Journalists scapegoats again in latest political crisis

Reporters Without Borders condemns the government’s desperate attempts to stop leaks and obstruct the flow of information about the past week’s embarrassing political and financial scandal, which have included drastically reducing access to police sources, blocking a news website, firing a leading journalist and resuming an aggressive rhetoric with outspoken media. “We are very worried by the repressive measures that the authorities have taken with the media in the past few days,” Reporters Without Borders said. “By trying to impose pre- and post-publication censorship on coverage of a major anti-corruption investigation targeting the heart of the government, they are increasing the already remarkable opacity that cloaks leading political issues and judicial cases in Turkey to the detriment of the public’s right to know. “The government seems to have acquired the habit of shooting the messenger whenever it is in trouble. Journalists should not have to suffer because of high-level administrative in-fighting. It is unacceptable that government officials are again treating outspoken media as enemies of the nation, as they did during the Gezi Park protests.” Around 30 people in high-level positions were questioned on 17 December in a major corruption investigation. They included the sons of two government ministers, the CEO of a state-owned bank and a construction tycoon. It was a blow for the ruling party, which largely owes it first election victory a decade ago to its promises to combat fraud and corruption. As the scandal has continued to grow, the government has reacted by claiming that it is the victim of an “international conspiracy” and by firing police chiefs throughout the country. The affair is seen as a new round in a power struggle within the conservative elite, one reaching to the heart of the ruling AKP party, in the run-up to next year’s elections. The past few months have seen growing friction between Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s allies and Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen’s many influential followers within the police and judiciary.

Information blocked at the source

The directorate of police announced on 22 December that journalists would no longer be permitted direct access to police stations and police units for the purposes of reporting and asked them to return the accreditation and keys that allowed them into the press offices of certain police stations. Journalists would henceforth have to content themselves with the official information provided at press conferences and press briefings, the police directorate added. Turkish media freedom groups were unanimous in condemning this “unprecedented” measure, saying it would prevent reporters from gathering the information essential for their work and would reduce them to being police public relations conduits. Yeni Dönem (New Era), a news website recently founded by the well-known journalist Mehmet Baransu that had revealed some of the details of the anti-corruption investigation, was blocked the day before the police directorate’s announcement. The site was the first victim of a decree by the prosecutor-general on 20 December that warned news media not to post information liable to “endanger the presumption of innocence” or “a fair trial.” The two main regulatory authorities, the Radio and TV High Council (RTÜK) and the High Council for Telecommunications (TIB), have the job of enforcing the decree. Baransu’s lawyer, Sercan Sakalli, announced that he planned to request the lifting of the blocking and to bring a complaint against the Ankara prosecutor’s office and the judges responsible for ordering the blocking. He added that the corruption investigation had given rise to an intense debate in Turkish society, that the media continued to cover it, and that Yeni Dönem was not the only news outlet to reveal details of the investigation.

Leading journalists targeted

Baransu was already at the centre of a previous case of censorship linked to the power struggle between Prime Minister Erdogan and the Gülen movement. In late November, he wrote an article for the liberal daily Taraf revealing a 2004 document in which Erdogan, Abdullah Gül (who is now president) and the National Security Council (MGK) proposed measures to “be done with” the Gülen movement. A few days later, Baransu reported that the MIT intelligence agency had opened files on members of the movement and had put them under surveillance. With the authenticity of Baransu’s documents beyond dispute, he and Taraf suddenly found themselves the target of a spate of complaints by the prime minister’s office, the MGK and the MIT accusing them of “divulging classified documents relating to state security.” On 7 December, