Freedom of the Press Remains Elusive in Turkey

Though the government denies targeting journalists, more than 90 Turkish journalists have spent most of the last year behind bars

Stephen Franklin August 9, 2012

In 2011, journalists and activists rallied in the streets of Ankara to demand greater freedom of the press. (Adem Altan/AFP/Getty Images)

ISTAN­BUL — Necati Abay is not afraid to speak his mind.

If I were afraid, I would not be talk­ing to you,” he says, after list­ing all the woes he and oth­er Turk­ish jour­nal­ists have faced.

But he is cau­tious, and for good reasons.

There are many inno­cent peo­ple in pris­ons,” says Abay, sit­ting in a café in Istanbul’s Kadikoy sec­tion, look­ing like an anony­mous small busi­ness­man with a heap of things to do on his mind.

He is busy, indeed.

A left­ist jour­nal­ist, who has seen his share of pris­ons, Abay, 56, is the spokesman for the Plat­form for Sol­i­dar­i­ty with Arrest­ed Jour­nal­ists. It’s a tiny orga­ni­za­tion with no funds but the enor­mous goal of keep­ing Turks informed on the fate of what jour­nal­ists say is the record num­ber of their ranks in prison. By jour­nal­ists’ count, more than 90 jour­nal­ists have been in prison for most of the last year — many in high secu­ri­ty pris­ons’ iso­la­tion cells. And near­ly all are there for noth­ing more than their report­ing, says Abay.

Turk­ish offi­cials strong­ly deny what they con­sid­er the myth” of impris­oned jour­nal­ists. They say the jour­nal­ists either com­mit­ted crimes or were car­ry­ing out pro­pa­gan­da on behalf of out­lawed orga­ni­za­tions. They have reject­ed crit­i­cism from groups like the Com­mit­tee to Pro­tect Jour­nal­ists and Reporters With­out Bor­ders, which have con­demned the attacks on free­dom of expres­sion in Turkey.

Yet the gov­ern­ment has sought to blunt crit­i­cism from Euro­pean human rights groups by chang­ing some prac­tices and vow­ing to car­ry out legal reforms. Turkey has long wait­ed to join the Euro­pean Com­mu­ni­ty and the crit­i­cism is one obsta­cle to that.

Frus­trat­ed by their colleague’s treat­ment, many Turk­ish jour­nal­ists are cyn­i­cal, how­ev­er, about the government’s promises.

The major­i­ty of jour­nal­ists in prison or fac­ing tri­als work for the news media that serves the large Kur­dish minor­i­ty. There’s a small of num­ber of left­ists and a few from the main­stream news media, who are also in prison or have been released and face trials.

Turkey’s over­broad def­i­n­i­tion of ter­ror­ism still allows for arbi­trary impo­si­tion of the harsh­est ter­ror­ism charges against indi­vid­u­als about whom there is lit­tle evi­dence of log­i­cal or mate­r­i­al sup­port for ter­ror­ism or of involve­ment in plot­ting vio­lent activ­i­ties,” Human Rights Watch not­ed in a recent report.

Since Abay helped form the orga­ni­za­tion sev­er­al years ago, out of frus­tra­tion from the lack of sup­port for jour­nal­ists, Abay has honed to the same theme.

In Turkey there is no press free­dom,” he says with a furi­ous wave of his hand. Before they used to kill jour­nal­ists, now they put them in prison.”

His group sends out cards to the jour­nal­ists, helps coor­di­nate vis­its, keeps up a web­site and seeks any chance to speak up. He claims jour­nal­ists suf­fer great­ly from psy­cho­log­i­cal tor­ture and depri­va­tion in the prisons.

Nobody has died while in prison but at least one jour­nal­ist lost his wife, accord­ing to Turk­ish jour­nal­ist orga­ni­za­tions. Anoth­er jour­nal­ist, fac­ing seri­ous emo­tion­al and phys­i­cal prob­lems, was recent­ly released await­ing trial.

The real­i­ty that Abay tries to pub­li­cize is one that he too might face soon.

That is because of an 18-year prison term that is hang­ing over his head.

He was arrest­ed in 2003 amid a series of bomb­ings in Istan­bul, but released and then rear­rest­ed on charges of belong­ing to an ille­gal under­ground orga­ni­za­tion. The case dragged on for years until a court in 2011 gave him the 18-year prison term, which he is appeal­ing. He has a court date in September.

He has already paid a heavy price, as he sees it, for his writ­ings and thoughts.

He was giv­en an eight-and-a-half-year prison term in the 1980s for pro­mot­ing Com­mu­nist pro­pa­gan­da. But he served only 20 months.

He was arrest­ed again with six oth­ers in Feb­ru­ary 1997 on charges of belong­ing to an ille­gal armed orga­ni­za­tion. The group claimed they had suf­fered the kind of tor­ture once described by human rights groups as ram­pant in Turkey. They said they had been blind­fold­ed, forced to stand or sit for long peri­ods, deprived of sleep, beat­en, stripped and forced to lie in cold water, accord­ing to the case they brought to the Euro­pean Court of Human Rights. The two women in the group said they were sex­u­al­ly harassed.

A pros­e­cu­tor filed charges against eight police offi­cers for the tor­ture alleged­ly car­ried out against the group. But noth­ing ever came of the charges as the case dragged out in the courts. Abay was held for eight months, released and, along with the oth­ers, began a long legal bat­tle over their treat­ment by secu­ri­ty officials.

Thir­teen years after their arrests, the Euro­pean Court of Human Rights ruled in favor of six arrestees and ordered Turkey to pay €34,200 to each. One of the arrest­ed, who had been arrest­ed again, lat­er died in police cus­tody. The Court ruled against Turkey in favor of his survivors.

As he waits now for the appeal’s courts rul­ing, Abay has scraped togeth­er some edi­to­r­i­al work. It’s dif­fi­cult, but we can get by.”

He has no doubt that he is inno­cent and repeat­ed­ly insists that the pros­e­cu­tor has noth­ing against him.

They are pun­ish­ing me for my thoughts. There’s no evi­dence. Nothing.”

Still.

I have my hopes, but I’m worried.” 

The Pulitzer Cen­ter on Cri­sis Report­ing sup­port­ed this report­ing effort.

Stephen Franklin is a for­mer labor and work­place reporter for the Chica­go Tri­bune, was until recent­ly the eth­nic media project direc­tor with Pub­lic Nar­ra­tive in Chica­go. He is the author of Three Strikes: Labor’s Heart­land Loss­es and What They Mean for Work­ing Amer­i­cans (2002), and has report­ed through­out the Unit­ed States and the Mid­dle East.

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