Turkey’s deteriorating press freedom landscape came under scrutiny this week as a coalition of five international media and journalism organizations reported increased harassment, arbitrary imprisonment and prosecution of journalists, particularly in the wake of May’s parliamentary and presidential elections and February’s devastating earthquakes.
Following two major earthquakes in the south of the country in February, which claimed the lives of more than 50,000 people, the government blocked Twitter for eight hours, ostensibly to combat disinformation.
After the earthquakes and before the general election in May, Turkey saw the arrest of a number of journalists working for anti-government or pro-Kurdish media outlets, which was interpreted as an attempt by the government to silence its critics.
Many said the arrest of the journalists prevented the elections from being held in a free and fair environment.
The coalition led by the International Press Institute (IPI) sent a delegation to Turkey that included representatives from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF), Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso Transeuropa (OBCT) and Reporters Without Borders (RSF).
During their visit the delegates engaged with various stakeholders, such as journalists, civil society groups and members of Turkey’s Constitutional Court. The team also met with members of parliament from multiple parties, including the Republican People’s Party (CHP), the Democracy and Progress Party (DEVA), the Green Left Party (YSP) and the Labor Party (EMEP). However, their requests to meet with high-ranking Turkish officials, including the ministers of justice and interior, went unanswered.
One focal point of the mission’s report was Turkey’s controversial disinformation law. Despite past assurances from government officials that the law would not target journalists, at least 20 journalists have faced legal action, three of whom are now jailed. Most cases pertain to coverage of the February 2023 earthquakes.
According to the organizations, physical safety remains a key issue for journalists in Turkey. The delegation heard first-hand accounts of threats against reporters, some of which were ignored by authorities. The delegation criticized the government’s stance of equating critical journalism with “terrorist propaganda,” thereby escalating the risks to journalists both legally and physically.
The team also noted the arbitrary issuance of official press cards and instances where journalists, despite possessing such credentials, were prevented from reporting in earthquake-hit zones.
The delegation noted that although Turkey’s Constitutional Court has issued rulings supportive of press freedom, these decisions often go unimplemented by lower courts, further exacerbating the press freedom crisis.
With local elections scheduled for March 2024, the international organizations called on Turkey to ensure a conducive environment for journalists, especially during the electoral period. The group also expressed concern over the cumbersome visa processes Turkish journalists face when applying to European countries, urging EU governments to fast-track such applications.
Turkey, which has a poor record in freedom of the press, ranked 165th among 180 countries in the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) 2023 World Press Freedom Index, plunging 16 places from its ranking of 149th in 2022.