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Annual AEJ Media Freedom Report on Turkey: ‘No free society without free journalism’

Press freedom, oppression of journalists and the media, and prosecution and imprisonment of journalists continued to be the paramount problems facing Turkish journalists in the year 2017. Turkish journalists’ associations and unions, understanding the necessity of being united and acting together against the attacks on the media and journalists, continued their joint struggle under the main slogan “There Can Be No Free Society Without Free Journalism.”

AEJ Turkey many years ago acted as a leading advocate and force for this unity, which brought journalists’ associations in Ankara under the umbrella of the G-9 Journalists Platform and in Turkey as a whole under the umbrella of Freedom For Journalists Platform (GOP).

Throughout the year 2017, AEJ Turkey was part of all the activities and campaigns of both the G-9 Journalists Platform and the GOP.

In December 2016 Doğan Tılıç, AEJ Turkey representative and the AEJ’s honorary vice-president , received the 7th International Press Freedom Award made by the UNESCO Chair of Malaga University. In his acceptance speech he described the severe press freedom situation in Turkey that has turned the country into the world’s biggest jailer of journalists.

As of November 2017, there were 143 journalists in Turkish jails according to the latest report of the Progressive Journalists Association (CGD); the Turkish Journalists Union (TGS) separately estimated the total number at 150. With such figures Turkey certainly continues to occupy top place in the list of the countries jailing journalists.

Thus campaigns to free wrongly jailed journalists remain the priority of Turkish journalists’ organizations including AEJ Turkey.

As part of those campaigns; court hearings of cases against prosecuted journalists were attended and followed, those journalists were provided with lawyers, their families were visited and supported, jailed journalists in various jails were visited when possible, street demonstrations were organized, press statements were issued and signatures demanding their freedom were collected. AEJ Turkey took part in all those activities.

The trials against the daily newspapers Cumhuriyet and Sözcü were two emblematic cases and some positive news came from those cases when Kadri Gursel of Cumhuriyet was released pending trial in September, and Gokmen Ulu of Sozcu was released in early November. Five others involved ein those cases including Ahmet Şık are still behind bars, however.

Most of the other journalists who also remain in jail, often for long periods, face charges which they completely reject of membership of armed organizations or involvement in the attempted coup without citing in most cases any other evidence beyond writings and commentary.

Another problem which severely undermines the environment for Turkish journalists is the forced loss of work. The Turkish Journalists Union estimates that 2,500 journalists and media workers have lost their jobs since July 2016, many of them summarily dismissed or put out of work because of forced closures of media houses.

In the events organized on World Press Freedom Day on May 3rd 2017 those harsh working conditions for journalists were described and public calls were made for the release of journalists from jail, the end of the long-standing state of emergency and the restoration of fair and due process. On that occasion, Tılıç travelled to Spain to address the Press Freedom Symposium organized by the Catalan House of Journalists and the University of Lleida. In Lleida he asked for international solidarity to resist the attacks on media and freedom of expression.

Tılıç also visited the Ankara bureaus of dailies Cumhuriyet and Sozcu before the hearings of their jailed journalists and expressed the solidarity of the AEJ, passing them messages from the AEJ’s President and Secretary General.

Together with the Spanish news agency EFE’s Istanbul correspondent Ilya Topper, Tılıç was among the top three finalists in Spain’s prestigious Cirilo Rodriguez journalism award for 2017. Tılıç dedicated his prize to those in jail for “telling the truth” and donated the financial part of his prize to the welfare of journalists in jail.

Turkey’s main opposition leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu began a “March for Justice” from Ankara to Istanbul on June 14th 2017, following the arrest of Enis Berberoglu, an MP of the Republican People's Party (CHP) and former editor-in-chief of the daily newspaper Hurriyet. Dogan Tılıç participated in this march and told Kılıçdaroglu that the AEJ is part of the ongoing struggle for press freedom and for the freedom of jailed and oppressed journalists in Turkey.

On August 29th 2017, Tılıç also participated in the Justice Congress in Turkey’s western province of Canakkale and made a speech there to a crowd of about 7000 people on Justice in the Media, in which again press freedom and jailed journalists were the key themes.

Public broadcaster TRT and most of the mainstream media continue to serve as mouthpieces of the ruling party, the government and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Under such conditions the best hope is that the internet can provide an outlet for the expression of critical and diverse voices.

However, the “Freedom of the Net 2017” report of the US-based Freedom House listed Turkey among 32 countries where a clear overall decline in net freedom was observed since June 2016. The report stated that “The biggest declines took place in Ukraine, Egypt and Turkey.” Since April 2017, access to world’s biggest free online encyclopedia (Wikipedia) is banned in Turkey. Thousands are investigated for insulting the president and state authorities on social media.

The Freedom House report also listed Turkey among countries where “governments were found to employ armies of ‘opinion shapers’ to spread government views, drive particular agendas, and counter government critics on social media.” Opposition parties reported that some 6,000 people have allegedly been enlisted by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) “to manipulate discussions, drive particular agendas, and counter government opponents on social media.” Journalists and scholars who are critical of the government have also faced orchestrated harassment on Twitter, often by dozens or even hundreds of users.” In 2017 the lack of freedom in internet and harassment of critics were also among the most acute concerns of Turkish journalists’ organizations.

Unfortunately, the imprisonment of journalists is likely to remain the main problem for the Turkish media environment in 2018. AEJ Turkey will continue to work together with other Turkish journalists’ unions and associations in future press freedom campaigns and to serve as a bridge between them and international journalists’ organizations.