The government was harshly criticized in a new report on the freedom of the press for intimidating critical media outlets and journalists through tax fines and court cases, thereby dealting a huge blow to the freedom of the press.
“The ruling AKP [the opposition’s way of saying the Justice and Development Party (AK Party)] has tried to intimidate journalists through court cases due to the reports and columns they write,” said former AK Party deputy İdris Bal said in a new report.
According to another recent report by the Confederation of Revolutionary Workers’ Unions (DİSK) about media workers, 981 members of the press were dismissed in the first half of the year, some due to government pressure.
“The media is under heavy government pressure, the likes of which it has never experienced in the past, with pressure on everyone in the industry, from the bosses down to the reporters,” Bal said in his report.
“In terms of freedom of the press, Turkey is in a miserable position,” Yusuf Kanlı, a columnist for Hürriyet Daily News, told Today’s Zaman.
The government’s pressure on the media — which is considered in a checks-and-balances system in democratic countries to be the fourth power after the executive, legislation and judiciary –puts democracy in Turkey in a very fragile situation.
Kanlı, who directed this year’s Press for Freedom project, initiated by the Turkish Journalists Association (TGC), is skeptical about Turkish democracy. “We pretend that [we live in a] democracy, but unfortunately, there is no democracy,” he said. Underlining that democracy is not just about elections and that ballot boxes also exist in dictatorships, Kanlı stressed that the freedom of the press, thanks to which people are properly informed, is essential for a proper democracy.
Bal’s report noted that as a result of the witch-hunt against the Hizmet movement that the government launched following a graft probe that went public in December, a significant number of media members working for pro-government media outlets were dismissed.
“At least 210 journalists lost their jobs in the month of April alone. In 2013, 131 journalists lost their jobs. As a result of the mounting [government] pressure [on the media] following the Gezi protests [of last summer], 94 journalists were fired, while 37 others were forced to resign.”
The report, which draws attention to the government’s pressure on the media and the problems facing members of the press, said: “Mehmet Baransu and Murat Şevki Çoban [a columnist and managing editor, respectively, for the Taraf daily] are being tried in a court case [regarding a news report they published] in which they might get a sentence of up to 52 years.”
Noting that it would not be possible to talk about the freedom of the press in a country where 981 journalists lost their jobs in the first half of 2014, the report said: “In the period between April and June 2014, 15 court cases were launched against journalists for crimes related to the Counterterrorism Law. Based on claims of insulting [former] Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, 38 people were sentenced to two years, 15 days in prison and [were levied] fines of TL 277,400 [$128,000].”
Several journalists who have lost their jobs in the past year due to government pressure established a civil society organization called Platform for Independent Journalism (P24) at the beginning of the year. “P24 is a timely initiative to support and promote editorial independence in the Turkish press at a time when the journalistic profession has been under fierce commercial and political pressure,” the founders write on the P24 website.
“The media is under political pressure. [The government] has formed a media of its own. …This is not something to brag about,” Doğan Akın, the editor-in-chief of the T24 news portal, told Today’s Zaman. Akın, who noted that the media is the main tool for freedom of expression, and that pressure on the media does not befit a country governed by rule of law, added: “I see a tendency [in the government] towards becoming more authoritarian.”
Critical media outlets have been intimidated (through inspections) by the Ministry of Finance and the Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK), while pro-government media has gotten the lion’s share of advertisements given by state institutions, the report said.
In the report drawn up by Bal, who resigned from the ruling party late last year after it was announced that prep schools would be shut down, it was noted that the AK Party has tried to shape the mainstream media to eliminate criticism of government instead of fostering pluralism in the media.
Bal, who underlined that the media has been shaped through a “carrot-and-stick” policy, said in the report that the media is being bullied into conforming with the line of the government under the threat of being confronted with tax fines by the Ministry of Finance and with fines such as broadcasting blockages and administrative fines.
