Cell by date: jail looms for Turkey’s journalists

Eren Keskin is possibly the most striking defendant hauled before Istanbul’s criminal courts today. Dressed in black from head to toe, a quivering beehive of hair towers above her head, and her make up is distinctly rock n’ roll.

She and two other defendants are in court accused of ‘insulting the president’ and could face up to seven-and-a-half years in jail. The charges arise from the day each spent as ‘editor for the day’ of the pro-Kurdish rights newspaper Özgür Gündem. Turkey’s judicial system, however, allows the process to be extended over many years, at the absolute discretion of the prosecutor.

This is expected to be a significant hearing and I am among a handful of international observers who crowd the public gallery along with the defendants’ parents, friends and supporters.

The three judges take their seats and call the court to order. As the defence barristers prepare to make their statements, however, a court official announces: “The lead prosecutor who must be present for this case to proceed, has, in fact, taken a holiday today.” 

The lead judge invites the defendants to make a statement. Keskin strides to the bench, determined and purposeful. “I have been campaigning for human rights in Turkey for more than 30 years,” she says, rage scarcely controlled and finger jabbing up at the judges. “These changes have been hanging over us like the Sword of Damocles for more than three years. You are responsible for nothing less than judicial bullying. I insist that you give us an immediate date for the conclusion of this case”.

It is but one case of many against journalists and free speech campaigners being heard today in the Çağlayan court complex, a bleak, ten storey, judicial factory. Some cases open and adjourn so quickly that international observers miss proceedings. Other courts examine evidential minutiae of extraordinary complexity to rule on such vague charges as ‘insulting state institutions’.

Kadri Gürsel

Kadri Gürsel is among Turkey’s most renowned journalists. He was detained for 11 months in jail in 2016, for his alleged sympathies with Kurdish terrorists – ironically, the same group that kidnapped and held him captive for a month in the 1990s.

He told me that the state’s recent judicial reform programme was a public relations stunt aimed at placating foreign governments. “The judiciary is being used to muzzle the free media. The government has undermined the freedom of the judiciary and is now using that to undermine freedom of expression”. 

Gürsel is one of the authors of a new report by the International Press Institute forensically cataloging the judicial assault faced by Turkey’s media. Its revelations are bleak. Despite the number of imprisoned journalists falling from approximately 150 to 120 over the past year, a raft of new weapons have been created to undermine free speech.

There has been a significant turn over in judges, for example, with new ones appointed by a Constitutional Council wholly controlled by President Erdoğan and party colleagues. Ownership of media groups continues to change, so that formerly respected platforms are now controlled by governing-party sympathisers. And, Turkey’s audio-visual regulator has new powers that could be used to regulate all online content. Scores of newspapers have closed, and hundreds of dissenting Twitter accounts are blocked.

Phillippe Leruth, former president of the International Federation of Journalists

The issues facing journalists in Turkey have long been a focus for international free-speech campaigners. Philippe Leruth, for example, is a former president of the IFJ with long experience of the country. “It is sixteen years since I first came to Turkey to protest about press freedom and they are still criminalising journalism here”, he told a conference in Istanbul marking the conclusion of an EU-funded EJF project. “We need to make the case that decent conditions are as important as legal protections, for free media to flourish”.

Ayşe Bana Tuna

Until a few weeks ago Ayşe Bana Tuna was an editor on Hürriyet, Turkey’s biggest selling daily paper. She was sacked without reason after 20 years employment alongside 44 colleagues. All were members of the Turkish Journalists Union (TGS) that had been on the cusp of achieving sufficient membership density to obtain formal recognition. 

Her experience provides some insight to the pressures faced by Turkey’s reporters. “To survive [as journalists on the paper] we had to develop a complicated system of self-censorship,” Tuna told me.”We were not allowed to write critical articles about companies in which the papers multi-industrial holding company had interests, or in which any of the bosses, or their friends, had shares. The safest policy was simply not to write critical articles at all, because you never knew where their interests lay.”

She is but one of scores of journalists with similar stories.

At least the parlous state of press freedom in Turkey is internationally recognised – not least by the EU. A permanent EU delegation is maintained in Turkey (because it is a candidate for membership). It funds projects to aid the civic reform. Alexander Fricke, a section head in that delegation, describes journalism as the “oxygen of democracy”. “So many journalists in jail and at least as many others being judicially harassed is not good for Turkish democracy. It is why EU funds are committed promoting freedom of expression here.” 

Given the backdrop, it is amazing that there is still a ready supply of young people keen to become journalists. Happily, there are, and to help them acquire the skills necessary for the work, TGS has recently opened its own training academy.

Orhan Sener, director of the TGS Academy

Orhan Sener, its director, is determined to nurture a generation of media workers who are the masters of new technology. “Most of the 16 to 25 year olds who come here have never read a paper. We are teaching them to create the kind of stories that can be shared at the touch of a button and consumed on a phone”.

Housed in a smart hew suite of offices, the academy has funding from the EU for at least three years and is one of several factors that has given the young leadership of the TGS a welcome boost. Most significantly, they have nearly doubled the number of collective agreements that they have with employers over the past three years. 

Mustafa Kuleli, General Secretary of the TGS

Mustafa Kuleli, TGS’ general secretary sees this as part of a broader renewal of the media in Turkey. “The media crisis here is much deeper than Erdoğan’s assault on free speech. Most outlets make no money. The owners’ journalistic acquiescence means that the papers are poor and circulations low. Owners are compensated with corruptly-awarded government contracts. We need journalists who not only know how to find stories, but can lead a renaissance of the entire media industry”.

Kuleli is an optimist. He identifies as one of the generation who came age during the Gezi Park demonstrations of 2013-14. Like Paris’ 1968 protestors, he says, the battle around which they coalesced might not have concluded victoriously, but in the coming decades, it will be their ideas that prevail.

Marta Barcinilla Escaño, vice president of the European Federation of Journalists

Optimism is always attractive, but it is not a magic wand. Today’s repression is all too real for many of Turkey’s writers, editors and photographers. The most important step that foreign journalists can take to help their colleagues in is to keep up the pressure on their own governments, says Marta Barcinilla Escaño, the vice president of the European Federation of Journalists, who has observed several journalist’s trials in Turkish courts. “Erdoğan responds to pressure from foreign governments, even if his actions to date are cosmetic,” she says. “The challenge is keeping this issue in the minds of our own parliamentarians and government ministers, wherever we live.”

I traveled to Turkey from 27 November 2019 to observe and monitor journalists’ trials and to participate in an international conference within the framework of the “Journalism is not a crime”, an EU-funded project implemented by the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) and the Turkish Journalists Union (TGS).

This article was originally published by the European Federation of Journalists and Journo.com.tr.

All photos © Tim Dawson