Turkish Troubles: Freedom of Expression Endangered in Turkey

Journalists and activists participate in a rally calling for the freedom of press in central Ankara. (ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Turkey, as almost any observer (or indeed, Turkish citizen), will tell you, is a country of remarkable contradictions.  For someone like myself, who has known and loved the country for so many years, these contradictions can be painful.  On the one hand, Turkey enjoys a vibrant and wildly creative culture, a strong economy, outstanding universities, and electoral politics that – despite many flaws – have been able to adapt to real political change.  Yet, despite these remarkable achievements, Turkey’s record on freedom of expression has, in many ways, suffered real decline.

Problems range from the banning of websites to lawsuits aimed at stifling free speech and debate.  Indeed, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan seems to file lawsuits almost weekly, normally at critical journalists, in what seems to be a concerted effort to use civil courts to limit political criticism and serious journalistic scrutiny.  More broadly, anti-terrorism laws have been used to attack peaceful dissent.


Freedom of the Press? Not in Turkey

Increasingly, Turkey is not a place where it is safe to work as a journalist.  In the past weeks, police have arrested a string of journalists, accusing them of being part of a plot, code-named “Ergenekon,” to overthrow the Turkish government.  Those arrested—seven at the beginning of March, as well as the earlier arrest of the head of a TV station and two of his employees—all had a record of being critical of Turkey’s ruling party and its leader, Prime Minister Erdoğan.  There are currently 68 journalists detained in Turkey, one reason that Reporters Without Borders has ranked Turkey 138th among 175 countries for press freedom, just above Ethiopia and Russia.

Aside from those arrested and detained in the Ergenekon investigation, most of those in prison or on trial are Kurdish journalists, usually charged with violating Article 314 of the Turkish Penal Code: “committing a crime on behalf of an organization without being a member of that organization.”  Sentencing under this law can be draconian: the former Editor-in-Chief of the Kurdish paper Vedat Kurşun was sentenced to 166 years in jail; the former editorial manager of another Kurdish newspaper was sentenced to 138 years behind bars.   In addition, Prime Minister Erdoğan and the current government have employed lawsuits and fines against journalists and media outlets in a pattern that seems designed to stifle dissent.

Amnesty International has long campaigned against laws in the Turkish Penal Code that curtail freedom of speech, particularly the infamous Article 301, which criminalized “Insulting Turkishness” (after much protest, later changed to “Insulting the Turkish Nation”).  Much more needs to change in Turkish law, however, before Turkish journalists can express political opinions that are unpopular without risking imprisonment.