Turkish press freedoms continue to deteriorate - advocates

Issues with press freedom, freedom of expression, right to due process and physical safety continue to come under further threat in Turkey, 11 international organisations advocating for press freedom, journalism and human rights said in a statement on Wednesday.

A delegation made up of representatives from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), the International Press Institute (IPI), ARTICLE 19, the Association of European Journalists (AEJ), the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF), the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ), Human Rights Watch (HRW), Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso Transeuropa (OBC Transeuropa), PEN International, Reporters without Borders (RSF) and the South East Europe Media Organisation (SEEMO) held meetings in person and online in Turkey between Oct. 6 and 9, including at the Justice Ministry and Constitutional Court (AYM).

Turkey remains among the world’s top jailers of journalists, and “state authorities continue to instrumentalize a justice system that does not guarantee basic due process rights in court,” the statement said. “The lack of political will to end this pattern, largely unchanged since 2016, is hugely disturbing.”

Journalists have been excluded from early release programs Turkey implemented due to the COVID-19 pandemic, facing grave risk to their health, often over “their legitimate journalistic work,” it said.

Recent discussions on the Turkish agenda to restructure the AYM, the statement said, are “critical given concerns that the general lack of judicial independence in Turkey has underpinned the government’s crackdown on the press.”

The delegation raised concerns over Turkey’s criminal defamation laws, and the need for clear AYM judgements to affirm the right to freedom of expression.

While the Turkish government maintains that the new social media bill, which went into effect on Oct. 1, is similar to those in European countries, “Turkey’s courts and regulatory bodies lack the independence necessary to prevent abuse of the law,” the delegation told the Justice Ministry in their meeting, adding that it could “serve as a new tool to silence critics online.”

In the joint statement, the organisations called for an end to the misuse of state regulators, including the Press Advertisement Agency (BİK), which allocates print advertisements for news publications in Turkey - a tool used to punish independent papers, as they struggle to keep afloat. The Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK) has also utilised broadcast bans as a form of threat, as networks can lose their licences if they exceed a number of penalties.

The delegation also met with representatives of the European Union and 17 diplomatic missions, “a sign of the global concern over press freedom and the rule of law in Turkey,” said the statement.

“The international community must step up its bilateral and multilateral efforts to bring Turkey back into the club of countries that respects the rule of law. Human rights issues, including press freedom, must not be held hostage to geopolitical developments,” the advocates concluded.