Not only is it true that the bosses of critical television stations and print media fear that they will not be allowed to win public tenders, but critical media outlets are also punished by being not allowed to cover government-led events. Members of several media outlets were not granted permission to cover a recent extraordinary AK Party congress.
It was also said in the report that the government has a “pool media” composed of six dailies and television channels in its service, and that a group of 9,000-10,000 pro-government AK trolls act in an organized way on social media, creating fake Twitter accounts to support the government and to intimidate those who criticize it.
In Bal’s report, it was noted that even former President Abdullah Gül and his family were targeted by AK trolls when Gül signaled in recent months that he differed from the government’s line of thinking over various issues. “News portals such as medyagündemi, Haber10, Son TV [and] ensonhaber.com are being used for propaganda purposes,” the report added.
Based on an AdEx 2014 report by the Nielsen Company, Bal’s report also said pro-government media outlets get incomparably more advertisements from public institutions despite the inferior circulation figures that most have. “In the first six months of 2014, the Sabah, Star and Milliyet [dailies, which are pro-government] got the top positions in terms of advertisements given to dailies. Cumhuriyet, Zaman, Bugün and Sözcü [dailies critical of the government] got the last four places among the [nation’s] 18 dailies. [Public] Companies placed the Sabah daily, which has a circulation figure that is less than one-third that of the Zaman daily, 22 times more ads than Zaman [and] around 17 times more ads than Star, which has a circulation figure of around one-eighth that of Zaman.
In the report, Bal cited what the Taraf daily has been put through as an example of government’s attempts to intimidate critical media outlets through tax inspections.
In February of this year, the Tax Inspection Council Administration issued a TL 5.5 million fine to the Taraf daily for not adding value-added-tax (KDV) in the sale of its scrap paper to paper mills. “The Sabah, Star and Yeni Şafak [all pro-government dailies] also listed the KDV as ‘0′ for their sales of scrap paper, but they did not receive any fines, as their act was considered a ‘routine practice’,” Bal noted in the report.
The fine Taraf is confronted with was harshly criticized by press freedom advocacy groups that accuse the government of attempting to make the daily to toe the line for the government.
Media Ethics Council (MEK) President Halit Esendir described the fine on Taraf as an intimidation tactic directed at the Turkish press. “We haven’t seen such practice
s for a long time in Turkey. I hope the government changes its course and Turkey returns to normalcy,” he said.
Bal stated that the government’s pressure on critical media outlets has increased following December’s graft probe, which led to four Cabinet members leaving their posts.
Mahir Zeynalov, a reporter who was working for the Today’s Zaman, was forced to leave the country because of posting tweets critical of the government, he noted. Zeynalov left Turkey for his native Azerbaijan in early February following a government decision to deport him for his tweets. The deportation of Zeynalov left foreign journalists based in Turkey feeling uneasy.
Foreign members of the press based in Turkey who spoke to Today’s Zaman at the time said Zeynalov’s deportation reflects a severe crisis of press freedom in Turkey. “[It was] quite shocking and disgusting. I’m new to Turkey and [have been] working here only for half a year. The fact that the new Internet law passed and then Zeynalov was deported shows that Turkey is so far away from reaching democracy,” said Hasnain Niels Kazim, a reporter for the German Der Spiegel weekly.
Due to increasing government pressure over the media since the Gezi Park protests that broke out at the end of May last year, Freedom House downgraded Turkey from the “Partly Free” to “Not Free” category in its “Freedom of the Press 2014” report.
Noting that constitutional guarantees of the freedoms of press and expression are only partially upheld in practice in Turkey, the report, which was issued in May by Freedom House, a US-based watchdog dedicated to the expansion of freedom around the world, said: “In Turkey, dozens of journalists were forced from their jobs in apparent connection with their coverage of politically sensitive issues like negotiations between the government and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party [PKK], the Gezi Park protests or official corruption scandals.”
The Freedom House report also stated: “The firings highlighted the close relationship between the government and many media owners, and the formal and informal pressure that this places on journalists.”