Turkey has intensified its crackdown on the media since last month’s attempted coup, with rights groups decrying a wave of decrees that have turned the country into the world leader in locking up journalists.
During Turkey’s current three-month state of emergency the government has the authority to rule by decree and has ordered the closure of 102 media outlets, including 45 newspapers, 16 TV channels, three news agencies, 23 radio stations, 15 magazines and 29 publishing houses.
Arrest warrants have been issued for more than 100 journalists, and, according to the independent journalism platform P24, 48 have been arrested since the investigation into the alleged coup plotters began.
The Turkish governments insists these measures are justified for security reasons and says journalists currently in jail are being investigated or prosecuted for possible criminal activities.
Rights groups disagree. “One of the biggest problems in Turkey was the close relationship between the judiciary and the government, which was detrimental to press freedom,” said Erol Önderoğlu, Turkey representative for Reporters Without Borders.
“But the government can now bypass the courts altogether, leading to an even more arbitrary situation. Turkey now again leads the ranks of the worst countries for press freedom.”
Trust in the country’s judicial system, already in tatters before the coup attempt, has plummeted to a new low. Can Dündar, former editor-in-chief of Turkish daily Cumhuriyet, announced earlier this month he was stepping down, saying he no longer had faith in the Turkish courts to hear his appeal after he was sentenced to prison in May for allegedly revealing state secrets. Dündar, who is abroad, said he would not surrender himself until at least the end of the state of emergency.
A day later, an Istanbul court ordered the “temporary closure” of Özgür Gündem, a pro-Kurdish daily with a circulation of 7,500, after ruling that the paper acted as a “de facto news outlet” for the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK) and police stormed the offices, detaining 24 people of whom 22 were later released.
“You can see where this is going,” said one media lawyer. “They use the state of emergency as an opportunity to shut down all news outlets they don’t like.”
Many of the arrested journalists worked for media outlets affiliated with the Gülen movement, which is divisive in Turkish society, but rights groups and reporters said that press freedom had to be unconditional.
“I don’t defend the Gülen movement, but I do defend my profession,” said Ahmet Şık, an investigative journalist who spent more than a year in jail for writing a book on police infiltration by the Gülenists.
Most of the jurists who presided over his case are now in jail and many in the media who cheered his imprisonment now face the same treatment themselves. “What is done to the Gülen media today was done to me yesterday, and tomorrow it will be done to you. This is why we always have to defend freedom of expression, and stand by our principles.”
Many in Turkey struggle to show solidarity. When former Zaman reporter Hanim Büsra Erdal, criticised for her pro-Gülenist coverage of trials allegedly initiated by the movement, was arrested last month, Turkish social media was awash with glee. But Şık said nobody should be jailed for journalism.
“Büsra Erdal is a journalist, period. But she is a journalist who has used her skills to a bad end,” he said. “That doesn’t mean that she can be accused of coup plotting and arrested. Büsra Erdal is a bad journalist, but the highest possible penalty for her can only be to tell her not to do journalism any more.”
With Turkish media under such heavy attack, a small group of prominent journalists has come together to found Gazete Duvar, an online newspaper that aims to sidestep the deep polarisation.
“We started earlier than planned because of the coup attempt and the state of news coverage,” said Ali Duran Topuz, editor-in-chief. “The website is still not ideal, many things need to be improved, but instead of complaining how bad things are, we wanted to do something. By upholding high journalistic standards, we want to change things for the better.”
His optimism is rare among journalists in Turkey today. “Press freedom is in a worse state than ever before,” Şık said. “I would sum it up like this: the coup was prevented, but the junta came to power.”