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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Heightened political polarization in 2008—including the threat of a ban on the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and ongoing fears of Kurdish separatism—continued to inhibit genuine freedom of expression reforms and, according to local watchdog groups, contributed to a spike in press-related prosecutions. Over the last few years, the European Union (EU) accession process and perceptions that the AKP intends to undermine the country’s secular traditions have fueled resistance in the form of a nationalist movement and a related legalistic crackdown on free expression. In 2008, both the AKP and the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party faced possible closure by the Constitutional Court for antisecular activity and separatism, respectively, and journalists covering these issues encountered a number of obstacles.
Constitutional guarantees of freedom of the press and of expression are undermined by other provisions, and in practice they are only partially upheld. Despite some minor amendments in 2008, the restrictive new penal code, which came into force in 2005, continued to overshadow positive reforms that had been achieved as part of the country’s bid for EU membership, including a 2004 Press Law that replaced prison sentences with fines. According to Bianet, a Turkish press freedom organization, the number of prosecuted journalists, publishers, and activists climbed from 254 in 2007 to 435 in 2008, continuing a trend that had seen the figure increase from just 157 in 2005.
Bianet also reports that 82 individuals were tried during the year under the penal code’s controversial Article 301 alone, up from 55 in 2007. This jump came despite amendments to the article in May following intense pressure from the EU. Article 301 had assigned prison terms of six months to three years for “the denigration of Turkishness” and has been used to punish journalists for stating that genocide was committed against the Armenians in 1915, discussing the division of Cyprus, or writing critically about the security forces. The May amendments—which substituted “Turkish nation” for “Turkishness” and “State of the Turkish Republic” for “Turkish Republic,” and reduced the maximum prison sentence from three years to two—were deemed largely cosmetic. Nationalist lawyers’ groups such as the Great Lawyers’ Union, credited by many human rights groups with leading the push for prosecutions, continued to file insult suits throughout the year. Very few of those who are prosecuted under Article 301 receive convictions, but the trials are time-consuming and expensive. A total of five convictions were obtained in 2008.
Article 277 of the penal code, which prohibits “attempting to influence court decisions,” was also invoked during the year. Alper Turgut, a journalist with the Cumhuriyet newspaper, was fined 20,000 liras (US$15,000) for reporting that a torture case was thrown out because too much time had elapsed. In January, the Constitutional Court ruled against the closure of the pro-Kurdish Rights and Freedoms Party, and the decision was seen as a precedent that could place statements about the Kurdish problem within the boundaries of free speech. However, Article 216 of the penal code, which penalizes “inflaming hatred and hostility among peoples,” continued to be used frequently against journalists who wrote about the Kurdish population, in addition to those who allegedly degraded the armed forces. Twenty-three people were charged under this article in 2008, and in late October, two journalists at a pro-Kurdish paper were sentenced to a year in jail for publishing a declaration by the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) militant group calling for recognition of the Kurdish language and other rights. Amendments to the Antiterrorism Law in 2006 allow journalists to be imprisoned for up to three years for the dissemination of statements and propaganda by terrorist organizations. The legislation raises concerns that the broad definition of terrorism could lead to arbitrary prosecutions, particularly of members of the pro-Kurdish press who are sometimes accused of collaborating with the PKK.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan continued to launch defamation suits against members of the media. He filed his fifth suit against satirical magazines for an unflattering cover image, and in September he threatened the Dogan Media Group for covering a corruption scandal involving a Turkish charity that had allegedly channeled funds to certain individuals and companies. The newspaper Hurriyet reported that the prime minister’s office had revoked the accreditation of seven senior reporters without explanation in November.
Threats against and harassment of the press remain significantly more common than acts of violence. The murder of journalists is relatively rare, and reporters’ work is not regularly compromised by the fear of physical attacks, although instability in the southeastern part of the country does infringe upon journalists’ freedom to work. The January 2007 assassination of Hrant Dink—the 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—marked the culmination of a plot believed to have been developed by nationalist forces or the “deep state,” an alleged network consisting of members of the state bureaucracy, the military, and the intelligence apparatus. As of the end of 2008, 20 suspects accused of complicity in planning or carrying out the murder had been brought to trial, but no convictions were secured. Eight members of the gendarmerie are also facing charges for failing to act on warnings that Dink was being targeted, but no police officers have been prosecuted yet.
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. The council 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.
Turkey’s broadcast media are well developed, with hundreds of private television channels, including cable and satellite, as well as more than 1,000 commercial radio stations. State television and radio provide limited broadcasting in minority languages, now including four local radio and television stations in Kurdish. The introduction of Kurdish-language stations marks a major step forward for freedom of expression, although critics say that the broadcasts are too restricted and quality is poor. Several hundred private newspapers operate across the country in a very competitive print environment. Media ownership is highly concentrated in four major conglomerates, which subtly pressure their editors and journalists to refrain from reporting that will harm their business interests. This can include avoiding criticism of the government or potential advertisers, as both could have contracts with the conglomerates. The quality of Turkish media is poor, with an emphasis on columns and opinion articles rather than 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 35 percent of the population accessed the internet in 2008. The video-sharing website YouTube was blocked again in 2008 (including twice in January) for airing videos deemed insulting to the founder of the Turkish republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, and two pro-Kurdish websites were suspended indefinitely in April. Also during the year, Google’s blog services were shut down by a magistrate’s court based on a complaint by the television station Digiturk that some bloggers were illegally posting video content owned by the station.