Journalists under Pressure

Although the number of journalists in prison in Turkey has gone down, there are still several provisions of the Turkish penal code which threaten press freedom in the country. They are a particular problem for independent and critical media. By Arian Fariborz

The 65-year-old journalist Aydin Engin will not easily forget the 19th January 2007. That was the day when the editor of the weekly Armenian newspaper “Agos,” Hrant Dink, was shot.

He remembers, “A young colleague phoned me and said, ’Brother Engin, they’ve shot Hrant!”’ I went straight to the office, and Hrant was still lying in the street. That was the start of some difficult days. We still had to make sure that ’Agos’ came out. And among the colleagues there was chaos, panic and astonishment.”

So Engin – a Turk who had worked for many years for the liberal daily “Cumhuriyet” and is now a freelance journalist – had to take over as the paper’s acting editor and spokesman for five weeks, since initially no Armenian journalist could be found to do the job.

Trauma following Hrant Dink’s murder

The vacuum left by the death of Hrant Dink, the most prominent representative of the Armenian minority in Turkey, was simply too big.

With the murder of Hrant Dink in front of the “Agos” building in Istanbul, the Armenian weekly lost not only its editor and a brave, combative journalist, but also an important mediator in the country’s policy towards minorities, who was working for a peaceful reconciliation between Armenians and Turks.

Dink gave a voice to many who had no other voice, and his death was met with a sense of deep shock among the paper’s editorial staff. One of them, Markar Esayan, says it left many open questions as to how “Agos” will continue.

“Naturally it was a huge trauma,” he says. “And we had always feared this killing, although we had always repressed that fear. All the same, our determination hasn’t been broken. Initially, of course, there was a withdrawal into ourselves in our community, but after that there were voices which said, ’We have to keep going; we can’t give up.’”

Charged with “insulting Turkishness”

Other journalists and human rights activists believe that the tragic event was only to have been expected. Dink had long been the object of public attacks on his positions and insults in ultra-nationalist circles.

He had received threatening letters, and he was the first journalist in Turkey to be convicted of “insulting Turkishness” under paragraph 301 of the penal code.

The major Turkish novelist Yasar Kemal once described prison as the “school of life,” as the “school of Turkish writers.”

This bitter irony is still valid today: writers and journalists still risk imprisonment or fines when they deal with certain subjects which are taboo in Turkey, such as the unsolved Armenian question, or the continuing conflict with the Kurds in South-East Anatolia.

Although the number of people involved in the media who have been arrested in Turkey has gone down compared to previous years, certain provisions in the Turkish penal code and in the anti-terror laws continue to restrict press freedom there.

Libel campaign against independent media

Just last year, seventy-two journalists appeared in court charged with “Insulting Turkishness.” A further 35 were charged under paragraph 216, dealing with “incitement to hatred and enmity among the people.”

The most recent example of how independent media are finding themselves increasingly under pressure is that of the weekly news magazine “Nokta.”

In early April, the military prosecutor issued a search warrant against the magazine after it printed the diary of a retired officer. The diary revealed details of a putsch which had been planned in 2004 against the government of Prime Minister Reccep Tayyip Erdogan. After that, the publisher announced that he could not cope with the libel campaign against “Nokta,” and that he would have to close the paper.

No instant press freedom

The independent online-magazine “Bianet,” which is supported through a European Union project, has been using a network of local correspondents to report regularly on political and social events in Turkey, especially those which have to do with freedom of the press and freedom of opinion.

Erol Önderoglu is the editor responsible for the section on press freedom in “Bianet,” and he is also Turkey correspondent for the lobby group “Reporters without Borders.” He believes that even if Turkish media law were to move more into line with European standards as part of a possible Turkish accession to the EU, it would not solve the current problems at a stroke.

He says that Turkey has to develop its own reforms from within to guarantee freedom of the press and freedom of opinion, and thus to strengthen civil society.

“The arguments about this must take place within the Turkish population,” says Önderoglu. “We should be discussing what has happened in the past so that we can achieve a reconciliation in society. We have to get rid of the anti-democratic laws and provisions in the penal code, and we have to get people to say openly what they think of government policy. These things have to be discussed, and they have to be discussed before Turkey joins the EU.”

The danger of media concentration

But it is not only the use of Turkish criminal law which worries critical journalists. Aydin Engin also thinks that press freedom is threatened in Turkey by the increasing concentration of ownership in the media.

“Our main problem is the emergence of press monopolies – above all the Dogan Group, which already owns 55 percent of the newspapers, 70 percent of the magazines and four television stations. It already controls 85 percent of the press distribution via kiosks. Smaller papers have scarcely any chance of getting their publications distributed. And we must not forget the huge economic and political influence which this monopoly position allows.”