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Turkey peace talks positive; press freedom still in peril

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Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is known for his intolerance to criticism. (Reuters/Peter Dejong/Pool)

Today, hope for peace between the government of Turkey and Kurdish rebels is closer than ever to becoming reality. A resolution to the conflict, after more than 30 years, could have ramifications for Turkey's standing as the world's worst jailer of journalists. According to CPJ research, three-quarters of the journalists imprisoned in Turkey are from the pro-Kurdish media.

Dialogue between the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK), appears to be bearing fruit. In a message read at the traditional Nawruz celebrations in Diyarbakır on March 21, Öcalan said the process of withdrawing PKK armed forces from Turkish soil has begun. Dialogue between the AKP and the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) also continues. According to political parties and non-governmental organizations, public support for peace is strong, with the exception of nationalists, ultranationalists, the far left, and some fraction of the mainstream. These groups hold one-third of total seats in parliament, which shows there is still ground to cover.

Most of the pro-Kurdish journalists in Turkey's prisons are facing charges or have been convicted of membership in, or making propaganda for, outlawed organizations such as the PKK or the Union of Communities in Kurdistan (KCK). Turkey's vague anti-terror laws enable the authorities to equate advocacy or partisan journalism--whether it be praising or simply reporting on the outlawed groups--to membership in a terrorist organization. It does not matter if journalists have committed acts of violence. Authorities can also imprison journalists for "committing a crime in the name of a [terrorist] organization without being a member." In other words, current legislation provides the authorities with a universal stick to use against anyone--from journalists to NGO staff to political party members--who come within arm's length of an outlawed organization.

Following international pressure, including from CPJ, Turkish authorities have taken certain steps to amend their anti-terrorism legislation. Most recently, parliament discussed changes known as the Fourth Legislative Package, but critics and opposition parties found the proposal by government legislators unsatisfactory, according to news reports, while freedom of expression advocates had been hoping for a more clear-cut definition for the term "terrorist."

Lawyer Tahir Elçi, head of the Diyarbakır Bar Association, told CPJ that the legislative proposals are lacking and leave too much to the preferences of judges. He noted that the package offers no changes to the law allowing journalists to be charged with membership in an armed organization despite having taken no violent action. Also, he told CPJ, while proposed new language regarding propaganda charges is favorable, since it would require the courts to examine whether or not the defendant praised violence, "this also depends on how the courts will interpret this law in practice. We know that the courts usually interpret such arrangements...very narrowly."

Responding to criticism of the legislative package, Justice Minister Sadullah Ergin has said it was meant to bring Turkey in line with European Court of Human Rights resolutions and is not related to the peace process.

Meanwhile, a number of journalists are behind bars in Turkey not for Kurdish sympathies but for other alleged anti-state crimes, indicating that a resolution to the Kurdish conflict would in no way solve all of Turkey's press freedom problems. On March 18 at an Istanbul court, the prosecution in Turkey's infamous Ergenekon trial, which stems from an alleged coup conspiracy, presented their opinion on the merits--similar to closing arguments in the U.S. legal system. Prosecutors demanded that 64 suspects, including journalist Mustafa Balbay, columnist for the daily Cumhuriyet, and Yalçın Küçük, who was arrested in connection with ultranationalist website Odatv, should receive the strongest punishment of life without the possibility of parole. They asked that several other suspects, including Deniz Yıldırım, former chief editor of the weekly Aydınlık, and Turhan Özlü,  former chief editor of Ulusal Kanal TV, be sentenced for 7.5 to 15 years. Charges brought against many journalists facing the lesser sentence are directly related to the profession, such as publishing illegally recorded phone conversations of the prime minister and other politicians.

Also last month, police detained and imprisoned Kaan Ünsal on accusations of being a member of an outlawed organization; he is being held in a prison in Edirne province, northwestern Turkey. Ünsal--who works for the weekly Yürüyüş (March), a leftist publication the authorities consider the press organ of the outlawed Revolutionary People's Party/Front (DHKP-C)--was previously imprisoned for 18 months on charges of aiding that party. While recent news reports indicate that the organization has committed violent acts, Ünsal is not being charged with participating in those. In fact, he was not even indicted yet, and his court date is unknown. His lawyer, Aycan Çiçek, told CPJ that, as before, authorities are using Ünsal's journalism as the sole evidence against him.

In another dispiriting development for press freedom in Turkey, in early March, the Constitutional Court of Turkey granted the prime minister's office authority to order temporary media censorship in "extraordinary circumstances" and "situations in which national security makes [the ban] a must." The law allows the prime minister, or a minister he would assign, to stop news broadcasting on issues regarding national security such as war, terrorist attacks, and natural disasters; as explained in the court's ruling: when "it is strongly possible that the public order is to be seriously disrupted."

Last but not least, a Turkish daily came under fresh attack following the leak of the minutes of the meeting that took place between Öcalan, PKK's convicted leader, and three deputies from the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) in the prison on the island of Imralı in February. On February 28, independent daily Milliyet published details of the meeting, in which the parties discussed the peace process and certain groups and individuals related to it. The response was split: Press freedom advocates, along with critics of the ruling AKP party, praised the story as a journalistic success while others--specifically supporters of the AKP--condemned Milliyet for hurting the peace process.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, known for his intolerance to criticism, issued a statement against Milliyet on March 2. According to press reports, Erdoğan said: made reference to "gossip, hearsay, sabotage, [and] provocation and added, "I have always said, some type of media have never been on our side. ... Ruling a state is something, making a newspaper is something else. You cannot [publish] such a story if you have slightest love for this nation; you shouldn't have. This process is a sensitive process... Down with your journalism if you are going to practice journalism like this." Milliyet published Erdoğan's comments with the title: "Important statements from the Prime Minister."

According to the Turkish news website Gercekgundem, the prime minister called Erdoğan Demirören, the owner of Milliyet, to express his uneasiness about the daily and its management. On March 4, Demirören, who bought the paper in 2011, had an argument with Chief Editor Derya Sazak which led to Sazak clearing his office and leaving the building, although he returned the next day.

According to Gercekgundem, Erdoğan requested that two Milliyet columnists, Can Dündar and Hasan Cemal, be fired. Dündar continued to pen columns, while Cemal was said by Milliyet to be "on leave" for two weeks. Then, on March 18, Cemal wrote a column about Erdoğan's pressure on Milliyet, but it was rejected and he quit in protest, according to news reports. In a column of his own on March 25, Chief Editor Sazak took responsibility for not publishing Cemal's commentary, saying, "It was probably not the time to discuss the century-old 'structure of capital in media' concept with the solution process of the Kurdish issue. Demirören heard that I did not publish the column later! Hasan Cemal knew that insisting on that column was to say goodbye to the newspaper." The editor said Cemal can return to his job at the paper "whenever he wants to."

Yalçın Akdoğan, chief adviser to the prime minister, denied in a March 21 interview on CNNTurk that the government was involved in any personnel decisions. "Our prime minister is one who speaks openly. If he thinks something is not in the advantage of the country, he criticizes that anyway," he said. According to Akdoğan, the government contacted Milliyet after publication of the Imralı meeting transcripts, but did not request that anyone be fired. "Such a thing did not happen and will not happen," Akdoğan said.

Whatever did happen, Erdoğan's intolerance to criticism and his propensity to intervene in media matters is well documented. The country is on a progressive path--albeit the steps too slow and selective. No amount of peace talks or legal reform, however, will allow the country to live up to its full potential if politicians and many other individuals and groups do not transform their attitude toward freedom of the press.

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