Yavuz Baydar
May 06 2019

Turkish top court deals blow to journalism on World Press Freedom Day

When the Constitutional Court of Turkey announced that it would, after a very long waiting period, take up appeals by nine prominent journalists, some hopes were raised.

One reason was that the sessions’ timing coincided with World Press Freedom Day — May 3. Perhaps, some hoped, the top court would rule for freedom and justice, not only for those nine, but for all the journalists kept under immense pressure, having been subjected to imprisonment, as well as for their media outlets.

The response the hopefuls received resulted in disappointment and bitterness. On May 2, the appeals based on the “breach of fundamental rights” were overruled for Akin Atalay, the former publisher of Cumhuriyet; Murat Sabuncu, Cumhuriyet’s former editor-in-chief; Ahmet Sik, a reporter whose plight with Turkish (in)justice has seemed to have never ended; and Bulent Utku, a high-level editorial manager.

As some in the world celebrated media freedoms May 3, anticipation in Turkey was high despite the setbacks the day before. Yet, another backlash: The top court unanimously ruled to reject the long-pending appeals by Ahmet Altan, an internationally known writer and award-winning senior journalist; and Nazli Ilicak, one of the most outspoken female columnists in Turkey. As of May 3, Altan had been in detention for 954 days. Ilicak has been kept behind bars for 1,006 days.

This was the present Turkey’s heavily politicised Constitutional Court handed the country’s shackled journalists. It was another conformational message that, indeed, journalism is a crime in Turkey.

None of the domestic organisations nor the international ones, such as Reporters Without Borders, Freedom House or the Committee to Protect Journalists, doubt that they, along with the 149 Turkish and Kurdish journalists in prisons, are being punished for insisting on being loyal to the principles and standards of their profession.

The state of Turkish journalism can be described as a ruin. Nearly all — 92% — of the media sector is under direct or indirect control of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

A new Directorate of Communications, established in Erdogan’s palace, monitors and intervenes with the editorial content of the almost entire pro-government bulk of the media, especially television, seen as crucial for shaping public opinion.

The rest — less than a handful of channels, among them Fox TV and some partisan outlets tied to the opposition — struggle and stumble under a steady stream of warnings and threats.

The coverage of the recent local elections, which were conducted disproportionately in favour of the ruling Justice and Development Party and its minor ally, the Nationalist Movement Party, is proof of how subservient journalism to executive power has become.

The Anadolu Agency has fallen into the control of the palace’s Directorate of Communications. The competition in national newspaper distribution network has collapsed. All newspapers, including a few, tiny opposition outlets, are at the mercy of a distributor that is owned by a pro-Erdogan company. This leaves fairness of newspaper delivery nationwide at the mercy of the power in Ankara.

As a result of the economic decline, increasing newspaper prices and rapidly falling circulation figures, the print media are in a longer disguised crisis. There is reason to believe that, should the economic crisis deepen, the media sector faces a collapse.

Turkish society is, against all odds, still very vibrant. Because of the fatigue and the vacuum, many discontented Turks and Kurds follow the news from independent outlets abroad, such as Ahval Online or Arti TV or the BBC or Deutsche Welle in Turkish.

“I had foreseen this and I must say that Turkish journalism will never be able to recover after these rulings,” said Ergin Cinmen, a senior lawyer whose battle for the free speech in Turkey goes back four decades.

“I can see that much of these rulings reflect a personal vendetta by the powers that be. Let me say frankly that Cumhuriyet staffers were punished because they reported about the secret arms deliveries to jihadists in Syria. Altan and Ilicak were punished because they were the sharp critics of the authoritarian establishments in the country.”

He is right. In most such cases for Erdogan “it’s personal.” The unanimous rulings May 3 are clear indications that nobody in the high judiciary can stand up to Erdogan in the name of civil law. It had taken the top judges nearly two years to take up these urgent appeals.

Now, with the state of journalism in a misery, the only remedy left seems to be the European Court of Human Rights. It, however, has been slow in dealing with Turkish complaints.

In some ways it is understandable: How could such a court deal with single cases in a country whose rule of law has to a large extent collapsed? Even if it did, it has no effect over strongman regimes such as the one in Ankara, which simply ignores rulings against abuses by the government.