Safe to speak? The challenges of democracy and press freedom in Turkey
Emanuela Pergolizzi 5 June 2013

Known to the vast majority of journalists as “Cemal abi”, an inspiring elder brother, Hasan Cemal is the grandson of Cemal Pasha, one of the three leaders who organized the massacres of the Armenians at the end of the Ottoman Empire. In a nation where the Armenian genocide is still a dreadful taboo, Hasan Cemal was the courageous writer of a best-seller entitled “1915: the Armenian Genocide”. The shameful dismissal of such an appraised writer served as a stark reminder that freedom of expression in Turkey is still far from being achieved.

As of the end of 2012, Turkey counted at least 49 journalists in jail and many others held in pre-trial detention for their published works or news-gathering activities. These figures easily shifted the country’s image from a democratic model for the Arab Spring to “the world’s biggest prison for journalists” in the eyes of major international think thanks.

The existing constitution, which was written during the political turmoil following 1980’s military coup, provides a wide range of legal loopholes in the hands of overzealous prosecutors if national security is concerned. It is not a coincidence that the overwhelming majority of journalists in prison are Kurdish writers, easy targets of Turkey’s controversial Anti-Terror Law.

Analyzing Turkey’s press freedom crisis in terms of how many journalists are in jail, however, means just considering the tip of the iceberg. More subtle forms of pressure silently weigh on editors, columnists and reporters in what international analysts defined “a big open-air prison” for the whole media. The consolidation of major media holdings and the cross-ownership of media outlets expose journalists to a wide range of constraints which often result in self-censorship.

Critics point their finger at the case of the ATV-Sabah company, Turkey’s second largest media group, which in 2008 was sold to the Calik Holding, a conglomerate run by the Prime Minister’s son-in-law and brother. A second widely mentioned example is the case of the Doğan Group, formerly Turkey’s largest media company, accused of tax evasion and hit by an extraordinary fine of $2.5 billion.

The measure against the group, which has been a frequent target of Erdoğan’s attacks, was seen as a political move to punish its newspapers’ critical views of the government. These and similar episodes clearly hampered press freedom resulting in an indirect erosion of editorial independence.

Different but not less frightening concerns stem from the problematic Media Law, according to which television frequencies must be leased from the state’s Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTUK) and therefore are revocable at any time. Press cards are issued with the government’s involvement and journalists and media outlets are vulnerable to prosecutions in case of offenses linked to national security or decency standards.

However, the international attention that Turkey’s press freedom crisis is attracting makes some hopeful for future improvements. Releases have led to a sharp drop in the number of jailed journalists in December 2012 and, in April 2013, the government has passed an unexpected amendment to the Anti-Terror Law narrowing the definitions of prosecutable offenses.

Furthermore, as a result of the block on printed media, online platforms and social media are becoming increasingly important sources of information for the Turkish public.

“We’ll let newspapers be all yours”, declared Doğan Akin, founder of the independent news site T24 – “real journalism will always be ours”. Akin, just like Hasan Cemal, was forced to leave the daily Milliyet, but has never stopped writing. Recent studies report that there are more than 150 independently operating news websites such as Akin’s, despite government’s continued content filtering and website censorships in compliance with the controversial Internet Law of 2011.

Turkey has been undergoing remarkable transformations since AKP’s first electoral victory in 2002. In light of this, it is hard to understand how Erdoğan’s government, which has been the driver of historic breakthroughs in terms of civil rights, can accept such a stain on its internationally recognized achievements. Both the West and the Middle East are closely eyeing Turkey’s democratic challenge, hoping for the rise of a true model for the whole region.

The ongoing constitutional reform, along with the emerging peace process with the Kurdish PKK, are providing an unprecedented opportunity for Turkey to shed its authoritarian past and rise to become an admirable example for its neighbors.

Should Ankara understand the importance of these times, Hasan Cemal may be one of the last journalists to lose his freedom of speech. If the government decides to pursue these reforms without hesitation, Erdoğan may finally create a new Turkey and provide a stronger basis for democracy in the whole Middle East.

Picture: Hasan Cemal