Pictured: Turkish police arrest 69-year-old journalist Ahmet Altan (center) in Istanbul on November 12, 2019, just a few days after he was released from prison, having serving more than three years of a life sentence for allegedly spreading "subliminal messages announcing a military coup" on television in 2016. (Photo by Bulent Kilic/AFP via Getty Images)
According to the latest report by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Turkey fell below its ranking as the world's worst jailer of journalists for the first time in four years -- dropping behind even China. That rating is not exactly indicative of an improvement in Ankara's stance towards the media. On the contrary, as CPJ revealed on December 11:
"[T]he fall to 47 journalists in jail from 68 [in 2018] reflects the successful efforts by the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to stamp out independent reporting and criticism by closing down more than 100 news outlets and lodging terror-related charges against many of their staff."
CPJ also pointed out that Ankara's October 24 legislative package -- granting certain convicted journalists the right to re-appeal their cases, and others a shorter pre-trial detention period – has not alleviated the situation of the "scores of journalists in exile, jobless, or cowed into self-censorship."
In addition, CPJ exposed,
"Dozens of journalists not currently jailed in Turkey are still facing trial or appeal and could yet be sentenced to prison, while others have been sentenced in absentia and face arrest if they return to the country."
The above findings echo those of a report -- "Turkey's Journalists in the Dock: The Judicial Silencing of the Fourth Estate" -- released jointly by CPJ, the International Press Institute, ARTICLE 19, the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom, Reporters without Borders, the European Federation of Journalists, Norwegian PEN and PEN International.
According to that report, the fruit of a two-day fact-finding mission to Turkey in September:
"The press freedom environment in the country has not improved since the lifting of the state of emergency in July 2018. Scores of journalists remain behind bars or under travel bans as a consequence of an extended, politically motivated crackdown against the media.
"A subsequent wide-ranging capture of the judiciary has progressively and severely damaged the rule of law and the public's right to access information...
"In the months following the failed military coup of July 2016 and the launch of the state of emergency the crackdown against journalists and media was widespread and merciless. Within weeks over 160 journalists were behind bars, hundreds more facing prosecution, over 170 media had been closed and over 3,000 journalists were out of work...
"Pre-trial detention for hundreds of journalists has lasted for months and sometimes years before investigations are completed and the trials can begin. The state of emergency enabled judges to hold defendants without sufficient justification. The appeals process for individual cases has been exceedingly slow, with the Constitutional Court taking years to eventually take up and rule on individual cases...
"Anti-terrorism legislation is for the most part poorly defined, leaving room for prosecutors to conflate criticism of government with terrorist propaganda. Moreover, there is no defined threshold of evidence that needs to be obtained in order for the courts to first launch prosecutions and then for judges to assess when a terrorist act has been committed. Evidence presented in journalist cases has invariably been based on the defendants' professional work, revealing perhaps inadvertently the desire to silence journalism as the true motivation for the prosecution..."
Putting Ankara's persecution of the press in a wider context, Scott Griffen, deputy director of the International Press Institute, stated:
"The plight of Turkey's journalists is but the tip of the iceberg of a much broader issue of systemic human rights abuse. European institutions must insist on substantial reform and not allow the Turkish authorities to gloss over the abuse with promises of superficial change while hundreds continue to pay the price of this abuse with the loss of their liberty."
Uzay Bulut, a Turkish journalist, is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Gatestone Institute.