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Compromised independence of Turkey’s institutions is choking press freedom: IPI report

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Turkey’s press freedom crisis is worsening amid the lack of independence of regulatory institutions as public criticism of topics sensitive to the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government is liable to be met with criminal charges, the International Press Institute (IPI) said in a report released on Monday.

The report was drafted by 11 international rights groups that participated in a joint mission to Turkey between October 6 and 9, meeting with media professionals, civil society actors, judicial and regulatory authorities, members of parliament and representatives of diplomatic missions, for the purpose of reviewing the status of media freedom in the country.

Following the four-day mission to Turkey, the coalition of 11 international press freedom, journalism and human rights groups warned that the continued jailing and prosecution of journalists adds to ongoing concerns over the safety of journalists and judicial independence in the country.

According to the report, titled “Turkey’s Journalists on the Ropes,” at least 130 hearings involving journalists as defendants were held and 22 journalists had been arrested in 2020 as of November, while 30 new investigations or lawsuits were filed against journalists in the first eight months of 2020.

The journalists faced arrest and prosecution over their coverage of topics such as military operations, economic decline and issues facing Kurds and other minority groups, with coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic added to the list this year.

The IPI recorded 13 incidents between March and August in which journalists were detained, investigated or faced systematic violations of their rights while reporting on coronavirus cases in the country.

“During the mission, journalists, and editors confirmed that these violations had a great chilling effect on media coverage of Covid-19, successfully stifling independent coverage and ensuring the government’s narrative dominates,” the report indicated.

Noting that scores of journalists remain behind bars in Turkey or face baseless prosecutions in retaliation for their work, the rights groups underlined that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s AKP government continues to instrumentalize a justice system that does not guarantee basic rights of due process in court.

“The lack of political will to end this pattern, largely unchanged since 2016, is hugely disturbing,” they added.

The report also stated that physical attacks on journalists “are a growing concern” in the country, with 10 assaults recorded since April, including cases in which journalists were targeted by the police while covering protests or were assaulted by unknown parties after incitement by state officials or politicians for criticizing regional policies or exposing corruption.

Although the number of journalists in jail had dropped from 170 in 2017 to 77 as of October 2020, Turkey remains one of the world’s biggest jailers of journalists, the report concluded, pointing out that the battleground for control of the media has shifted from the courts to media regulatory bodies, whose independence has been removed by authorities and which have been instrumentalized to target critical media.

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