Thousands of people marched on Sunday, in one of the largest protests in central Istanbul in recent memory. Protestors called for the release of 68 arrested journalists and for freedom for the press in Turkey.

"Journalists are marching today for their personal rights as employees and for the people's right to be informed," said Ercan İpekçi, the head of the Freedom to Journalists Platform in a statement released by the 92 national and local professional groups that make up the umbrella organization. "Journalists are not here today because they are afraid of being judged or arrested, but rather because they are deeply concerned about the people's voice being stifled and the right to be informed being inhibited," the statement said.

Thousands of journalists and their supporters from other professions marched down İstiklal Avenue in Istanbul's Beyoğlu district for more than an hour, demanding the immediate release of all arrested journalists and amendments to the Turkish Penal Code, the Criminal Procedure Code, the anti-terror law and other laws restricting press freedom.

"Do not keep silent, shout out – free press is a right," the marchers chanted. Among other slogans that included: "The press is free, it cannot be kept silent!" "For [slain journalist] Hrant [Dink], for justice," "AKP [the ruling Justice and Development Party] take your hands off of the media," "Do not keep silent, otherwise you will be next!" and "Ahmet, Nedim, you are our pride."

According to the protestors, there are now 68 journalists behind bars in Turkey.

Distinguished figures from the media and other sectors participated in the march down İstiklal Avenue. Among the participants were Daily's Hürriyet's Sedat Ergin, Tufan Türenç, Radikal's İdris Akyüz, Vatan's Leyla Umar;

Star television channel's Uğur Dündar; main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), parliamentary deputies Çetin Soysal, Mehmet Sevigen and Necla Arat; pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), deputy Akın Birdal; Istanbul Bar Association Chairman Ümit Kocasakal; and former member of Parliament and performer Arif Sağ.

Family members of journalists detained or arrested marched in the front line, which was symbolically surrounded by a red-and-white chain on which front pages of Turkish dailies related to arrests or journalists were hung.

Bülent Şık, the brother of recently arrested Daily Milliyet's journalist Ahmet Şık, was among those marching in the front line.

"There are still 68 journalists in prison today. Some 30 journalists were released in 2009, but their court cases continue. At least 98 journalists have been imprisoned," İpekçi said as part of the joint statement on behalf of all the protest group's member organizations, adding that some 150 journalists were at risk of jail time.

"Moreover, there are more than 2,000 open court cases against journalists and media outlets and more than 4,000 ongoing investigations," he said, adding that the country's current government held all the responsibility for such a "shameful situation" regarding press freedom in Turkey. "If the situation keeps being like this in Turkey, even those people who did not get out of their homes today will rise up to protest with us," said 82-year-old journalist Umar. "The fact that so many journalists rose up for press freedom is a positive sign for our country's democracy. It shows journalists do not believe the excuses for their colleagues to be kept under arrest anymore," said Haluk Şahin from the TV 8 television channel.


The media and the judiciary, both essential components of democracy, are no longer free in Turkey, but stifled by an "empire of fear," former President Süleyman Demirel has said amid increasing outcry about threats to press freedom.

"An empire of fear has been established in Turkey. The press is the most influenced by this; even some very prominent journalists say they are afraid," he told the Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review in an interview Saturday.

"A free judiciary is required for a free media. In the absence of a free judiciary and press, there is no democracy at all. Let me tell you bluntly: Fundamental rights and freedoms are being violated in Turkey," said Demirel, who served as president between 1993 and 2000 following multiple terms as prime minister.

The veteran politician, who spent nearly four decades actively involved in politics, used a very critical tone in his comments about Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), urging it to comply with the universally agreed-upon rights and freedoms needed for a healthy democracy. "No democracy can function without a free press. That means a free press is an inseparable part of democracy," said Demirel, who headed two governments toppled by military coups and was later a key actor in the "Feb. 28 process," the events around the Feb. 28, 1997, military memorandum that sparked turmoil leading to the resignation of the ruling Islamist coalition government.

"Of course, the press should not abuse its freedom by discrediting people or institutions through fake stories," he added.

Demirel underscored that a free press should protect the public interest, hold regimes accountable and criticize – sometimes even severely – those in positions of power and influence. "But it wouldn't be a free press if every dissident gets taken to court. This is wrong. Those who look at us from outside say, 'Journalism in Turkey is dangerous,'" he said, referring to a story about the press freedom in the Economist magazine.

Threats to press freedom in Turkey have become a source of renewed debate following the arrests of prominent investigative reporters Nedim Şener and Ahmet Şık, along with some other journalists, as part of the alleged Ergenekon coup-plot case. The latest round of arrests brought the number of journalists behind bars to 68, according to the Freedom to Journalists Platform.

Listen to international warnings

The recent arrests and detention of Turkish journalists were covered by newspapers and magazines around the world and criticized by a variety of international organizations. The European Parliament has openly urged the Turkish government to take measures to secure the rights of journalists and expressed its concern about the deterioration of this fundamental freedom.

In an unusually harsh reaction, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan called the people who prepared the European Parliament report "unbalanced."

"I do not understand why we get furious with those who tell us that we should correct our faults. Turkey is a civilized country and has to have civilized ties with other countries," Demirel said. "In this contemporary world, universal laws and principles walk hand in hand with national laws. And countries sometimes can urge each other to comply with the law."

The former president added that the issue has nothing to do with sovereignty. "You cannot do whatever you want to do, even in your own country. Why? Not because you are not free and sovereign but because you are civilized," he said. "What does it mean to be civilized? It means to be a part of the international community."

