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Why press freedom in Turkey is under threat

Stefan Dege kbm
March 1, 2017

The recent arrest in Turkey of German reporter Deniz Yucel is not unique. While Turkey's constitution guarantees press freedom, a slew of other laws are turning it into one of the world's worst places for journalists.

Pen in the air
Image: Reuters/S. Wermuth

"Those who report critically land behind bars," stated Carl-Eugen Eberle. The media law expert heads the German branch of the Vienna-based International Press Institute (IPI), a global network of publishers, journalists and industry insiders. IPI actively supports press freedom and, like similar organizations such as Reporters Without Borders or Writers-in-Prison, it appeals to political leaders, sends letters and travels to problematic countries.

Since the coup attempt in July 2016 and the resulting state of emergency in Turkey, the state of freedom of press in Turkey has drastically worsened, according to IPI. Reporters Without Borders has spoken of "repression on an otherwise unknown scale."

Accused of propagating terror and instigating the public, journalists and authors such as Deniz Yucel - a German citizen - have been arrested. According to IPI, around 150 journalists are currently being held in Turkish prisons. The Turkish journalists' platform P24 has put the number at 140, while the Committee to Protect Journalists says it's "more than 80." The Turkish government, on the other hand, admits to imprisoning only 30 journalists.

Turkish constitution guarantees press freedom

"In Germany, we cannot understand why this attack on press freedom is necessary," said German President Joachim Gauck. He is not the only one to have sharply criticized Yucel's imprisonment.

Prof. Carl-Eugen Eberle
Prof. Carl-Eugen EberleImage: Carmen Sauerbrei

However, when it comes to press freedom anchored in their constitutions, Germany and Turkey aren't that far apart. Paragraph X of the Turkish constitution maintains that press is to remain free and uncensored. "The state shall take measures to ensure freedom of the press and information," it reads.

The same article penalizes writings that threaten "the internal or external security of the state" or the "indivisible unity of state territory and people," or that "encourage criminal activity or have to do with confidential state information."

Further restrictions are mentioned in the paragraph, including Article 301, which made it a crime to insult "Turkishness," the republic and certain state-run institutions until it was changed in 2008. Nobel Prize-winning author Orhan Pamuk and journalist Hrant Dink are among those who have been persecuted under this provision. Dink was a newspaper publisher with Armenian roots who was murdered in 2007.

Both Pamuk and Dink had written about the genocide committed against Turkey's Armenian minority in 1915-1916. They were charged with offending "Turkishness" - which the European Human Rights Court later called a "violation of the basic freedom of expression." The court in Strasbourg also condemned the Turkish government for its involvement in the death of Hrant Dink.

Supporters of Deniz Yücel in Berlin
Berliners have expressed their support for Deniz YücelImage: picture-alliance/dpa/K. Nietfeldpicture alliance / Kay Nietfeld/dpa

Pressure from EU led to new laws

This case played a key role in Turkey's efforts to get closer to the European Union and align its law books with EU standards for the protection of freedom of the press and expressions, writes Turkish lawyer Fikret Ilkiz. That is why the penal code was slightly altered in 2008: The terms "Turkishness" and "republic" were replaced with "Turkish nation" and "Republic of Turkey."

Trials based on Article 301 were only opened with special permission from the justice minister, and the highest punishment was reduced by three to two years in prison. Ilkiz says the number of cases based on Article 301 has dropped since then. Nevertheless, offending the nation, the government or the military remains punishable.

Also due to pressure from the EU, Turkey revamped its press law in 2004 - the previous law in the books had been from 1950. Regulations on the protection of informants and the right to a counter-statement were revised, and it became more difficult to confiscate newspapers. The state oversight of the press gave way to a Turkish press council which voluntarily keeps itself in check.

Symbolic image of press freedom in Turkey
Turkey's press freedom rating is extremely lowImage: picture alliance/AP Photo/T. Stavrakis

Regression due to anti-terror laws

Even before the failed coup attempt in July 2016 - and especially since then - constitutional guarantees have been limited by their interpretation in court. Now more than ever, the work of critical journalists is suffering under the anti-terror laws.

"Even neutral reporting on terror attacks can be interpreted as terror propaganda," law professor Carl-Eugen Eberle told DW. "That has to do with the fact that judges are often recruited from the bureaucracy of the ministries and are inclined toward jurisdiction that puts journalists at a disadvantage."

More than 170 media providers and publishers have been closed due to emergency decrees. Strict internet laws allow critical websites to be blocked. On Reporters Without Borders' press freedom ranking, Turkey took 151st place in 2016 - among 180 countries.

Eberle says that is unlikely to change in the near future: "I'm not very hopeful."