Event: How to Free the Media in Turkey?

Yesterday morning, on Wednesday 13 September, ARTICLE 19 and PEN International organised a side event at this year’s OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meeting in Warsaw to discuss the relentless crackdown on freedom of expression and other human rights in Turkey since the failed coup attempt of July 2016.

Turkish and international journalists and media freedom advocates, including Harlem Désir (OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media), Erol Önderoğlu (a Turkish journalist, and representative of Reporters Without Borders), Yonca Şık, (activist and wife of imprisoned journalist Ahmet Şık), Sarah Clarke (Policy and Advocacy Manager at PEN International) and Katie Morris, (Head of Europe and Central Asia at ARTICLE 19) took part in the debate.

“I see the critical state of journalism in the country. I see the dangers that brave, courageous journalists, bloggers and social media users are exposed to. I also see the immense worries that their families and friends must endure”, said Harlem Désir. “Without any doubt, there is an urgent, imminent need to rebuild media freedom and freedom of expression in the country.”

Since the failed coup attempt of July 2016, independent mainstream media have been all but silenced, with some 180 media outlets closed down. According to the press freedom group P24, 171 journalists and media workers are now detained. On Monday evening, Silviri Court in Istanbul ruled to deny the release from pre-trial detention of six Cumhuriyet journalists and executives. Akın Atalay, Ahmet Kemal Aydoğdu, Kadri Gürsel, Emre İper, Murat Sabuncu and Ahmet Şık therefore remain arbitrarily detained, facing sentences of up to 43 years in prison.

My husband, Ahmet Sik, is jailed for his journalistic activities”, said Yonca Şık. “Ahmet has never been on good terms with the political forces in power, so he has always been subjected to pressure, threats and judicial harassment, no matter the government in place. Unfortunately, we are now in a situation where anyone who does not support the government is considered an enemy”, she added.

Out of the international spotlight, in the Eastern Province of Hakkari, Kurdish journalist Nedim Turfent is on trial for his work reporting on the conflict between Turkish security forces and the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) in the South East of Turkey. He was arrested on 12 May 2016 and has been held in solitary confinement since then. During this first hearing in his case, 12 out of 13 witnesses against him withdrew their testimony, stating that it was made under torture.

In the face of persistent and credible allegations of grave human rights violations in the South East, the Turkish authorities are seeking to prevent the circulation of information about the situation”, said Katie Morris. “By harassing and imprisoning those who try to document or criticise what is going on, they have created an atmosphere of total impunity for human rights violations”, she added.

Turkey’s judicial system has come under extraordinary attack since the failed coup. What judicial independence existed has been eviscerated as the courts are packed with political appointees. The removal of judges who have granted bail to journalists demonstrates the pressure judges are under to make politically motivated rulings.

The many journalists currently held in pre-trial detention will not benefit from the right to a fair trial”, said Erol Onderoglu. “Turkey’s justice system has become grotesque: a façade used for show trials, to crush dissent.”

PEN is monitoring the trials of journalists in Turkey and finds that their right to a fair trial, guaranteed by Turkey’s international and national human rights commitments, is being systematically violated,” said Sarah Clarke. “Journalists no longer have a legitimate expectation of an independent or effective national judicial system in the country.”

Participants urged attendees, including representatives of a number of European states, to take urgent action to restore media freedoms and the rule of law in Turkey.