What immediately strikes an observer of press freedom in Turkey is the sharp contrast in opinions on the matter. On one side, a substantial body of official and civil society reports converges toward a downbeat assessment of the situation. On the other, statements by government officials at the highest level imply that either there is no problem whatsoever or that the problem is misrepresented by the opposition, the media, or external actors. Recent developments and existing evidence and statements provide the opportunity for independent analysis and highlight some avenues for positive action.

Independent Reports on Press Freedom in Turkey

Marc Pierini
Pierini is a senior fellow at Carnegie Europe, where his research focuses on developments in the Middle East and Turkey from a European perspective.
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A considerable number of reports have documented and continue to document press freedom in Turkey in recent years. These are official reports (such as those from the European Union, the United States, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and the Council of Europe) and civil society reports (from Reporters Without Borders, the Committee to Protect Journalists, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Bianet, Bilgi University, and the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation). This analysis attempts to form a consolidated opinion based on reports and statements published in 2011 and 2012. In addition, interviews conducted in September 2012 with some 35 people from the Turkish and foreign media, civil society organizations as well as Turkish government representatives, foreign diplomats, and members of the European Parliament and the European Commission have shaped this report.

The overall diagnosis emerging from these reports and interviews is rather bleak when contrasted with the successes of Turkey in other fields. Virtually all reports point to a deteriorating trend in press freedom and identify specific causes. This trend is illustrated inter alia by forced resignations of journalists who have displeased the political echelons, self-censorship, excessive zeal and serious flaws in the judicial system, widespread and unpredictable banning of websites, and, more generally, a culture of fear instilled in the media system. These authoritative reports and statements speak for themselves.

The media ownership issue is much commented about: 

The media owners’ preoccupation with keeping good relations with the state has been more decisive in self-censorship in comparison with direct threats facing journalists. . . . Today, as in the past, it is the involvement of the media patrons in other sectors of the economy that makes them susceptible to such pressure and financially reliant on the government, which in turn leads them to pressure journalists to refrain from negative coverage of the government.

—Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESEV), June 2012

Self-censorship remains rampant and outspoken journalists face not only the threat of alleged support for terrorism but also the threat that they will be fired from their positions if their reporting leads to adverse consequences for media owners’ other economic interests. 

—International Press Institute, September 2012

These conflicts of interests in turn lead to undue pressure from the Turkish government:

Prime Minister [Recep Tayyip Erdoğan]. . . . has called on media owners and editors to discipline reporters and columnists critical of his policies, particularly when it comes to the sensitive Kurdish issue. In more than a few cases, to avoid trouble, newsroom managers have listened and dismissed the staffers in question.

—Committee to Protect Journalists, September 2012

Measures should be taken as a matter of utmost urgency to abolish legislation providing for disproportionately high fines on the media – leading in some cases to their closure or to self-censorship by journalists or their editors – and to reform Law 5651/2007 on the internet, which limits freedom of expression, restricts citizens’ right of access to information and allows website bans of disproportionate scope and duration.

—European Parliament Resolution on the 2011 Progress Report on Turkey, March 2012

Similarly, observers point to the excessive zeal of the Turkish judiciary and its improper procedures: 

The excessive length of criminal proceedings and remands in custody, problems concerning defendants’ access to evidence against them pending trial, and the lack of restraint on the part of the prosecutors in filing criminal cases, has a distinct chilling effect on freedom of expression in Turkey and has led to self-censorship in Turkish media.

—Council of Europe, April 2011

Prosecutors continued to bring dozens of cases against writers, journalists, and political figures under various laws that restrict media freedom. Authorities at times also ordered raids on newspaper offices, closed newspapers temporarily, issued fines, or confiscated newspapers for violating speech codes. . . . Writers and publishers were subject to prosecution on grounds of defamation, denigration, obscenity, separatism, terrorism, subversion, fundamentalism, and insulting religious values. . . . The government maintained extensive restrictions on Internet access.

—U.S. Department of State, 2011

As a result of these negative developments, Turkey’s press freedom ranking has declined substantially. In 2012, Turkey ranked 148 out of 179 countries surveyed by Reporters Without Borders for freedom of the press. From 2005 to 2008, and in 2010, Turkey’s rank was around 100. 

