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Turkish press freedom

April 5, 2011

As investigations into plots to undermine the government are carried out in Turkey, there is growing concern over the detention of journalists. Two recent arrests have led to particular concerns about press freedom.

Turkish newspapers
Journalists are intimidated by fear of indictment, critics claimImage: AP

Just recently, the question of freedom of the press and freedom of expression has been a matter of fierce debate in Turkey.

The situation came to a head after the arrest of two investigative journalists Nedim Sener and Ahmet Sik in March. The pair are among several journalists accused by state prosecutors of being members of the terror organization Ergenekon, an ultra-nationalist organization accused of planning to overthrow the government of Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan.

Nedim Sener waving as he is led away by police
Sener waved as he was arrested in Istanbul in MarchImage: dapd

Defenders of the Sener and Sik say that, ironically, they were actually investigating plots to undermine the government.

"It is confusing," said journalist and Turkey expert Günter Seufert. "These journalists had actually just been trying to uncover plots exactly like these. That being the case, there is a lot of confusion in Turkey as to how an investigation into such a conspiracy can practically develop into a conspiracy itself."

Police have had Ahmet Sik's as-yet-unpublished book "The Army of the Imam" in their sights. It is concerned with secret networks within the police force consisting of followers of US-based preacher Fethullah Gulen.

Officials have raided the editorial department of the liberal daily newspaper Radikal, as well as the publisher Ithaki, which has plans to publish the book. An apparently original copy of the book was later published on the internet and distributed through social networking sites.

Confiscating the news

Prosecutors have also launched an investigation into the internet publication. Sik's lawyer, Fikret Ilkiz, said there was a negative effect of such actions on the freedom of the media.

Sik in his office in Istanbul
Sik's book looks at secret networks in Turkey's police forceImage: AP

"In regard to this book, there is a court decision ordering that all copies are to be confiscated because this book is seen as evidence. Legally, of course, there is a right to challenge such a decision and we have done that but the court rejected it. The debate about this trial is particularly focused on freedom of expression. I also think that, where it concerns journalists, the sequestration of news sources breaks the law."

Critics say the Islamic conservative AKP ruling party has been using the case to intimidate and muzzle the opposition and is irritated by criticism of the police force.

"Because these trials against Nedim Sener and others take place in great secrecy, we would say that it is absolutely important that the evidence and suspicions are put forward," said Anthony Mills from the International Press Institute. "This way, light can be shed on accusations by journalists and others, for example the European Commission and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe."

Restricted and limited

According to the latest report from the International Press Institute, the number of journalists detained in Turkey has risen to 68. The EU Commission and the European Parliament have indicated that there are concerns about press freedom. Media law attorney Fikret Ilkiz is of the opinion that the legal situation in Turkey places great pressure on journalists.

Tayyip Erdogan
An investigation is under way into efforts to overthrow Erdogan's administrationImage: AP

"When I take a look at the rules, I realize that journalists work under the threat that criminal trials can be brought against them. However, the rules are that freedom of speech has a basis and that criminal proceedings should only be brought as a last resort. The criminal law is formulated in such a way that journalists are restricted and limited in their work."

After the recent arrests, hundreds of journalists took to the streets to demonstrate support for their colleagues. Many columnists have since written about the issue and criticized the actions of prosecutors and the government.

The government on the other hand rejects all allegations and insists that the justice system is independent; that politicians do not meddle in the matters of justice. Meanwhile, a total of 531 people, including high-ranking army officers, academics and artists as well as journalists, face prosecution because of the Ergenekon investigation. The indictment stretches to 8,032 pages.

Author: Basak Ozay / rc
Editor: Nicole Goebel