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Press Freedom in Turkey: 2021 in Review

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The Turkish government continued to muzzle the press in 2021 in a variety of ways, including imprisoning journalists and using regulatory authorities to exert financial pressure, the Stockholm Center for Freedom reported on Monday.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) Turkey, once the world’s worst jailer of journalists, is now ranked sixth in CPJ’s 2021 prison census after releasing 20 jailed journalists in the last year, but this doesn’t mean media freedom has improved in the country.

Journalism is still associated with terrorism in Turkey, and journalistic work is used as evidence against journalists in the overwhelming majority of convictions. In most of the trials, the evidence is typically made up of social media posts, news stories, articles or TV broadcasts.

Turkey has dropped precipitously since it was ranked 100th among 139 countries when Reporters Without Borders (RSF) published its first worldwide index in 2002, the year the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power. The country was ranked 153rd out of 180 countries in the 2021 World Press Freedom Index.

According to a report by the Center for American Progress (CAP), despite heavy censorship, two key trends undercut President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s efforts to control the media landscape: “rising distrust toward the media and increasing fragmentation in the ways that Turks get their news.”

Cognizant of these trends, the Turkish government continued to increase its control over social media through restrictive laws. According to Freedom House’s yearly report on global Internet freedom, Internet freedom continued to decline for a third year in a row in Turkey. Hundreds of websites were blocked, online content deemed critical of President Erdoğan or his ruling AKP was removed from websites and social media platforms, while online activists, journalists and social media users were harassed both physically and online for their social media posts.

Here is some of the most important news from 2021 in the field of press freedom:

Journalism on Trial

5 journalists sentenced to prison on terrorism charges

A court in Antalya province convicted three journalists of membership in a terrorist organization and two others of aiding a terrorist organization over their links to the Gülen movement on September 21.

Cihat Ünal, Ömer Özdemir and Serhat Şeftali, who worked for the Cihan news agency, were sentenced to six years, three months in prison each. Osman Yakut, a journalist for the Zaman daily, and Olgun Matur, owner of the Bizim Antalya news website, were both sentenced to three years, two months. More..

Jailed journalist Baransu faces 45 years in prison for revealing state secrets

In June, a Turkish prosecutor has demanded a prison sentence of up to 45 years for jailed journalist Mehmet Baransu on various accusations concerning the revelation of state secrets in a news report about an alleged military coup attempt known as Sledgehammer. More..

Journalists, human rights activist given suspended sentences on terror charges in Özgür Gündem trial

A high criminal court in İstanbul handed down suspended sentences on February 15 to three journalists and prominent human rights activist Eren Keskin, who were all tried on charges of terrorism for guest-editing Özgür Gündem, a now-defunct newspaper that had focused on Kurdish issues, and for campaigning against efforts to censor it in 2016. More..

Turkish court imposes house arrest, travel ban on 3 YouTube journalists

Three YouTube journalists known for their candid street interviews who were detained after police raided their homes were ordered to remain under house arrest and subjected to a travel ban by a court in December. More..

2 journalists given suspended sentences on charges of revealing state secrets

A high criminal court in Ankara handed down suspended sentences to Müyesser Yıldız, the Ankara news editor of the OdaTV news website, and İsmail Dükel, the Ankara representative of the TELE1 television channel, on charges of revealing state secrets on March 8. More..

Journalist convicted for covering press statement against Turkish military incursion in northern Syria

Journalist Ozan Kaplanoğlu was sentenced to one year, 10 months and 15 days in prison on Thursday on terrorism-related charges for covering a press statement against a Turkish military incursion in Afrin, Syria. More..

Photojournalist who captured murder of Kurdish student by police standing trial on terror charges

The trial of photojournalist Abdurrahman Gök, who captured the murder of a Kurdish student on film, is continuing at the Diyarbakır 5th High Criminal Court. Gök faces 20 years in prison on charges of “membership in a terrorist organization” and “disseminating terrorist propaganda.” In 2017 Gök took a series of photographs showing university student Kemal Kurkut being shot to death by a police officer during Nevruz celebrations in Diyarbakır. More..

Journalist convicted for reporting on cartoons critical of Erdoğan

Cem Şimşek, the news editor for the Evrensel daily, was in July convicted on charges of insulting Turkish President for reporting on cartoons published in German media. More..

European Court of Human Rights rulings in journalists’ cases

The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) said in January that the rights of famous singer and columnist Atilla Taş, who was jailed for 14 months in a post-coup crackdown in Turkey, were violated and ruled that Turkey was to pay Taş 12,275 euros in non-pecuniary damages. More..

In April, a Turkish court released journalist and novelist Ahmet Altan, after more than four years in prison, a day after the ECtHR demanded the 71-year-old’s freedom in a verdict that accused Turkey of violating his civil rights. More..

The ECtHR ruled in May, that Turkey violated the rights of two journalists who were jailed for reporting on the leaked emails of former minister Berat Albayrak, who is also the son-in-law of President Erdoğan. More..

The European Rights Court also ruled in May, that Turkey violated the rights of journalist Banu Güven by imposing a blackout on information about a parliamentary inquiry into the graft allegations against four ministers in the government of President Erdoğan. More..

In June, the ECtHR has faulted Turkey over the imprisonment of journalist and writer Ali Bulaç, who was jailed for close to two years over alleged links to the faith-based Gülen movement. More..