The Turkish Government’s Response

The Turkish government has consistently denied the existence of a press freedom problem and has pointed to progress made. Although there is no consistent governmental account of the number of journalists in jail, the government’s narrative emphasizes the fact that arrests, imprisonments, and court cases are mostly linked to terrorism not press issues. 

The government’s position can sometimes be expressed as a plain denial of any problems: 

Those who say there is no freedom of the press in Turkey are liars. Those who say there is censorship in Turkey are liars. There is enough freedom of the press in Turkey.

—Vice Prime Minister Bülent Arinç, CNN Türk, August 2012

Another line followed by the government is to dismiss that people are imprisoned because of journalistic activities: 

Currently 26 journalists are imprisoned either in custody or as a convict following trial in Turkey. None of them has been detained for their journalistic activities.

—Prime Minister Erdoğan, April 2011

The prime minister of Turkey also states his willingness to accept “criticism,” but he opposes “insult”: 

We opposed insults but never criticism. We opposed abuse of freedom. . . . We do not condone any approach that bans, restricts or obstructs, nor shall we. We have faith in our ideas and what we believe to be right. We shall not obstruct anyone’s freedom of expression and we shall not tolerate any who want to obstruct. Those who trust in their ideas, who trust in their faith do not fear freedom of thought or freedom of belief. 

—Prime Minister Erdoğan, January 2012

Long-Standing Problems

The issue of press freedom in Turkey is undoubtedly more complex than the sharply contrasted views reflected here. It is certainly a multifaceted situation, with perhaps more ramifications than in many other countries. But it is also one with a mix of long-standing problems and more recent evolution. There are five main problem areas:

The Kurdish issue  

Although the numbers are difficult to reconcile, it clearly appears that the majority of the arrested journalists and media employees are listed as “terrorists” by the Turkish judiciary and government and that they are accused of propaganda for the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party. Because of the recent surge in terrorist violence in Turkey, security preoccupations are at the very top of the political agenda and this tends to induce even more restrictions on press freedom. The difficulties experienced by the media in reporting the December 2011 Uludere incident—a military strike against civilians mistaken for terrorists that resulted in 34 casualties—are a case in point. The emphasis on antiterrorism has even led to the publication of photographs of “presumed terrorists,” a distinct violation of individual liberties.

Media ownership  

Since most media outlets are owned by large, diversified business groups, it is almost unavoidable that conflicts of interest between business/financial interests (public tenders, for example) and press freedom occur regularly. This situation can be observed among both pro-government and opposition media. At a minimum, this leads to situations in which owners/editors tell journalists: “Don’t get me in trouble with the government.” Many also underline that, as a direct result of this situation, a number of journalists have been dismissed for being too critical of the government.

The legal framework and the administration of justice  

There are notorious shortcomings in the current Turkish legal framework, especially the antiterror law, the media law, and the penal code. In addition, several reports point to the many flaws in the judicial proceedings against journalists that are results of an overzealous judicial system. The filing of criminal cases based on slim evidence, lack of proper enquiries, benign information used as “proof,” long pre-detention periods, excessive length of trials, and defendants’ lack of access to files are some of the main flaws. The right of individual petition to the Constitutional Court, put into effect on September 24, 2012, will substantially change the way the citizens concerned and the highest court will deal with the issue.

The Internet and social media  

The Turkish authorities are trying to regulate this new sector of activity in which cultural, social, and religious sensitivities abound. Next to courts and prosecutors, the Turkish Telecommunications Directorate can, and does extensively, block websites. The grounds cited are both moral and legal, leading to issues of excessive interpretation and application and creating a discretionary environment for online regulation. There are distinct dangers here.

The “state culture”  

In Turkey, more than in many other countries, the overwhelming presence of the state in public affairs is a long-standing tradition, dating back to the proclamation of the Republic. It tends to translate into the state’s tutorial behavior when it comes to information on sensitive political issues. Journalists point to the government’s increased inclination to interfere in their affairs (a reinforcement of a preexisting tendency) and a decreasing tolerance for dissent (a new phenomenon).

All of this has had a “chilling effect,” as the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights has put it, on press freedom. Self-censorship is largely a result of the above-mentioned items and has become a standard practice in Turkish media, with all the dangers that it contains for democracy. A culture of fear is clearly developing.

