Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Journalists in jail

Noam Chomsky, who visited İstanbul to take part in a conference on freedom of expression, summarized the situation in a calm manner. He told the press that from 2002 to 2008 observers of Turkey had noted with satisfaction that freedom of expression thrived and that journalism and debate became much bolder, but that in the last couple of years the situation had again become alarming.
He is right. We have reason to worry because as discontent among our colleagues grows, so does the insensitivity of the authorities, both political and judiciary.
A severely disturbing indicator of worsening conditions for journalists is the number of those in jail, and the escalation in cases filed against them. In more than 3,000 cases, newspapers and reporters are being subjected to legal inquiries, and more than 2,500 indictments have now been filed against them.

The Taraf and Zaman dailies top the list of these files. Taraf recently broke the national record as a newspaper that was tried in 44 separate cases in just one day. It has 285 cases hanging over its head.

But the record of ongoing cases goes to Zaman. Prosecutors filed more than 550 cases against the newspaper. The Star daily, “number two” on the list, has also been shaken by 407 cases. Others are also being affected, including Radikal and Milliyet.

An overwhelming majority of those cases have the core of journalism as a target: Prosecutors ground their accusations on “national security,” “breach of the secrecy of legal investigations,” “criticism of the courts,” “revealing secret documents,” “exposing authority figures as targets for terrorist organizations,” etc. In some cases, it is prosecutors with expanded jurisdiction, and not the so-called prosecutors responsible for “violations in the press,” who act. It is a clear indicator of what direction the “respect for press freedom” is going in.

How many journalists are in jail? This is a tricky question and one that divides those who monitor the state of journalism in Turkey. It has to do with the criteria with which each arrest, detention and sentencing is judged, whether or not the cause for legal action has to do with the professional practice of the journalist.

Arguably, the most reliable source for this is the Independent Communications Network (Bianet), which has for years systematically monitored media freedom indicators along universal norms. According to Bianet, four journalists were in jail as of late August. The network recently added a fifth name to the list. Four of them are editors of Kurdish publications while the fifth is Erdal Güler, the editor of the Devrimci Demokrasi periodical.

We have two other sources. One is the Solidarity Platform for Detained Journalists (TGDP), which claims that the number is 40. The other is the International Press Institute’s (IPI) Turkey branch, which insists that there are 48 journalists in jail. These are less reliable, simply because they are not as meticulous as Bianet, which receives the powerful assistance of lawyers and observers. The TGDP includes in its count all cases filed under “terrorist actions,” where it is very difficult to distinguish whether or not a certain publisher is detained due to their professional work or not. (That is also the reason why many prominent journalists disagree that journalists such as Mustafa Balbay, Tuncay Özkan and Ergun Poyraz are to be campaigned for. They are detained under the Ergenekon case for their work. It is a symbolic problem of defining where the criteria end.)

The IPI’s problem is consistency and bias. The organization, which had displayed remarkable insensitivity in the hugely problematic 1990s, particularly to the “severe” cases of the Kurdish and pro-Islamist press, is now -- mainly because of its affiliation with the Doğan Media Group -- keen on being seen as the champion of press freedom.

Apart from serious sources such as Bianet, other figures must be taken with a pinch of salt. But this does not by any means minimize the seriousness of the situation. Something has to be done.

The problem with the Turkish press today is also the press itself. It is severely divided; due to internal fights and ideological differences, it acts on selectivity. While ignoring completely what happens on, say, the “Kurdish press,” it chooses to blow out of proportion cases in its own “camp.” There is no longer a common ground on which to fight the cause for the profession, and this much is tragic.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan recently said preparations were being made to “review” laws and articles that curb freedoms. The ball, as with many other things, is in the government’s court. Many laws indeed need changing, including the Internet Law. Hoping, however, will not be enough; concrete steps need to be taken.

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