Why Is Turkey’s Media Environment Ranked ‘Not Free’?

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By
Karin Deutsch Karlekar
Director, PEN Free Expression programs

Among the findings of Freedom House’s recently released press freedom report, the most contentious has been the downgrade of Turkey from the Partly Free category to Not Free. The report’s findings have drawn considerable comment from the Turkish press, both critical and favorable. The government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has also weighed in. Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu has called Freedom House “orientalist” in its approach. Several newspapers with progovernment profiles have even accused Freedom House of involvement in a global conspiracy against the Turkish government and alleged that the organization is funded by Israel and nefarious pro-Israel forces.

Below are responses Freedom House has given to common questions from Turkish journalists:

What were the reasons for Turkey’s downgrade to the Not Free category?


In the latest report, which covers the year 2013, Turkey’s score deteriorated from 56 to 62 points on our 100-point scale, which placed it just over the threshold of the Not Free category. During the year, systematic political pressure from the executive branch led to the firing of scores of journalists for reporting that was considered critical of the government. For example, during the Gezi Park protests in Istanbul in May 2013, several media outlets were slow to cover the demonstrations, but those that did provide independent or sympathetic coverage were subjected to government pressure to fire journalists and editors—and dozens were indeed fired or forced to resign. On several other occasions during the year, high-profile journalists were forced from their positions for addressing sensitive topics such as official corruption or talks between the government and the PKK. Prime Minister Erdoğan publicly confirmed that he had interfered personally with editorial content in at least one instance. Journalists were also physically harassed while covering the Gezi protests. And with at least 40 journalists behind bars as of December 1, 2013, Turkey remained the world’s leading jailer of journalists, who are often prosecuted under restrictive provisions in the criminal code and the Anti-Terrorism Act. Another continuing concern is censorship of online content and the internet.

When you compare Turkey to other countries that moved into the Not Free category, or that have a similar numerical score, what common features do you see?

Governments in countries whose scores place them just into the Not Free category tend to exert some influence on the editorial content of news outlets, and prevent or impede coverage of politically sensitive issues, so that citizens do not have full access to newsworthy information or a range of different viewpoints. In a number of such countries, journalists face reprisals for their work. These can include the use of onerous legal restrictions on the press, resulting in criminal charges and incarceration (as in Turkey), or a high rate of physical attacks and murders (as in Mexico or Pakistan). Other countries that moved into the Not Free range this year, such as Ukraine, featured restrictions on and targeting of reporters who attempted to cover breaking news—particularly protest movements—and attempts to control editorial content.

It should be noted that there are considerable differences of degree within the Not Free category. With a score of 62, Turkey is obviously a much more open media environment than countries like China, Iran, or North Korea, which receive scores of 84, 90, and 97, respectively.

How does Turkey’s current score compare with its score a decade ago, when the Justice and Development Party (AKP) had recently come to power?

Over the past decade, Turkey’s score first improved, then stagnated, and then worsened for the last several years. The individual indicators that have declined the most are in the legal category, reflecting the increased use of restrictive laws and the imprisoning of journalists. For 2013 there were also slightly worse scores in the political category, pertaining to physical attacks and harassment of journalists, because of the Gezi protests, and to the politicized firing of editors and columnists. On other issues, the scores have remained the same but the dynamics have shifted—for example, censorship of the internet has worsened, but there is more freedom to discuss Kurdish or Armenian issues.

Were you surprised by the Turkish government’s response to the report, and how would you respond to officials’ comments?

We were expecting a reaction to the report, but the level of interest has surprised us, as has the tone of some of the news coverage. In many cases the reporting and commentary does not focus on the content of what we are saying and the very real concerns we have raised regarding press freedom in Turkey—concerns that have also been raised by a number of other groups, including the OSCE, the United Nations, the Council of Europe, and the Committee to Protect Journalists. Turkish freedom of expression groups have documented and drawn attention to similar problems over the past several years.

Instead of being questioned about the content, we are attacked for our supposed motives. We prepare this report every year, and judge Turkey according to the same criteria that we use for every other country in the world. Turkey was downgraded to Not Free because of the worsening media freedom situation, which has been noted widely by both Turkish and foreign analysts. We would encourage the government and also the progovernment papers that are writing these articles to address the actual concerns noted in our report, rather than engaging in conspiracy theories.

The press freedom report is funded entirely by donations from private foundations that are based in both the United States and Europe. We prepare the report independently and do not have any interaction with the U.S. government or with any of our funders regarding the results of each year’s report. Our focus is on measuring restrictions on media freedom in each country and analyzing trends, nothing more or less. The suggestion that we are part of a broad and preplanned movement to discredit the Turkish government is ridiculous.

Are you optimistic about Turkey’s press?

Despite these pressures and negative trends, I do remain optimistic, because the Turkish media and journalists are protesting against the restrictions, and sections of the Turkish public have also pushed back against some of the more recent, broader restrictions on freedom of expression, such as the attempted ban on Twitter. The coverage of our report from all sides in Turkey does show that the media are still fairly vibrant and diverse compared with many other countries, and that they do try to cover sensitive stories despite the obstacles and reprisals. It is a welcome sign that the majority of the 40 journalists who were behind bars late last year have been released over the past few months, including several in the past week alone, though they still face charges. As of May 12, only 11 reportedly remained in detention. We hope this is an indication that the pending cases will be resolved positively and that the overall trajectory for press freedom in Turkey will change for the better.

Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.

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