OdaTV trial latest step in Turkish leaders’ attack on journalism - lawmaker

The arrests of OdaTV news director Barış Terkoğlu and reporter Hülya Kılıç this month for revealing the identity of a Turkish intelligence officer who was killed after being deployed to aid the Turkish-backed Tripoli government in Libya brought a spotlight back to the suppression of press freedom in Turkey.

The OdaTV arrests are simply the latest stage in a long process that has seen the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) almost completely take over journalism in Turkey, said Utku Çakırözer, a member of parliament for the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) whose long career in journalism took him to the chief editor’s position at the venerable secularist daily Cumhuriyet.

While the arrests were the first well publicised instance of legal pressure on journalists in some time, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his AKP have faced accusations for years of dismantling the country’s free press. Its imprisonment of critics has earned Turkey the title of the world’s worst jailer of journalists for several years running, though leading AKP figures say none of the journalists are in prison for their work.

But it is precisely politics that has driven these arrests, said Çakırözer.

“It is no coincidence that the first group to be targeted by a government that is hemmed in on the foreign policy front and which is unable to bring the public on side,” he said. “They want to frighten and bring journalists to heel so they can cover up what’s really happening, in fact they’re trying to send the message to journalists not to publish news that they don’t want published.”

In a recent case, journalists from the Russian-owned news site Sputnik’s Turkish branch were brought in for questioning after the outlet’s international branch published a news story that the government deemed to be an attack on Turkey. In another, journalists who travelled to report from Turkey’s border with Greece on the mounting refugee crisis were detained.

But in the case of the OdaTV report, the journalists have been formally arrested after bringing to light details of a case on which the Turkish government had remained.

“They’re trying to tell every journalist who is working reveal the truth and to fulfil the public’s right to information to tread lightly,” Çakırözer said.

In doing so, the government’s behaviour is not so different from its predecessors have always striven to seize control of the media, he said. “But now this pressure is far heavier than before, and we are also seeing it in very different areas. The institution that has taken the biggest share of the general regression in the country’s democracy is the media.”

This erosion of Turkey’s fourth estate has come as a result of years of repression and a multi-pronged attack that has seen journalists threatened from multiple fronts, the lawmaker said.

Journalists face the individual threat of legal action for their reporting in Turkey. Since defendants in Turkey have been frequently held behind bars pending trial for years, an arrest can prove to be a punitive measure in itself. Meanwhile, media institutions face the threat of closure if they do not toe the government’s line.

The press is also under pressure because of the possibility of private media companies changing hands, as well as the threat of fines and other administrative punishments, Çakırözer said.

“For example, there are 894 journalists whose press cards are yet to be renewed. And, while the government’s pressure continues on the one hand, journalists also face pressure from their bosses,” he said.

“They can face arrest from the government, but they can also be left without a job if they try to exercise their right to join a union. They also have to contend with low-waged work without insurance,” Çakırözer said. “So, they’re being squeezed by the government, the judiciary and capital all at once.”

This issue has become dramatically worse under the new executive presidential system instituted after elections in June 2018, he said.

The new system places vast powers in Erdoğan’s hands in a system of governance that critics say amounts to one-man rule since it has attached both the executive and the judiciary to his presidency while downgrading the parliament’s role in drafting legislation.

It is up to journalists to oppose this by continuing to push for democratic freedoms and the press freedom that guarantees them while also showing solidarity with their peers, despite ideological differences, Çakırözer said.

Turkey’s media, he said, has long had issues with fulfilling its role as a check to the government and state’s power because of the skewed relationship between media institutions, their owners and the state.

“We have not been able to keep media capital distanced from other interest groups and limited to the realm of journalism alone,” he said. “Bosses demanded that journalists act according to these interests, and those who refused have faced lengthy periods of unemployment.”

But Çakırözer believes the current predicament of Turkey’s media has come as the result of a lengthy campaign by the AKP.

“The AKP realised the power of the media before coming to power and has tried various methods to seize control of it at each stage,” he said. “Once they reached power in 2002, the party stepped up its pressure on media outlets and bosses.”

In early sorties, the main focus was on having critical journalists fired by exerting pressure on their bosses, he said.

The next step in this saw critical media organisations like OdaTV placed under investigation in a 2011 as part of a series of trials that alleged that opponents of the government had plotted coup attempts as part of a secret criminal network controlled by the deep state. The OdaTV case accused the news site of being the network’s media wing and imprisoned several of its journalists.

The trials were later disavowed by the government, which blamed them on their erstwhile allies in the Gülen religious movement, a secretive group which had many members in influential state positions until it was blamed for the 2016 coup attempt.

Nevertheless, the trials had a chilling effect on journalism in Turkey, serving as a stark reminder of what could be in store for journalists or bosses who did not practice self-censorship, Çakırözer said.

The next step for the AKP was to compile a list of media organs that it aimed to take over, he said. The party managed to create and gradually build up its own pool of media organisations as its allies in business set up their own companies or used credit from public banks to fund takeovers.

As the same time, he said, Turkey’s state broadcaster TRT and state news agency Anadolu completely shed their principle of unbiased broadcasting, instead becoming the voice of the government alone, he said.


© Ahval English

The views expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.