September worst for Turkish press freedom - opposition report

September was the worst month for press freedom in Turkey so far this year, according to a report by the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP).

The monthly review into journalists facing repression in Turkey, headed by CHP deputy Utku Çakırözer, who himself had a long career in journalism and is the former editor-in-chief at the Cumhuriyet newspaper, set out the scale of the issue, covering newspapers, television, online outlets and social media.

More than 60 journalists were brought before a court in September, the report said. Although most cases were postponed, a 54-year prison sentence was sought in 14 of them, with two new journalists arrested and six more detained.

Defendants range from Oda TV editor-in-chief Barış Pehlivan, who is being held in relation to publishing reports of the funeral of a Turkish intelligence officer killed in Libya, to Nupel’s Oktay Candemir, who was held by police on Sept. 7 for criticising the popular Ottoman historical drama TV show "Diriliş Ertuğrul".

Turkey is one of the most prolific jailers of journalists in the world, with more than 47 currently behind bars, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

The CHP report also criticised the Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK), Turkey’s state broadcasting regulator, for its decision to suspend the broadcast license of TV channels Halk TV and TELE1 for five days in September. TELE1 had been similarly accused of criticising Ottoman Sultan Abdulhamid II. Three other TV channels were also handed fines by RTÜK in September, in what Çakırözer described as a blow to the right to news.

Turkey continues to block online news outlets, and the report highlighted growing pressure from politicians to remove access to stories implicating them in accusations of corruption and favouritism.

Examples cited in the report include the political connections of a company contracted to produce COVID-19 testing kits, claims that Emine Erdoğan, the Turkish president’s wife, recently purchased a $50,000 handbag and an investigation by the U.S. Treasury Department implicating Turkey’s Aktifbank in money laundering.

From Oct. 1, new legislation will see similar measures to block access to content on social media. Courts will be empowered to compel platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to remove posts deemed harmful and provide account users’ identities. Such a move will deprive millions of citizens of their freedom of expression, Çakırözer said.

The restrictions on social media are set to add to an already oppressive political atmosphere, with journalists are already being directly threatened by politicians, the report noted. On Sept. 8, a popular Fox News presenter resigned from the channel, citing personal reasons – although he had previously been investigated by prosecutors for posts on Twitter.

The report also sought to draw attention to several high-profile cases, including that of CHP deputy and former journalist Enis Berberoğlu, who was recently stripped of his seat after being convicted of revealing state secrets in 2017.  He has yet to be reinstated despite Turkey’s Constitutional Court (AYM) ruling in favour of his appeal on Sept. 18.

Raising concerns about the recently established Department of Strategic Communication and Crisis Management, which includes in its remit combatting “disinformation” and “perception campaigns”, Çakırözer said the emphasis should instead be on ensuring that press organisations work in a free environment and are able provide the public with their right to information.