World Press Freedom Day - editorial

May 3 is World Press Freedom Day. If previous years are anything to go by, a few articles will appear in Turkey’s largely government-controlled press extolling the virtues of press freedom and celebrating its exemplary status in Turkey. The Turkish government may even put on an event or two, to display its commitment to those same principles.

Facts on the ground though paint a different picture. Freedom House, an organisation that monitors press freedom, rates the Turkish press as “not free”. Reporters Without Borders ranks Turkey 157 out of 180 countries in terms of press freedom.

Turkey’s government has had to work hard to earn these dubious accolades.

Turkey is the world’s leading jailer of journalists.

Earlier this month, a group of journalists working for Cumhuriyet newspaper, one of Turkey’s few remaining independent media outlets were handed down sentences ranging from between two-and-a-half to more than seven years.

There are about 200 journalists under arrest in Turkey, but hundreds of other journalists frequently appear in court hearings to answer such charges as insulting the president or making propaganda for a terrorist organisation. The courts are being used to intimidate journalists.

The indictments are often laughable; for example, speaking to a Kurdish news outlet, something that U.S. and European officials have often done, is cited as an example of terrorist propaganda for a Turkish journalist.

Turkish government officials, not to mention their cheerleaders in the media, routinely denounce unfavourable reports on the status of the Turkish media as biased, politically motivated or indicative of far-ranging conspiracies against Turkey. They tell us, echoing Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s sentiments, that those suspected of being imprisoned for journalism have, in fact, been imprisoned for unrelated offences.

“The ones who have been sentenced, who have been imprisoned, are not journalists,” Erdoğan said in an interview with Bloomberg last year. “Most of them are terrorists. Many have been involved in burglaries and some have been caught red-handed as they were trying to empty ATM machines.”

Must we, therefore, wonder what it is about journalism in Turkey that makes it a uniquely attractive career for criminals? No. Those claims are merely the reflexes of a government that has steamrollered press freedom but wishes to shroud the fact in a doubt-inducing fog.

So, it is only natural that when journalists are arrested for journalism - for reporting news the government does not like - the authorities must charge them with something, anything, else. And, of course, there is no crime of journalism on the statute books in Turkey. Luckily there are others that fit the bill nicely.

The notorious Article 301 of the penal code, which makes it illegal to denigrate Turkey, the Turkish nation or the Turkish government is a case in point, and has been used for years as a weapon to silence critics. So too have the country’s vaguely worded anti-terror laws, recently used to justify the arrest of students for protesting Turkey’s military campaign in Syria. 

But the most popular recent law is that against insulting the president. Parliament last month even unseated a Kurdish lawmaker for a tweet it said insulted Erdoğan.

In a sense then, Erdoğan and his echo chamber are right. None of those journalists currently in Turkish jails have been convicted of journalism. But this does not mean they have not been imprisoned for journalism.

It is equally important to remember the wider human cost and consequences for the families of the hundreds of journalists who have been jailed, or who have fled the country, or the thousands who have lost their jobs.

For the rest of the population, the consequences are more subtle. They are fed, often by force, a media diet stripped of pretensions to truth and objectivity. An entire generation is growing up in this stilted environment, one where every headline is the same and where debate has all but disappeared.

For them, this is normal. Many cannot imagine anything else.