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Changes to Turkey’s Press Ethics Code feared to contribute to increasing censorship

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Turkey’s Press Advertising Agency (BİK), the state body responsible for regulating publicly funded advertisements in the media, has changed the Press Ethics Code, adding to it vague and abstract wording that is feared to contribute to the increasing media censorship in the country, the Birgün daily reported on Thursday.

The changes to the principles in Article 49 of Law No. 195 on the Establishment of the Press Advertising Agency, which come 28 years after they were first set in 1994, were published in the Official Gazette on Wednesday.

According to Birgün, some of the most striking changes to the principles were made in the article titled “Respect for national and social values,” which was edited to include such expressions that would pave the way for the arbitrary punishment of all newspapers and journalists based on Sharia, a body of religious law that forms part of the Islamic tradition.

“Religious feelings or values considered sacred by religion cannot be abused. Broadcasting against public morals cannot be done. No broadcasting can be done to disrupt the family structure, which is the foundation of society, or against the protection of the family. No broadcasting can be done to weaken the common national and moral values of Turkish society,” the edited article said.

The changes also included many expressions restricting the ways journalists obtain and publish news, such as “The news cannot be obtained or published illegally. … No broadcast can be done that will … render the struggle against drugs or stimulants and all kinds of organized crime ineffective. Information and visuals about terrorist organizations, their members and actions cannot be included [in the news] in a way that legitimizes these organizations,” Birgün said.

BİK also put the websites and social media pages of newspapers in Turkey under its jurisdiction and ordered them to conform to the Press Ethics Principles.

Eleven journalist unions, including the Broadcasting and Printer Workers Union (DİSK BASIN-İŞ), the Turkish Journalists’ Association (TGC), the Turkish Journalists Union (TGS) and the Contemporary Journalists’ Association (ÇGD), rejected the changes to the principles in a joint statement.

They announced that they would take the vague statements in the new principles to court.

“Journalism is not a crime. The press is not your enemy. Take your hands off our pen!” they said.

Media ombudsman Faruk Bildirici also told Birgün that some of the principles were changed in a way that allows the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government to punish any dissident journalist they want.

“What does ‘illegal’ in the sentence ‘The news cannot be obtained or published illegally’ mean? In other words, they say, ‘You can only publish the information we provide.’” Bildirici said, adding that anything that is written on religion, or rather Islam, can be viewed as a violation of religious values and that journalists can be arbitrarily punished for it, according to the new principles.

Bildirici also criticized the expression “public morals,” saying there cannot be such a concept in the principles. “If you include the expression ‘public morals’ here, it means that you are making this an occasion for imposing your own morality on the whole society.”

Speaking to Deutsche Welle Turkish service, Evrensel daily editor-in-chief Fatih Polat said BİK had turned into a tool for media censorship during the rule of the AKP. He added that it was “problematic” to change the principles to “hold the publications in the shackles of a conservative imposition.”

According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), 90 percent of the national media in Turkey, which was ranked 149th among 180 countries in the RSF’s 2022 World Press Freedom Index, is owned by pro-government businessmen and toe the official line.

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