The ECtHR ruled in December, in the case of prominent journalist Nazlı Ilıcak, 77, that working for media outlets close to the Gülen movement and expressing doubts about the Turkish government’s narrative on an attempted coup were not plausible grounds for terrorism-related charges. More..

The court has yet to deliver verdicts on the cases of dozens of other journalists from Turkey, many of whom have been behind bars for a number of years.

Transnational Repression of Journalists

Turkey sought INTERPOL Red Notice for exiled journalist Dündar

A Turkish court issued an arrest warrant and decided to submit a Red Notice request for former editor-in-chief of the Cumhuriyet daily and journalist in exile Can Dündar on June 8. The warrant was issued over Dündar’s failure to attend a hearing on the legal action brought against him on charges of “disclosing confidential information related to the state’s security and political interests” and “acquiring the confidential information of the state for political and military espionage.” More..

Turkish journalist living in exile attacked outside home in Germany

Erk Acarer, a Turkish journalist who is critical of President Erdoğan’s government and has been living in exile in Germany, was attacked outside his home in Berlin on July 8 by three men who reportedly warned him to stop writing. More..

German police warned Turkish editor about hit list targeting journalists in exile

The German Federal Police warned Celal Başlangıç, the editor-in-chief of Artı TV and the Artı Gerçek news website, of a planned assassination targeting him based on a hit list including the names of 55 Turkish journalists living in exile. More..

Turkey froze assets of 770 people, including journalists, over alleged terrorism links

Turkey on December 24 froze the assets of 770 people including some journalists in exile for alleged terrorism financing. Journalists on the list include Adem Yavuz Arslan, Bülent Keneş, Cevheri Güven, Said Sefa, Sevgi Akarçeşme, Sevinç Özarslan, Mehmet Efe Çaman and Tarık Toros. More..

Swedish Supreme Court rejects Turkey’s extradition request for exiled journalist

The Swedish Supreme Court in December rejected a request from Turkey for the extradition of journalist Levent Kenez, ruling that Turkey’s allegations against him did not contain a criminal element under Swedish law. The high court also stated that if Kenez returned to Turkey, he would face the risk of persecution. More..

Violence against Journalists

Police officers arrest AFP photographer Bülent Kılıç while covering a Pride march in Istanbul that had been banned by authorities on June 26, 2021. Hacı Bişkin / Gazete Duvar / AFP

‘Turkish police tried to kill me,’ prominent photojournalist Kılıç claims

Award-winning photojournalist Bülent Kılıç, who was detained during a Pride parade in İstanbul on June 26, said the police tried to kill him after pushing him to the ground.

“They tried to kill me, they tried to prevent me from breathing,” Kılıç said after he was released. More..

Turkish journalist attacked after criticizing far-right party founder

Turkish journalist Levent Gültekin, a columnist for the Diken news website and an outspoken critic of the ruling AKP, was assaulted by a group of about two dozen people on March 8 after he criticized Alparslan Türkeş, the founder of the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). More..

Gov’t crackdown on critical media turning into systematic violence against journalists: report

A June report by Turkey’s Progressive Journalists Association (ÇGD) has drawn attention to a series of physical attacks targeting members of the press, saying they were a result of the ruling AKP’s oppressive policies. More..

Internet Freedom

Internet freedom continues to decline in Turkey: Freedom House report

A yearly report by Freedom House on global Internet freedom revealed that Internet freedom continued to decline for a third year in a row in Turkey and that hundreds of websites were blocked during the period covered. More..

More than 349,000 websites banned in Turkey in last 5 years

A total of 349,763 websites were banned in Turkey between 2016 and 2020, the Freedom of Expression Association’s (İFÖD) EngelliWeb initiative said in its 2020 annual report, which was released in August. More..

Turkey maintains global lead in Twitter censorship requests

Turkey continued to be the worst country in the world in terms of Twitter censorship, with the highest number of third-party takedown requests, court orders and accounts and tweets withheld, the platform’s latest transparency report showed. More..

Turkish gov’t to create ‘truth ministry’ amid rising censorship

The Communications Directorate of the Turkish Presidency has announced that Turkey will create its own fact-checking mechanism to “fight lies and false facts on social media.” According to the directorate’s statement, the DOĞRU MU (Is it true?) online app, which will be available for IOS and Android systems, is designed to “meet the need to know whether news and information circulating on social media is true or false.” More..

Fines and Discrimination against Critical Media

Turkey’s broadcasting watchdog fines stations critical of gov’t $1.84 million in 2021

Turkey’s Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK) imposed TL 21.5 million ($1.84 million) in fines in 2021 on TV channels with critical stances towards the government according to data shared on social media by RTÜK member İlhan Taşcı in December. More..

Erdoğan government targets independent outlets receiving foreign funding

A new regulation will be implemented for media outlets that receive financial support from overseas, Director of Communications Fahrettin Altun said in July, in response to news about foreign funds received by some independent media outlets in Turkey.

In response, press freedom groups expressed concern about possible legislation to regulate foreign funding for media and the dissemination of fake news, saying it could further curtail independent journalism in Turkey. More..

Turkish presidency refuses to renew press cards of 1,371 journalists

Turkey’s Presidential Communications Directorate, which has received 10,486 applications from journalists for the renewal of their press cards, refused to renew the press cards of 1,371 journalists.

Press freedom watchdog RSF condemned Turkey’s Presidential Communications Directorate for using press accreditation to increase pressure on the media. More..

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