory bordering Iraq. The media are closely controlled on the issues and many journalists have been intimidated, fined, arrested or jailed for “mis-reporting”.
Unfavorable reporting could result in charges of conspiring with enemies of the state.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) reported last year that the Turkish government blocked more than 5,000 websites for various reasons pertaining to national security — censorship which it said “considerably limits freedom of expression and severely restricts citizens’ right to access information”.
In the best-known case, YouTube was blocked for two years between 2008 and 2010 after Turkish authorities found some videos were offensive to the highly revered Ataturk, who founded Turkey in 1920.
According to the South and East Europe Media Organization (SEEMO), 102 members of the media are currently detained for reporting on issues deemed dangerous to the state. The Vienna-based SEEMO is a non-profit network of editors, media executives and leading journalists from newspapers, magazines, radio and TV stations, news agencies and new media in Southeast Europe.
Justice Minister Sadullah Ergin was quoted in local media as saying that the number of journalists, writers and media distributors in legal wrangles has been exaggerated by civil groups who wanted to portray Turkey as a dangerous place for journalists. He said that the members of the media were taken to court for their activities other than regular reporting.
Avni Ozgurel, a senior journalist and writer, said that censorship was a big challenge to local media’s contributions to democratization in Turkey, a country that many around the world refer to as a “cradle of civilization”.
Ozgurel noted that when the military — the guardian of secularism in the Muslim majority country — played a dominant role in politics, the local media became a tool of political propaganda. That changed, however, with the democratic election of Erdogan’s civilian government in 2002.
“[The year] 2001 became turning point when the media started to support the development of civil society and democracy,” he said. But he added that freedom of the media remained a delicate issue as many owners of the media outlets were politically connected businesspeople vying for lucrative contracts in state projects. This is in addition to the chilling effect of harsh punitive measures the government takes against its critics.
As Erdogan has become more assertive, he has been credited for bold foreign policy, the promotion of civilian government and economic success. But critics say the continuing censorship and suppression of freedom of speech has blemished his reputation and hurt Turkey’s international standing.
Restrictions on the freedom of expression are also seen as a stumbling block for Turkey’s aspirations to join the European Union.
Despite its status as the most modern and democratic among Islamic countries in the region, Turkey ranked 148th in Reporters Without Borders’ 2011 annual worldwide press freedom index, just below Malawi and above Mexico. Indonesia, which has enjoyed a high degree of media freedom following the fall of dictator Soeharto in 1998, ranked 146th out of the 179 countries surveyed.
The Turkish media hang their hopes for greater freedom and better protections of human rights on the amendment of the constitution.