Ankara faces off EU criticism over media

Friday 04/12/2015
A demonstrator holds a newspaper with the headline “Black day for the press” during a protest outside the Cumhuriyet newspaper headquarters in Istanbul, Turkey, on November 27th.

Istanbul - The European Union accus­es Turkey of turning its back on political reforms and increasing pressure on the media but the gov­ernment in Ankara has shrugged off the criticism.

In its annual report on Turkey’s progress as a candidate to join the European Union, the European Commission slammed Ankara for a deterioration in the rule of law, human rights and freedom of the media. Ankara, which has been in­volved in accession talks with the European Union since 2005 without much progress, responded by say­ing the report was unbalanced.

“There was significant backslid­ing in the areas of freedom of ex­pression and freedom of assembly,” the report, released on November 10th, said of developments in the previous 12 months. “Freedom of expression is frequently chal­lenged, in particular through arbi­trary and restrictive interpretation of the legislation, political pressure, dismissals and frequent court cases against journalists which also lead to self-censorship.”

The European Union renewed its concern about pressure on the media in Turkey after the arrests of journalists Can Dundar and Erdem Gur, who were sent into pretrial de­tention for publishing a story about clandestine arms shipments from Turkey to Syrian rebels.

“A high number of arrests, hear­ings, detentions, prosecutions as well as censorship cases and lay-offs occurred, as the government maintained a strong pressure on media,” the Progess Report said. “Frequent threats and various types of intimidation from state and non-state agents against journalists and media outlets continue to be an is­sue of serious concern.”

Media institutions and govern­ment critics risked prosecution by voicing opinions not shared by the government, the report added. “Criminal legislation on defama­tion against the state, its institu­tions, employees or other symbols of statehood is extensively used against journalists, lawyers and users of social media critical of the government and government offi­cials.”

The EU report singled out a law threatening jail terms of up to four years for insulting the president and other officials, a regulation that, ac­cording to critics, is increasingly be­ing used by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to silence dissent. The Eu­ropean Union said the law was “not in line” with the case law of the European Court of Human Rights, whose decisions Turkey is obliged to follow.

Ankara says investigations and court cases against journalists and media groups were matters for the judiciary and outside government control. Shortly before the report was published, state-appointed managers took over newspapers and television channels run by fol­lowers of Fethullah Gulen, a Muslim cleric in the United States and a for­mer Erdogan supporter who stands accused of plotting to bring down the president.

In a separate development, police detained two leading editors of the political magazine Nokta as they were preparing a front-page story saying that the success of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) in November 1st elections would be the start of a civil war in Turkey. The Nokta issue in question was never published. Turkish media reported that 13 radio and television channels belonging to the Gulen movement had been removed from Turkey’s Turksat satellite network.

Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, speaking to CNN, said he was determined to defend press freedom and intellectual freedom as “red lines” in a democracy. But he added the Nokta story had noth­ing to do with press freedom but was a clear “provocation”.

Turkey’s Ministry for EU Affairs accused the EU progress report of bias and hypocrisy. “Some of the comments in the report do not duly reflect Turkey’s reforms on these fields and are also unfair and exces­sive,” the ministry said in a state­ment. “Besides, such comments overlook the balance between freedom and security, which is a must for democracies where rule of law prevails. Assessments and comments based on generalisa­tions on cases for which the judicial proceedings are ongoing primarily contradict the principle of the inde­pendence of the judiciary.”

Media associations in Turkey, however, say Ankara is using sev­eral instruments to stifle criticism. In a statement released during the Group of 20 summit in the southern Turkish resort of Antalya, five jour­nalist groups said the government refused to grant accreditation to several opposition media.

Other government critics said that, while the EU report showed a worsening situation in their coun­try, Brussels appeased Ankara by holding back the report until the November 1st elections. That move was seen as an effort by the Euro­pean Union to avoid angering the government at a time when Europe needs Turkey’s cooperation to stem the flow of Syrian refugees to EU countries.

Yavuz Baydar, a prominent jour­nalist who is critical of the govern­ment, bemoaned “the apparent and disturbing timidity of the EU in its latest progress report”.

Writing in the Today’s Zaman newspaper, which is part of the Gu­len media and rumoured to be the target of an impending takeover by the government, Baydar accused the European Union of being “blind­ed by the ‘refugee flow’ into its ter­ritory” and of stepping back consid­erably “from its principled stand on the delivery of spot-on judgments”. The European Union was damaging its own credibility, he added.