More Negative Than Positive Developments

Existing reports point to some positive developments on press freedom in Turkey, but the sum of these authoritative reports is indeed negative. 

Two Positive Developments

Today, more subjects are debated and there are fewer taboos than ever before, from the Armenian to the Kurdish issues and from judicial issues to societal debates. The press sector is undoubtedly demonstrating strong dynamism, in particular thanks to an extremely active civil society and courageous journalists. Virtually no newsworthy subject goes unnoticed or is totally censored (with obvious exceptions in the military- and intelligence-related fields), and social media is playing an increasingly active role. This evolution appears to be irreversible, as the “appetite” of Turkish society for press freedom and democracy is far larger than the capacity of the authorities to interfere.

Serious preparatory work in the Ministry of Justice on legislative reforms (to the penal code, the antiterror law, the media law) has been ongoing for some time. The fourth judicial reform package aims at addressing the basic flaws within the legal and judicial system that cause the extensive Turkey-related caseload of the European Court of Human Rights and concern among international partners. In view of the recent surge in terrorist activities, it is, however, unclear if and when these proposals will be formally submitted to the parliament. Yet, these legal amendments are worthwhile irrespective of the security situation.

Four Negative Points

The government’s overwhelming preoccupation with terrorism issues has resulted in widespread restrictions on press freedom and abuses of individual liberties. Opposition parties are also focusing on terrorism issues. Though the fight against terrorism is entirely legitimate, press freedom should not suffer as a result of it. On the Kurdish issue in particular, it is obvious to the foreign observer that the core of the matter does not lie with press activities.

There is also more pressure on journalists today than there was five or ten years ago. This corresponds in part to the increased polarization of Turkish society between secularists and conservatives. It may also reflect the dominance of one party in Turkey’s political life and, more importantly, a low tolerance for criticism and dissent. The mere fact that the debate on tough issues is only fed by a courageous few is not healthy for Turkish society as a whole: it means that debate is fast becoming a “marginal” phenomenon and that mainstream Turkey is less pluralistic.

Despite a functioning electoral system, Turkey’s democratic image has been deteriorating worldwide to the point that, as far as press freedom goes, the country is regularly compared to China, Iran, and Russia. In other words, shortcomings in press freedom have become a stain on Turkey’s democratic credentials. Plain denial of these shortcomings by the government does not lead anywhere; it only adds to the embarrassing situation in which the state already finds itself.

Such a loss of credibility takes a direct toll on both the economic and political fronts, internationally speaking. Investors, banks, and rating agencies, which are so crucial to bringing in foreign direct investment, which is indispensable for Turkey’s future development, look negatively at unfavorable developments in press freedom. Similarly, Turkey has to face continuous problems with international partners—the United States, European Union, Council of Europe, Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, United Nations—at precisely the same time the government is trying to acquire a new, higher status in world affairs. Contrary to a widespread belief in Turkey, this is not a “zero-cost situation” for the government. Although it is not easily quantifiable, there is a “price” for the lack of proper press freedom: legitimacy.

Next Steps

Turkey is a member of NATO and the Council of Europe and is negotiating its accession to the European Union. As a country anchored in the West, and no matter what political orientation it takes, Turkey should do better on press freedom—with all that implies—and ensure that democratic principles and standards are upheld. 

It should make improvements even though terrorism is an overwhelming preoccupation for any government. It should do better even with the knowledge that altering practices and cultural habits takes much longer than achieving legislative changes. There are several avenues for immediate action.

Reconciling Views on Jailed Journalists

There are vastly diverging views on the number of journalists and media employees now in jail in Turkey. International estimates range from 76 to 105, while the government’s estimates of those people that have been jailed because of what they have written range from two to nine. 

Sorting out who is who is not simple, but it warrants serious and impartial work so that the scope of the problem is at least better assessed. The Council of Europe, which has been involved recently in detailed discussions with the Turkish government on press freedom, is probably best placed to achieve this.

Legislative Reforms and the New Constitution

The Turkish Ministry of Justice has prepared legislative changes to the penal code, the antiterror law, and the media law. Legislative work remains necessary and draft laws should be tabled by the government, even though Turkey is experiencing a dramatic surge in terrorism conducted by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party. It is a difficult choice, but one that is necessary.

