[OPINION] Turkey attempted to thwart CoE media alert platform

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CoE's Secretary-General Thorbjorn Jagland (L), AKP's Talip Küçükcan (C) and Emine Nur Günay

By Abdullah Bozkurt

Feeling both shamed and troubled by the number of alerts posted on the Council of Europe (CoE) Platform for the Safety of Journalists, which promotes protection and security for journalism, the Turkish government had quietly lobbied to limit the public exposure and attempted to change the platform in the last session of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE).

Abdullah Bozkurt
Abdullah Bozkurt

The platform took off in December 2014 with Secretary-General Thorbjorn Jagland taking the lead with partner organizations Reporters Without Borders (RSF), the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ), the Association of European Journalists (AEJ) and Article 19. The goal is to compile and spread the word on serious violations of press freedom, a right that is guaranteed under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), a part of the CoE. In October 2015, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and the Index on Censorship joined the platform, followed by the International Press Institute (IPI) in April 2016, raising the number of reporting partners to eight.

Currently, Turkey, a co-founder of the CoE, is leading the number of alerts by a wide margin. Of the 254 alerts currently posted on the CoE’s website, 86 originated from Turkey, which corresponds to one-third of all press freedom alerts. The nominal figures do not tell the whole story because some of the alerts referred to the wholesale crackdown by the Turkish government when dozens of journalists were arrested in one sweep or dozens of media outlets were shuttered by a government decree. Some of the cases on the platform are missing simply because partnering organizations cannot keep up with the relentless crackdown on press freedom in Turkey.

The Stockholm Center for Freedom, a monitoring group for rights violations, has recently documented 191 individual cases of journalists who were jailed in Turkey because of their journalistic work. It also listed the names of 92 additional journalists who are wanted for arrest by the government. Thousands of journalists found themselves unemployed when the government shut down close to 200 media outlets in Turkey without any judicial decision. Almost a thousand journalists have been persecuted in judicial cases brought by the government on trumped-up charges of terror, espionage and defamation.

Turkey feels compelled to respond to these alerts, and it becomes more embarrassing when the Turkish government’s answers are made public because it exposes how ridiculous those charges are against the journalists. The spike in the number of alerts from Turkey also spurred the CoE’s bodies into action, with PACE sending a special rapporteur to investigate press freedom woes in this member state. Turkey was covered extensively in the PACE report “Attacks against journalists and media freedom in Europe,” which was debated and approved last month in Strasbourg. The report criticized Turkey for its mass crackdown on media outlets and urged Turkey to release all jailed journalists.

The report said that “[it] becomes clear from the number and quality of the alerts posted on the Platform to promote the protection of journalism and safety of journalists, that the media situation in Europe requires particular attention,” stressing that “the Platform has proven to be a useful tool with a high added value by providing a mechanism for media non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and governments to in fact discuss serious threats to media freedom.” On Jan. 24, when the report was being debated, the Turkish government offered an amendment to change the reporting on the platform with the hope of neutering the work of the CoE with press freedom advocacy groups.

Talip Küçükcan, the head of the Turkish delegation at PACE and inventor of the awkward term “Erdoganophobia,” submitted an amendment to the PACE resolution on media, asking for a revision to be made to the platform. He suggested the creation of new mechanism “to filter and monitor the alerts, with a view to preventing misuses and abuses as well as enhancing the credibility of the Platform.” In other words, Turkey wanted to bog down the alerts in bureaucratic hurdles and find a way to veto some alerts with new mechanisms. In addition to Küçükcan, the amendment was also signed by four Azeri deputies. Hardly surprising.

To defend the amendment, Emine Nur Günay, another Turkish lawmaker from ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), took to the floor and said, “We would like to add a separate paragraph, the reason being that the functioning of the Platform should be revised.” The author of the report and PACE rapporteur on media, Volodymyr Ariev of Ukraine, opposed the amendment, saying that “it comes under the responsibility of the Secretary General, but the duty is fulfilled by the partner’s organisation. Interference by the secretariat of the Secretary General is impossible, so I do not think we should limit the activity of the Platform in this way.” The PACE Committee on Culture, Science, Education and Media also opposed the Turkish move to change the platform. In the end, the amendment was killed by a vote of 110 to 18, with 10 deputies abstaining.

The scandal did not end there. It turns out Turkish lawmaker Küçükcan tried to mislead PACE when he claimed that the change in the platform was in fact urged by CoE Secretary-General Jagland in the explanatory note attached to the amendment. That did not make any sense because it was Jagland who led the initiative in the first place. In fact, in a meeting with representatives from all eight partners in the platform on Oct. 7, 2016, Jagland endorsed their work and said: “We have had a good exchange. The partners have expressed their concern with the situation in Turkey but confirmed their support for the Platform as an opportunity for constructive dialogue on media threats. We will continue this dialogue.”

I inquired with a senior CoE official who is in a position to know whether Jagland ever uttered the words suggesting the revision to the platform in the sense Turkey wanted. The source said that never happened, adding that it may be a misunderstanding. My hunch is that Küçükcan deliberately added fabricated remarks attributed to the secretary-general, hoping that he could gain enough traction to mobilize PACE support to revise the platform, perhaps effectively killing it altogether. It is hardly surprising given that the Turkish government claims there are no journalists in jail because of their profession and that they are all terrorists, coup plotters and criminals. Ankara is a world apart from reality, and it justifies using any means to achieve what it wants as legitimate. That includes flat-out lies, smears and fabrications.

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