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EU to Slam Turkish Media Curbs

The European Union on Tuesday will criticize Turkey sharply over the rising number of prosecutions against  journalists in an annual progress report on the country’s bid to join the bloc, said a person familiar with the draft.

The attack on Turkey’s press-freedom record is likely to further embarrass the country’s Islamic-leaning government, which this week takes over the six-month rotating chair of the Council of Europe, the Continent’s top human-rights body. Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has hailed that development as testament to “the level of democracy in Turkey.”

But according to Turkish and international press watchdogs, media freedoms—a key right underpinning democratic systems—are getting significantly worse in Turkey. Reporters without Borders this year ranked Turkey 138th in terms of media freedom, out of 178 countries—down from 98th out of 167 in 2005.

The core problem, press advocates and Turkish journalists said, is the country’s penal code, adopted in 2005. The EU’s report will describe “the large number of cases initiated against journalists” arising from several articles in the code as a cause for concern that could lead to “self-censorship,” said the people familiar with the draft.

Take Mehmet Baransu, an investigative reporter with the Turkish Taraf daily, who faces potential jail sentences totaling just under 400 years from 40 separate prosecutions over articles he has written. Mr. Baransu has played a prominent role in cases against some of Turkey’s top generals, on one occasion providing prosecutors with the suitcase of documents and CD-ROMs on which they based their case, which begins in December.

Virtually all of the prosecutions against Mr. Baransu involve either breaching laws on court secrecy, attempting to influence a court or publishing classified documents. One case involved a document suggesting the army knew nine days before a terrorist attack on a border post that the action would take place, but failed to act, he said. Another case concerns a document suggesting the army was tapping phones without authorization, he said.

“What happens in Turkey is that whenever something illegal is done [by a state institution], they classify the document,” Mr. Baransu said, adding that any journalist who exposes the wrongdoing is then subject to prosecution. He said he now spends around three days a week in court representing himself in the cases, most of which are still pending.

It isn’t just those who report on the military who run afoul of the courts. Mr. Baransu’s friend, Ismail Saymaz, is an investigative reporter at the Radikal daily. Of the 10 cases he faces, five stem from reports in which he purported to expose the flimsiness of the evidence against a prosecutor, Ilhan Cihaner, who had been investigating religious sects supportive of the government before he was accused of plotting a coup. Mr. Cihaner’s trial is continuing, while Mr. Saymaz faces a potential total of 45 years in jail sentences from the five cases, he said.

 

“Whenever I wrote anything about Cihaner, I was sued,” said Mr. Saymaz. “I think I was just doing my job.”

Reporters across the world have to take care not to breach laws designed to ensure people can get a fair trial. But according to Fikret Ilkiz, a prominent Istanbul press lawyer, Turkey is different because the courts apply wide-ranging laws so aggressively, and in an environment where politicians and officials also talk about cases and leak documents.Mr. Ilkiz said tens of journalists are currently in Turkish jails, an improvement on the hundreds incarcerated in the 1990s. Many of these were ethnic Kurds who were convicted under an antiterrorism law that makes propagandizing for terrorists a crime. The concern today, said Mr. Ilkiz, is the sudden explosion since 2005 of new prosecutions against journalists who offend one side or the other in the country’s struggle for power between the old secular establishment and a rising religious conservative elite.

“Turkey’s democratic problem is being fought out through these lawsuits,” and at the expense of press freedom, said Mr. Ilkiz. “This is part of a political struggle.”

The Justice Ministry, in written answers to questions, said, “Turkey is a democratic state, governed by the rule of law,” in which press freedoms are guaranteed by the constitution. It also said that of 26 journalists currently in jail in Turkey, only two are there because of their work as journalists.

But the ministry acknowledged that the rise in cases was a problem. “At this moment, our ministry is preparing a draft that foresees the amending of some articles concerning the press in the Turkish Penal Code,” the Justice Ministry wrote, singling out the articles on secrecy of investigations, personal privacy and the attempt to affect a fair trial.

Hrant Dink

The ministry also noted that in 2008 it amended the penal code’s Article 301, which penalized anyone who publicly

denigrated “Turkishness,” the military, courts or government. Ethnic Armenian journalist Hrant Dink was prosecuted under Article 301 in 2006, and was assassinated soon afterward. Since 2008, prosecutors need permission from the Justice Ministry to open a case under Article 301, and new prosecutions have come to a near halt as a result.

Turkey’s media firms aren’t under pressure from the courts alone. An estimated 5,000 Internet sites, including YouTube, have been shut down since the government pushed through new Internet laws in 2007. Meanwhile, the country’s largest media group—the government-critical Dogan Yayin Holding SA—is fighting some 4.8 billion Turkish lira ($3.43 billion) of tax fines it describes as political. The government said the fines are purely technical.

—Ayla Albayrak contributed to this article.

Author: Marc Champion

from: Wall Street Journal

 

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