A new constitution is the broader framework that can lead to press freedom and civil liberties in general. The ongoing work on the constitution is obviously of paramount importance for a number of reasons, all of which have a direct or indirect influence on press freedom. It can provide a modern charter in which the citizen’s protection, rather than the protection of the state, is at the center of the text. The document can establish general principles concerning freedom of expression, including press and media freedom and cultural freedoms. It can organize (in general terms) a harmonious coexistence between the different strands of the Turkish society, and can provide a general framework for the evolution of the Kurdish issue. 

In itself, the inclusive nature of the parliamentary committee working on a new constitution is also of paramount importance for its success. Inclusiveness should be preserved at all costs, even in these tense political times.

Changing Attitudes

Turkey is a country in which social habits and citizens’ expectations evolve quickly. Turkish political culture is energetic, to say the least, and there is an increasing demand for democracy. The political culture uses strong language and tends to focus on people more than on issues and debates. This is reflected in the press, where polarization is never far below the surface. Politicians and journalists alike have to adjust to the modern mindset of their respective voters and readers.

Attitudes can be changed in a number of ways. All political actors should accept the right of dissent as a normal ingredient of democracy—“dissent” and “inquiry” should not systematically be understood as an “insult” and journalists voicing different opinions should not become pariahs in their own society. Press freedom is not a residual factor in a democracy; it is an ingredient of a modern, first-class democracy, and it helps a country be more influential internationally.

Civil society organizations and social media should play a full role. More discussion should take place between the government and civil society organizations in order to help forge a consensus on press freedom. For this, they need increased support from international organizations. 

Journalists should improve their standards, focus on facts before issuing political comments, focus on issues rather than individuals, and respect “off the record” information. International exchanges could help in this respect.

The European Dimension

The European Union remains, by all objective accounts, a key anchor for Turkey, not least in the economic field (which includes trade, investment, and technology) but also in the domain of political values. Turkey’s EU accession process, although largely considered by Turkish citizens to be stalled, remains an important driver of change. Conversely, Turkey has become an asset for the EU from an economic and geopolitical perspective, and this warrants more political attention irrespective of the whereabouts of the accession negotiations.

Injecting new life into the EU accession process will allow a better discussion of fundamental freedoms, including press freedom, to take place and cooperation projects to be implemented.

To this end, apart from Turkey’s compliance with the requirements of the accession process, the EU and the member states most concerned should move quickly during the first quarter of 2013 in four directions. First, they should work toward the full implementation of the “positive agenda” and, second, toward the lifting of the veto on the chapters France blocked unilaterally. Third, there should be a strong impulse for autonomous EU civil society programs in Turkey, including human rights, media, education exchanges, and culture. Fourth, an invitation should be extended to the Turkish prime minister to attend part of a European Council meeting in order to discuss, for example, the regional situation.

Concerning the Council of Europe, a dialogue has already been initiated, while the European Court of Human Rights has a large number of verdicts waiting to be implemented by Turkey. Efforts should be pursued on these fronts.

Provisional Conclusions

In Turkey today, more and more pressure is put on journalists, yet the vast majority of newsworthy subjects are still being debated irrespective of attempts to stifle discussion. This situation appears to reveal several contradictions: 

  • A few journalists raise tough issues at grave risk to themselves and end up being ostracized from society while the governing party repeatedly advocates pluralism. A minimum consensus is missing.

  • Political statements acknowledging diversity in Turkish society do not result in a truly open debate on the ways and means to organize coexistence and tolerance. Neither the government, nor the parliament, nor civil society produces a more harmonious society.

  • This results in deep frustrations at home and a sharply deteriorating image worldwide. This is not in line with Turkey’s ambitions.

For a host of reasons linked to the strong and growing relationship between Turkey and the West, the issue of press freedom is not going to fade away. It could indeed be lowered in priority because of dramatic events in the region, but it will definitely stay on the agenda.

Therefore, measures of the type suggested here should be taken and, more importantly, a positive dialogue should be initiated in a constructive spirit with the involvement of all concerned: the government, media, business, civil society organizations, and international partners.

This article was jointly published by Carnegie Europe and Open Society Foundation, Turkey.