Turkey media crisis: how anti-terrorism laws equip the war on dissent

Unless Turkey begins to dismantle its media autocracy apparatus, it cannot hope to be considered a modern democracy.

Italian photographer Daniel Stephanini taken into custody in Istanbul. Demotix/Miguel Carminati. All rights reserved.

As further details of police attacks on foreign journalists in Turkey emerge, a global campaign led by the International Federation of Journalists to pressure the Erdogan government to respect press freedom is gathering momentum. With 70 nationals in jail at the time of writing, many of them awaiting trial for offences that carry life sentences, it's time for a closer examination of Turkey's murky anti-terrorism laws to determine how a country with ambitions to join the EU became the world's biggest prison for media.

“Everything is getting worse”, writes Ercan Ipekci, President of the Journalists' Union of Turkey (Türkiye Gazeteciler Sendikası, TGS) in an anguished email to colleagues.

“Police used tear gas and water cannon against journalists, especially cameramen who tried to broadcast the [Gezi Park] resistance live. Most Turkish media companies are not publishing the realities. People share information and pictures on social media, and only a few TV companies and daily newspapers cover what's going on”. 

What began as a peaceful demonstration about the future of one of Istanbul's few green spaces, has inadvertently exposed in full glare, a government prepared to use any means necessary to quash dissenting voices – even going so far as criminalising media professionals as 'terrorists' for reporting on live events. 

It’s a label that was legitimised in 2005 when a new, much broader definition of terrorism was introduced along with the amendment of Turkey’s anti-terror laws to deal with escalating violence between state forces and the Kurdistan Workers' Party (the PKK) – also viewed as a terrorist organisation by the west.

The detention of journalists en masse without trial first reared its head in 2008 with waves of arrests of journalists in the Ergenekon investigation, along with military and civilian bureaucrats who were allegedly involved in illegal activities to overthrow the government, according to a report by the Middle East Journal of Culture and Communication (2012). Evidence was gathered through phone-tapping, Internet surveillance, and the bugging of homes and offices. The arrests that started in 2008, marked the beginning of a new system of police surveillance that has become so widespread that even Prime Minister Erdogan has declared his phone is tapped. 

In the eyes of Turkish courts, reporting on terrorism or anti-government activities is tantamount to supporting them. Pre-trial detention periods are inordinately long. Some journalists have been held for three years and are still awaiting trial. Others have been incarcerated for more than five years while their trial is ongoing.

Earlier this week, the TGS reported the arrest of four Turkish journalists named as Ferhat Uludaglar, Gokhan Bicici and Ugur Can, of Dogan News Agency, and Okan Altunkara of IMC TV, in a targeted attack during the Taksim protests. The European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) has launched a campaign to free them.

EFJ UK representative, Barry White, describes the charges against journalists as “mostly related to alleged association with banned political organisations that the Islamist-lite AKP government deems terrorist. Proscribed groups range from Kurdish secessionists to secular nationalists (Kemalists) accused of plotting to overthrow the government.”

The prosecutions tend to fall under at least one of two draconian laws: the Anti-Terror Law of Turkey (also known as Terörle Mücadele Yasası, or TMY), and the Criminal Code of Turkey (also known as Türk Ceza Kanunu, or TCK).

The broad definition of terrorism contained within the law means any journalist writing about the PKK or Kurdish rights can be charged with the offence of making 'terrorist propaganda' and jailed. Last year, a high proportion of the journalists in Turkish prisons were either Kurdish or working for Kurdish media outlets, and this continues to be the case. Thousands of other criminal prosecutions have taken place on spurious charges such as ‘insulting Turkishness’ or influencing court proceedings, both of which are open to interpretation.

International criminal barrister, Hugo Charlton, who has been monitoring human rights abuses against the Kurds for over a decade, observes: “In Turkey the evidence being used against defendants is pretty thin. Association with the KCK, a Kurdish civil society organisation is enough to justify incarceration. Then the trials proceed at a snail's pace, one or two days at a time every few months. Meanwhile, the AKP’s political opponents remain in prison and can’t participate in the democratic process.”

Even lawyers are at risk. Over fifty were arrested last week for handing in a petition in support of the protests in Taksim Square. They were released following worldwide expression of outrage and support. 

Unless Turkey begins to dismantle its media autocracy apparatus, it cannot hope to be considered a modern democracy or meet the conditions of EU accession. The violent, systematic targeting of journalists covering the protests has uncovered a worsening trend of constitutionally sanctioned human rights abuses that will now be under greater scrutiny than ever before.

About the author

Anna Bragga is a freelance journalist and owner of public relations company, Conscience Communications.