(Image source: iStock)
International human-rights and press-freedom organizations recently appealed to the United Nations to take action against the ongoing abuse of journalists by the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
In a letter to the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) on September 3, eighteen organizations -- led by the group ARTICLE 19, which promotes freedom of expression -- called on "all Member and Observer States committed to media freedom, democracy and the rule of law" to "speak out and address the Turkish government's repressive campaign against freedom of expression" in the forum of the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention during the UNHRC's 42nd regular session.
The letter reads, in part:
"The right to hold and express dissenting opinions and to access information has been systematically undermined by the Turkish government in an intensive crackdown on journalists and independent media, academics, civil society, oppositional voices and the judiciary. Since 2016, the human rights situation in Turkey has steeply declined, facilitated by the misuse of sweeping emergency powers and the concentration of executive power. At the time of writing, at least 138 journalists and media workers are imprisoned, with hundreds more currently on trial facing lengthy sentences on manifestly unfounded terrorism charges ... Access to thousands of websites and platforms has been blocked after a government decree authorising removals and blockages of websites without judicial oversight."
Providing "background," the letter goes on:
"In July 2016, a state of emergency was imposed in Turkey after a failed coup attempt, which was followed by mass arrests and mass dismissals of judges, prosecutors and civil servants perceived to be in opposition to the government. Many of those arrested are reported to have been subject to torture and ill-treatment in detention and have faced politicised trials falling well below fair trial standards. Since then, President Erdoğan's government has sought to tighten its grip, shutting down media outlets and imprisoning journalists on an alarming scale...
"In 2018 alone, 59 journalists were sentenced to a collective total of 419 years and 8 months in prison for 'being a member of a terrorist organisation', 'managing a terrorist organisation' or 'aiding a terrorist organisation'. Trumped up terrorism charges are routinely used against journalists expressing critical or dissenting opinions, and result in lengthy prison terms...
"Independent media has been all but wiped out. Under State of Emergency Decrees at least 170 media outlets including publishing houses, newspapers and magazines, news agencies, TV stations and radios were closed. Only 21 of these have been able to reopen, some of them only on the basis that they agree to major changes in their management boards.Many independent outlets have been permanently silenced, through the liquidation and expropriation of all their assets...
"These arrests and trials are taking place in the context of the absolute collapse of the rule of law in the country, where there is no prospect of a fair trial for defendants."
Recent examples of the above repression include:
On September 12, Barış İnce, a journalist with the newspaper Birgun, was sentenced to 11 months and 20 days in prison for "insulting president Erdoğan."
On September 11, Max Zirngast, an Austrian university student and journalist with the Jacobin magazine, was acquitted by a Turkish court of "being a member of an armed terrorist organisation." Zirngast was detained last year and spent three months in jail, until he was released, but subject to an international travel ban, pending trial.
Also on September 11, journalists Ayşegül Doğan, program coordinator of IMC TV, which was shut down, and Yusuf Karataş, a columnist for the daily Evrensel, had their hearings, which lasted only five minutes. The two members of the media are charged with "establishing and leading an armed terrorist organization" as part of their journalistic activities and face up to 22 and a half years in prison. The next hearings are slated for December 25.
On September 11, as well, columnist Özlem Albayrak resigned from the pro-government daily, Yeni Şafak, after the paper refused to publish her article criticizing the nearly 10-year prison sentence imposed on Canan Kaftancıoğlu, the Istanbul head of the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), for her social media posts. After her resignation, Albayrak said: "It appears that there is no tolerance left even for constructive and genuine criticism that is not hostile. And that is worrisome. But it would be delusional to think that this is restricted to Yeni Şafak alone. In recent years, we have been expected to engage in hooliganism, not journalism."
On August 29, Ümit Uzun from the Demirören News Agency was detained by Istanbul police while reporting on a story. Uzun was handcuffed as he was interviewing the owner of a store into which a car had crashed, and was accused of "disrupting the scene of the accident." He was released after being interrogated.
On August 28, journalist Levent Uysal, the owner of the newspaper Yenigün, was attacked by armed assailants, who shot him in the leg, leading to his hospitalization. The Balikesir Journalists' Association called the assault "planned," "organized" and "a serious threat to the people's right to obtain information."
On August 22, Taylan Özgür Öztaş, a reporter for Özgür Gelecek, was taken into custody in Istanbul after covering the protests against the government's recent dismissal of the mayors of Mardin, Diyarbakir and Van. Tunahan Turhan, a reporter for the Etkin News Agency, was detained during the same demonstrations. Both reporters were later brought to court and released under judicial control measures.
On August 20, Mezopotamya reporters Ahmet Kanbal and Mehmet Şah Oruç, JinNews reporter Rojda Aydın, and journalists Nurcan Yalçın and Halime Parlak, were arrested in Mardin while covering the same demonstrations against the government's removal of the mayors from office. The journalists were released on August 26, after giving their statements at the local police department.
The Working Group on Arbitrary Detention was held on September 13. Sadly, no one at the meeting addressed the persecution of journalists in Turkey -- not José Guevara Bermúdez, Chair-Rapporteur of the Working Group, nor Béla Szombati, who represented the European Union, nor any other participant.
The 42nd session of the UN Human Rights Council, which ARTICLE 19 has appealed to, is scheduled to continue until September 27, and the next session of the Working Group is scheduled to take place in November.
Amnesty International recently tagged Turkey the "world's largest prison for journalists." The UNHRC, if it wishes to change its image from that of a laughing stock, should put at the top of its agenda calling Ankara to task. Meanwhile, however, Erdoğan's violations of freedom of speech need to be exposed daily and loudly condemned -- not only by members of the UN and the media, but by any and all allies of Turkey -- and freedom of expression -- in the West.
Uzay Bulut, a Turkish journalist, is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Gatestone Institute.