Freedom of the Press
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Press Freedom Score (0 = best, 100 = worst)
Legal Environment(0 = best, 30 = worst)
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With heightened polarization regarding issues of secularism, nationalism, and separatism, reform efforts toward enhanced freedom of expression stalled in 2007. The restrictive measures of the new Turkish penal code, which came into force in June 2005, continued to overshadow and undermine positive reforms achieved in the country’s effort to meet European Union (EU) membership requirements, including a new Press Law in 2004 that replaced prison sentences with fines. The EU accession process and perceptions that the ruling Justice and Development Party intends to undermine the country’s secular traditions have prompted a nationalist movement that is driving a legalistic crackdown on free expression by journalists and writers.
Constitutional provisions for freedom of the press and of expression exist but are matched with restrictive provisions and, in practice, are only partially upheld. According to Bianet, a Turkish press freedom organization, the number of prosecuted journalists, publishers, and activists dropped to 254 in 2007 from 293 in 2006 (after a dramatic jump from 157 in 2005). Yet the same organization reports that 55 individuals were tried during the year under the penal code’s especially controversial Article 301 alone. This provision allows for prison terms of six months to three years for “the denigration of Turkishness” and has been used to charge journalists for crimes such as stating that genocide was committed against the Armenians in 1915, discussing the division of Cyprus, or writing critically on the security forces. Book publishers, translators, and intellectuals have also faced prosecution for “insulting Turkish identity.” In January, Hrant Dink—editor in chief of the Armenian weekly Agos, who was prosecuted for a second time under Article 301 in July 2006 for confirming his recognition of Armenian genocide allegations—was the victim of a carefully plotted assassination carried out by a 17-year-old. Charges against Dink under Article 301 were subsequently dropped, but both his son and the owner of Agos were convicted on the same charges for the same case in October. In November, two policemen were charged with knowing about plans to kill Dink and failing to report them; the trials of all 19 people charged in connection with the murder were ongoing at year’s end.
Article 277 of the penal code was invoked in 2007 to charge 14 people with “attempting to influence court decisions.” Article 216 penalizes “inflaming hatred and hostility among peoples” and is used most frequently against journalists who write about the Kurdish population or are perceived to degrade the armed forces. Twenty-three people were charged on this count in 2007, and in May 2007, a court of appeals overturned the prior acquittal of two professors charged under this article in 2005 for a report in which they discussed the term “citizenship of Turkey” as it relates to minorities, a concept being debated in preparation for a new “civil” constitution. The court ruled that the discussion constituted a “social danger” and more specifically “a danger to the unitary state and the indivisibility of the nation.” Nationalist lawyers’ groups such as the Great Lawyers Union, credited by many human rights groups with leading the push for prosecutions, continued to bring insult suits throughout the year.
Despite a September 2006 declaration of commitment by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to revise Article 301 and heightened pressure from international press freedom watchdog groups to abolish it following Dink’s murder, no progress was made by year’s end; many believe the government dropped the issue in the context of election concerns. Erdogan himself continued to launch defamation suits against members of the media; in October, newly elected president Abdullah Gul promised changes in the period ahead. Convictions against journalists are much less frequent than prosecutions, but trials are time-consuming and expensive. A total of six convictions were obtained for charges under Article 301 in 2007 (nine other defendants were acquitted). In a positive development, the Supreme Court of Appeals confirmed a lower court’s prior decision to drop the Article 301 case against Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk in August.
While Bianet also reports that the number of threats and attacks on the press increased in 2007, threats and harassment remain significantly more prevalent than acts of violence. The Dink assassination marked the culmination of a deliberate plot believed to have been developed by nationalist forces, or the “deep state”—a vague network involving members of the state bureaucracy, military, and intelligence apparatus. The murder of journalists is not a common crime, and reporters’ work is not regularly compromised by fears of violence. Instability in the southeastern part of the country does infringe upon journalists’ freedom to work, however. In April, three employees of a Christian publishing house in the Malatya province of southeastern Turkey were brutally murdered, and a newspaper owner was killed in the southeastern province of Van in September, though that murder did not appear to be related to freedom of the press. The issue of police violence against journalists was raised by the abduction and assault of, and death threats against, journalist Sinan Tekpetek by police in Istanbul in late July.
June 2006 amendments to the Antiterrorism Law allow for imprisoning journalists for up to three years for the dissemination of statements and propaganda by terrorist organizations. The new legislation raises concerns that the broad definition of terrorism could allow for arbitrary prosecutions, particularly of members of the pro-Kurdish press who are sometimes charged with collaborating with the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK). According to Bianet, 83 people were charged in cases of “terrorism” during the year.
The Supreme Council of Radio and Television, whose members are elected by the parliament, has the authority to sanction broadcasters if they are not in compliance with the law or its expansive broadcasting principles. It is frequently subject to political pressure. Some editors and journalists practice self-censorship out of fear of violating legal restrictions, and Turkish press freedom advocates contend that self-censorship has become more prevalent as a result of the onslaught of prosecutions under the new penal code. The owner of the weekly Nokta magazine stopped its publication in April after the magazine’s investigative articles on the military prompted a police raid on its offices. Charged with spreading PKK propaganda under the Antiterrorism Law, the Gundem newspaper was suspended for 15- to 30-day periods four times during the year. Broadcasting bans were reportedly issued against a few stations during the preelection period, and the government censored coverage of PKK attacks in southeastern Turkey in October.
Turkey’s broadcast media are well developed, with hundreds of private television channels, including cable and satellite, as well as numerous commercial radio stations. State television and radio provide limited broadcasting in minority languages, now including four local radio and television stations in Kurdish. This marks a major step forward for freedom of expression, although critics say that the broadcasts are too restricted and quality is poor. Media are highly concentrated in four major conglomerates, which subtly pressure their editors and journalists to refrain from reporting that will harm their business interests. This could include avoiding criticism of the government or potential advertisers, both of which could have contracts with other arms of the companies. The quality of Turkish media is low, with a prevalence of columns and opinion articles over pure news, but independent domestic and foreign print media are able to provide diverse views, including criticism of the government and its policies. An estimated 22.5 percent of the Turkish population accessed the internet in 2007. The video-sharing website YouTube was blocked in March and again in September for airing videos perceived to insult government leaders and the founder of the Turkish republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.