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Erdogan Says Media Are ‘Incomparably Free,’ But Turkish Journalists Disagree

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Turkey’s president has brushed aside criticism of the country’s press freedom record, telling a U.S. broadcaster the country is “incomparably free.”

But his comments on CBS came in the same month that several journalists were fighting lawsuits.

One of those — journalist and Reporters Without Borders (RSF) representative Erol Onderoglu– was back in court on September 30 for a trial related to his role in a 2016 solidarity campaign with Kurdish newspaper Ozgur Gundem.

“Turkey is still one of the countries with the harshest conditions for arresting journalists in Europe, if not in the world,” Onderoglu told VOA.

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As well as arrests, often on accusations of supporting or producing propaganda for terrorist organizations, Onderoglu said that opposition journalists have problems in obtaining press cards; critical TV channels are arbitrarily fined by the Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTUK) regulator; and opposition newspapers have lost government advertising revenue.

But during his interview, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that U.S. President Joe Biden has not raised Turkey’s treatment of journalists during private conversations between the two leaders and that Erdogan does not accept the findings of media rights groups that have documented mass arrests.

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“We don’t have any problems of that nature in terms of freedoms. Turkey is incomparably free,” Erdogan told CBS.

Turkey’s communication directorate did not respond to VOA’s request for comment. RTUK directed VOA to fill out a form providing personal information such as address, date of birth and identity card number.

Media watchdogs including RSF and the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists have documented hundreds of arrests or lawsuits filed against the media in the past five years.

FILE - Erol Onderoglu, a journalist and Reporters Without Borders Turkey representative, talks outside a court in Istanbul, Turkey, July 16, 2020.

FILE – Erol Onderoglu, a journalist and Reporters Without Borders Turkey representative, talks outside a court in Istanbul, Turkey, July 16, 2020.

Because of that, Onderoglu said, “Our view cannot be similar to Mr. Erdogan’s understanding of media freedom and his view of critical and alternative media in Turkey. We see severe problems in the field.”

Gorkem Kinaci, of Turkish daily Evrensel, also believes that arrests and lawsuits counter Erdogan’s view.

“The trials of journalists, fines handed to newspapers, and censorship laws reveal the government’s record on freedom of the press very clearly,” Kinaci told VOA via email.

Kinaci holds the title of responsible news editor at Evrensel, a unique role that makes him legally responsible for the content his outlet produces.

Others, however, said that Turkey’s record needs to be viewed in the context of an attempted coup in 2016.

Hilal Kaplan, a columnist at the Sabah newspaper and its English edition Daily Sabah, told VOA, “It is necessary to look at the unique conditions in Turkey” following the coup attempt, which resulted in the deaths of more than 250 people.

Legal threats

Kinaci, from Evrensel, is one of the many journalists in Turkey facing legal action. He and his paper are fighting a civil defamation suit filed last month over its reporting on allegations of corruption directed at the deputy health minister, Selahattin Aydin.

The paper later published a rebuttal from the deputy minister, as ordered by the court, but Aydin is still seeking thousands of lira in damages.

VOA emailed Aydin and the Ministry of Health for comment but did not receive a reply.

Evrensel’s lawyer Devrim Avci called the case a violation of press freedom and said the case is just one example of dozens made against the outlet.

“Honestly, it can be challenging to catch up with all of them sometimes,” Avci told VOA.

Evrensel “has always paid the consequences of being an opposition newspaper,” but this has increased after the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power, Avci said.

Beside the defamation case, Avci said the outlet has been accused of insulting the president and inciting hatred and enmity among the public.

The lawyer said she believes the government is trying to silence Evrensel by punishing it financially. As well as legal cases that can result in fines or damages, Turkey’s Press Advertising Agency (BIK) banned the paper from receiving an allocation of government ad revenue in September 2019.

Overseen by the presidency’s directorate of communication, the BIK is responsible for distributing official announcements that provide a regular source of revenue for newspapers.

FILE - Turkish journalists hold a banner reading "Journalism doesn't fit in the card" as they protest the Turkish government cancelling press cards of journalists working for opposition dailies Evrensel and BirGun, in Ankara, Jan. 27, 2020.

FILE – Turkish journalists hold a banner reading “Journalism doesn’t fit in the card” as they protest the Turkish government cancelling press cards of journalists working for opposition dailies Evrensel and BirGun, in Ankara, Jan. 27, 2020.

The government body has power to impose public advertisement bans on newspapers deemed to have violated press ethics.

Media freedom advocates have said the BIK is using bans to stifle critical media and is not being transparent about the distribution of public money.

BIK ended the practice of sharing its annual reports with the public when Turkey transitioned to a new presidential system in 2018.

Details of how the body works however, were revealed in May when the Turkish service of Germany’s public broadcaster Deutsche Welle published details from an internal report it had obtained.

DW reported that in 2020, pro-government newspapers received around 78% of public funds paid for official announcements, while
97% of advertisement bans were issued against five opposition outlets including Cumhuriyet, Evrensel, and BirGun.

When VOA sent an email to BIK requesting comment it was directed to fill out a form requesting personal information.

Coup investigation

The number of journalists jailed in Turkey rose sharply in 2016 as authorities arrested those it said were connected to the coup attempt. Data from the end of that year by CPJ, which covers media workers imprisoned as a direct result of their work, showed 86 journalists in custody.

Media watchdogs have accused Ankara of using the coup attempt as an excuse to silence critical or opposition voices.

Kaplan, who contributes to outlets that are part of the Turkuvaz Media Group, a company widely described as pro-government, believes some people used their profession as a cover during that time.

“In Turkey, there are people who serve the terrorist organization with their journalistic identity,” Kaplan said, referring to the Gulen movement which Turkey blamed for the coup attempt. The group is led by Fethullah Gulen, a cleric whom President Erdogan says masterminded the failed coup. The cleric, who lives in self-imposed exile in the U.S., denies involvement.

As well as Gulenists, supporters of groups including the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) and far-left Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party/Front use their journalism as a cover, Kaplan said.

Both groups are designated as terrorist organizations by Turkey and the United States.

This distinction, Kaplan said, is not taken into account when watchdogs condemn Turkey for jailing journalists.

“Therefore, considering all these, I think that a correct assessment, file by file, should be done. But unfortunately, without taking this into account, there is a biased view that calls anyone who says they are just a journalist, a journalist, and does not seek any credibility, in this sense,” Kaplan said.

RSF’s Onderoglu, who has documented and advocated for hundreds of journalists detained or facing legal charges for their work, says media repression is ongoing.

“The enmity to the critical press and the environment in which the critical, independent media are wanted to be brought to their knees did not end,” Onderoglu said.

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