"Turkey has made agreements with countries and signed international treaties and conventions to be a part of the international community. These agreements are binding. We have committed to protecting human rights," Demirel said, responding to Erdoğan's reaction against the European Parliament report. "If you violate these agreements, then you have to be ready to receive other countries' urging. If you want to continue to be a member of this community, then you have to behave in a way the community embraces."

All sorts of pressure on press

Touching on the structural problems with ensuring press freedom in Turkey, Demirel said media owners who have other business interests outside of journalism are more vulnerable to government pressures. "It's much easier for the government to oppress them. It will easily find a way to do this. Thus, what we see almost everyday," he said, noting the world-record tax levy imposed in 2008 against the Doğan Media Group, the parent company of the Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review and part of a holding company with broad business interests.

Pressure against media owners in Turkey includes demands that they sack some dissident columnists and journalists, Demirel said. "All sorts of pressure are seen. That does not prove the existence of a free media. You can engage in demagoguery, you can deny the arrest of journalists but you cannot change the fact that dozens of them are in prison today," he said. "These are not good things and indeed are shameful for Turkish democracy."

Criticizing the president, warning the PM

When asked about President Abdullah Gül's statement that he was also concerned about the recent developments regarding press freedom, Demirel said: "A verbal statement is not enough. There is a need for action. Can he take it? As president, he [Gül] can also chair the government, if he wants to do so."

He added that it is Prime Minister Erdoğan who needs to heed the message in Gül's statement. "If even the president of a country does not hide his concerns, then the prime minister has no luxury to close his eyes and ears to the people's complaints," Demirel said, urging Erdoğan to ensure that the results of the general elections set for June "will not legitimize such disturbing acts."

"You could get more than 50 percent of the votes; I got that too. But this is not enough. The problem is the satisfaction of the entire people, not only those who vote for you. Those who voted for others have no less right than your electorate," he said.

Demirel also cautioned the government that the transfer over the weekend of Ergenekon suspect Mehmet Haberal, who has serious health problems, from a hospital to a prison should "not [be] counted as a victory for your side."

"These men are not running away. You can always try them. But you cannot convince anyone by saying that you have secret evidence against them. No one will buy it," he said, adding that the situation in Turkey seems set to worsen if the government does not change its attitude.

"The atmosphere is bad. There is no need to compare it with the past," Demirel said. "A drop of ink is enough to cloud a bottle of water. There is no need to create more Haberal or Nedim [Şener] cases. This is already enough to prove the absence of justice and freedom in Turkey."


The Turkish Treasury will distribute financial assistance to the Justice and Development Party (AKP), Republican People's Party (CHP) and Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), worth a total of 218 million Turkish Liras to be used for the upcoming general elections on June 12. The financial assistance will be based on the percentage of votes received. Accordingly, the AKP will receive 124 million liras, the CHP will receive 56 million liras and the MHP will receive 38 million liras.


Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu addressed the sixth Annual Al Jazeera Forum in Qatar and said the Egyptian army did not oppose the people during the uprising in the country. "The most powerful army in the world is the one that does not get involved in politics," he said. Davutoğlu also met Qatar's Emir Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa al Thani in Doha.


Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu said the changes taking place in the Middle East stemmed from social necessity. Speaking in Qatar, where he attended an annual forum, Davutoğlu said that no one could remain a leader forever in the Middle East.


State Minister for Economy Ali Babacan said that Turkey had lived through a great transition in the past eight years. Speaking at a conference, Babacan said: "Turkey has made significant political and economic reforms in the past eight years. Turkey has become the 16th biggest economy in the world and the sixth biggest in Europe."


Top Ergenekon suspect professor Mehmet Haberal, who has been plagued by health problems since his arrest in April 2009, has begun refusing medical treatment since being taken to prison Saturday.

Haberal, who spent 18 months at Istanbul University's Cardiology Institute after his arrest due to heart problems, was finally incarcerated Saturday. According to his lawyer, Dilek Havacı, Haberal began experiencing problems with his heart but refused to be taken to the hospital in protest of a recent report stating he could be treated in the prison's medical wing.

Saturday's transfer to Silivri prison was the first time Haberal stepped into a penitentiary since his arrest. During his extended stay at the university hospital, two of his doctors were also arrested for "aiding and abetting a criminal organization."

Haberal was transferred to Mehmet Akif Ersoy Heart Surgery Research and Teaching Hospital in February before being sent to Silivri.

The Ergenekon case started in June 2007 with the discovery of 27 hand grenades in a shanty house belonging to a retired non-commissioned officer. The finding has led to scores of arrests and put nearly 200 journalists, writers, military personnel, gang leaders, scholars, businessmen and politicians in detention in what has become a terror investigation to stop the alleged ultranationalist gang.

In the later stages of the investigation, those in custody have been accused of planning to topple the government by staging a coup, initially by spreading chaos and mayhem. Some people claim Ergenekon is an extension of or a different name for the "deep state," which is an alleged unofficial organization of bureaucracy and military within the state whose existence has been voiced by people including presidents but its exact definition has never been made.


The Freedom for Journalists Platform protested the detentions of journalists under the Ergenekon probe. Ercan İpekçi, the chairman of the platform, called on the government not to accuse journalists of being terrorists or members of terrorist organizations. Thousands of people marched and carried banners reading, "Freedom for journalists," "justice for journalists" and "68 journalists are in jail now."

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