ISTANBUL – In a bittersweet moment for press freedom, six journalists and media workers were sentenced to life in prison in Turkey on February 16, on the same day the Istanbul correspondent for German newspaper Die Welt was released pending trial after spending just over a year in prison without having been charged for a crime.
Deniz Yucel, the German-Turkish dual citizen who worked as the Istanbul correspondent for Die Welt, was released while Istanbul prosecutors indicted him on charges of spreading propaganda for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) terrorist organization and inciting violence in support of the movement alleged to have been behind the July 2016 coup attempt. The charges carry a maximum 18-year sentence.
He was arrested in February 2017, according to Die Welt, after voluntarily going in for questioning at the police headquarters in Istanbul where he was subsequently taken into custody without charge. He was transferred less than a month after his initial arrest to Silivri high-security prison and placed shortly thereafter in solitary confinement. It wasn’t until April that German consulate workers were able to meet with him, and he wasn’t removed from solitary confinement until December. Yucel was finally released from pretrial detention in February after ongoing diplomatic negotiations between Germany and Turkey.
However, the six other media workers were not so lucky. Writer and former editor Ahmet Altan, columnist and TV host Mehmet Altan, advertising director Yakup Simsek, commentator and former security officer Sukru Tugrual Ozsengul, former designer Fevzi Yazici, and journalist and TV host Nazli Ilicak were all sentenced to life in prison for alleged involvement in the 2016 coup. Ahmet and Mehmet Altan and Nazli Ilicak were accused of “trying to overthrow the constitutional order” for broadcasts made shortly before the coup took place that were critical of the government.
The Turkish Constitutional Court, the highest legal authority in the country, had previously ordered the release from pretrial detention of Ahmet and Mehmet Altan, two brothers, but a lower court in Istanbul ignored the decision and kept the two in prison. In another similar instance, an Istanbul court ordered the release on March 31, 2017 of 19 journalists being held in pretrial detention, but they were re-arrested even before they left prison after the prosecutor appealed the decision.
The most recent rounds of attack on the freedoms of media workers in Turkey can be traced back to the failed July 2016 coup, which the Turkish government blamed on Fetullah Gülen, an exiled Islamic cleric living in Pennsylvania, and his global movement of followers, later dubbed the Fetullah Gulen Terrorist Organization, or FETO for short. Following the coup, the government began a massive purge, removing half of the judges in the country from their positions, firing more than 140,000 workers from their government jobs, arresting more than 50,000 people—of whom many still await trial—and closing over 180 media organizations.
The charges range from terrorism, trying to destabilize the republic and spreading propaganda, but the one constant was that thousands of voices critical of the government were swept up under the same pretense, often with little to no evidence. Many have been arrested merely for having accounts at alleged FETO-linked banks or using the encrypted messaging app ByLock, which is popular throughout Gulen’s movement. According to Sputnik Turkey, one investigation in Istanbul issued arrest warrants in August for 35 journalists accused of FETO association just for using the ByLock application.
Actions like these are what have led prominent international press freedom organizations to vocalize concern about the rapidly deteriorating situation. In the annual ranking of global press freedom that Reporters Without Borders (RSF) publishes, Turkey fell four places from its 2016 score to 155 of the 180 countries ranked in 2017. The Economist Intelligence Unit recently began to include media freedom in their yearly Democracy Index and ranked Turkey 154th place, citing the crackdown in the wake of the coup attempt and government blocking of social media and critical websites. Freedom House doesn’t issue rankings or scores in its assessment of global freedom, but it gave scathing criticisms of the current situation.
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) compiles data regarding deaths and detentions of media workers and reported that Turkey earned the title of the world’s worst jailer of journalists for the second year in a row. Currently, 73 journalists are in prison in Turkey, although they noted that based on different methodologies, other organizations have produced higher numbers. Article 19, an organization devoted to research and advocacy for freedom of expression and information, counted 153 journalists and media workers behind bars in November 2017.
But while it’s easy to make objective judgements about press freedom in Turkey, the more productive approach is looking at the historic trends within the country in terms of decades rather than years. RSF has only been producing its annual ranking since 2002, and the CPJ has been compiling data about jailed and murdered media workers since the early 1990s. But an analytical look at the historical trends of Turkish press freedom paint a picture that, while no less reassuring, offers a deeper perspective into the complicated relationship Turkish governments have had with journalists.
A period of promising economic growth, a higher degree of political stability, and more than a decade of relative peace between the Turkish government and the PKK prompted by the capture of the leader of the PKK in the late 1990s spawned the era of the freer press in Turkey until the cascade of recent arrests and detentions. But the 1990s had been fraught with their own kind of political and physical dangers for journalists that haven’t been seen in the same magnitude since.
In 1992 alone, the 11 murders of journalists surpass the total number of journalists killed so far this century in Turkey, according to data from the CPJ. And of the 20 total murders of journalists reported between 1992 and 1999 in the country, half of them were attributed to the government or military. While there has been an uptick in the murders of journalists since the late 2000s, the data available and the deaths whose motives have been confirmed have demonstrated a shift in the past 30 years from journalists who have been assassinated by the government or military officials to being killed by political and terrorist organizations. This assumption is, of course, based on the data currently available about who has been responsible for the deaths of media workers, and life sentences handed down to journalists are only nominally different than death sentences in the larger context of press freedom and democratic societies.
Modern Turkish history is notoriously full of political instability and strife, and each military coup that has occurred since 1960 has introduced an extremely volatile environment for media workers. Particularly after the 1980 coup, widespread reports of arbitrary imprisonment, torture, and executions highlight the dire situation. Forgetting how much the state of democracy had deteriorated during this period is somewhat easy when the median age of the population is less than 30. But what is more striking about the current decline is that no matter how many substantial gains the country has made in the past two decades, the slide back into oppression and restriction came much too quickly. It’s a frank reminder of the fragility of a once-promising free press.
This jump in arrests and detentions and the rapid degradation of the independent media in Turkey has corresponded to a greater decline in press freedom around the world. Article 19 published a report in November 2017 highlighting the global decline in press freedom since 2000. “In Turkey, the data indicates that transparency peaked in 2003…and has declined significantly ever since, now down to almost the level following the 1980 coup,” the report read. It labeled Turkey among the most drastic declines in press freedom in the past decade.
But this trend has left almost no country untouched around the world. Based on a 100-point metric, RSF noted that every region of the world suffered drastic declines in press freedom, especially in the past five years. The EU and Balkans, for example, registered a collective 17.5 percent slide away from a free press. Of the countless reasons for this decline in different countries, RSF pointed to increased violence against journalists by political and paramilitary groups, aggressive prosecution of journalists by governments, and armed conflicts. “The world Press Freedom map is getting darker,” reads an RSF analysis, and at the rate of decline in recent years, it doesn’t appear to be getting lighter anytime soon.