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Journalism on trial in Turkey

Voices of dissent under an increasingly dictatorial regime are being silenced at an alarming rate in a country responsible for a third of the world’s total jailed journalists. STEVE SWEENEY reports

THE arrest of prominent investigative journalist Ahmet Sik last week is the latest in the post-coup clampdown on democracy and free speech in Turkey.

Some 144 journalists entered the new year in Turkish prisons. The country holds the current record for the number of those incarcerated, with Turkey responsible for a third of the world’s total jailed journalists.

Reporters Without Borders representative Erol Onderoglu has described Turkey as “the world’s biggest prison for journalists” and the latest statistics make for sobering reading.

A report by the Journalists’ Association of Turkey (TGC) reveals that 780 press cards were cancelled in 2016, with 839 journalists appearing in court simply for reporting the news.

In a recent press conference, Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus warned members of the press to “watch their step.”

But the Turkish government has been condemned by international human rights and writers’ organisations for the climate of fear it has created, leading many to self-censor for fear of arrest.

Turkey is a country where simply to be a Kurd or an Alevi is a crime, and opposition to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (pictured) and the ruling AKP party is branded terrorism.

Voices of dissent under an increasingly dictatorial regime are being silenced at an alarming rate.

There are chilling tales of how relatives are informing on each other for the crime of “insulting the president,” which carries a possible four-year prison sentence.

In my last visit to the country I heard of a 15-year-old boy who was jailed after his uncle told authorities that his nephew had sworn about Erdogan in his own home.

Social media use is subject to surveillance by the Turkish state, with around 10,000 people currently under investigation.

Some 3,710 people have been questioned since the failed coup of July 15 2016 and 1,656 of those formally charged.

LGBT activist Ugur Buber was arrested and interrogated over the political content of his Facebook posts on December 27.

He was asked which associations he was a member of and whether he had any relatives who were members of a terrorist organisation.

The official Twitter account of the Turkish prime minister’s office announced earlier this week that legal action will be taken against social media posts that “are not compatible with state interests.”

Suspects have been detained on a range of charges, including “insulting the Turkish nation, the state of the Republic of Turkey, the institutions and organs of the state,” “making a propaganda for the PKK terrorist organisation,” “insulting the president” and “praising crime and guilt.”

Well-known Turkish writer Asli Erdogan was recently released after 132 days in Istanbul prison. She was jailed as part of an investigation which saw the opposition Ozgur Gundem newspaper closed down as it faced all too familiar charges of support for the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

Following her release alongside the linguist Necmiye Alpay, she compared her detention to being thrown in a hole.

The pair — and others from the newspaper — face potential life imprisonment when they stand trial.

Around 195 media outlets have been shut down across the country since the failed coup.

TGC general secretary Turgan Olcayto says that “freedom of the press does not exist in Turkey” and, despite the country’s history of coups, there has never been as much pressure or as many arrests of journalists as now.

TV stations are also being shut down under Law No 6,112 as they are accused of “insulting the president” and “praising terrorist organisations.”

One of the latest to be closed by the Radio and Television Supreme Council is YoL TV, the voice of Alevis in Turkey.

They have launched a Twitter campaign using the hashtag #YoLTVSusturulamaz (YoLTVCannotBeSilenced) demanding the station be allowed to broadcast again.

Ahmet Sik’s arrest came soon after Asli Erdogan was released. The well-known journalist has been charged with “making terrorist propaganda” for three organisations — the PKK, the Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party-Front (DHKP-C) and the Gulen movement (FETO), which President Erdogan holds responsible for the failed coup.

Sezgin Tanrilku of the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) said in the Grand Assembly that “handcuffs have been slapped again onto journalism, reporting and the right to obtain information” following Sik’s arrest.

According to Sik, the investigation against him was initiated by a series of tweets that he sent which were critical of the government and questioned the actions of the state.

He has also been charged under Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code, for “publicly denigrating the Republic of Turkey, its judiciary, military and security forces.”

Sik has written for a number of national newspapers, including Cumhuriyet, Evrensel and Radikal. He has worked with Reuters and others in a career spent investigating political corruption in Turkey.

He has written extensively about Ergenekon — an alleged underground ultra-nationalist organisation which was accused of links to military and paramilitary organisations which carried out violent political attacks in Turkey, targeting secularists.

This is not the first time he has been targeted by the authorities. In 2011, Sik spent 13 months on pre-trial detention following his arrest while working for OdaTV, which the government accused of being the media wing of Ergenekon.

Many see Sik’s detention as another political arrest in the ruling AKP crackdown on democracy and freedom of speech.

Sik is a prominent critic of both the AKP and the Gulen movement, making the charge of support for FETO even more bizarre.

His detention has been widely condemned by journalists’ unions in Turkey. Journalists Union of Turkey (TGS) chair Gokhan Durmus told comrades at the Evrensel newspaper: “Every morning we wake up in darkness. Every morning our colleagues are taken into custody, either against the judge or arrested … For the sake of freedom of the press we need solidarity in this dark period and for the right of the people to receive news. It is no longer journalists but journalism that is on trial.”

I learnt just how important solidarity is on a recent delegation organised by the British-based campaign organisation Solidarity with the People of Turkey (Spot).

We were there to observe the trial of two reporters from the Everensel newspaper — Halil Ibrahim Polat and Cemil Ugur — who were freed after they were cleared of trumped-up charges of “membership of an armed terrorist organisation” and “making terrorist propaganda.”

The presence of the British delegation — which included members of PEN International, the National Union of Journalists and the Morning Star — was cited by the defence team and many people we spoke to believed that our presence had a bearing on the outcome.

Our support and solidarity is more important than ever before. Attacks on democracy and the arrest of journalists are likely to increase with a referendum on the most drastic constitutional changes since the foundation of the secular republic in 1923, that would give Erdogan unprecedented powers, expected in the spring.

The charges of terrorism are a smokescreen and attacks on the media are an attempt to keep them in line, ensuring that the actions of the government cannot be held to scrutiny.

Along with the arrests of HDP MPs and other politicians, the closure of over 190 media outlets, the dismissal of over 100,000 government workers and others, opposition and democracy is being trampled over in Turkey. Erdogan is an increasingly authoritarian bully.

There are many more Ahmet Siks in Turkish jails, with the number of arrests increasing on a daily basis. We must join the calls demanding their immediate release.

Journalism is not a crime. Freedom for Ahmet Sik.

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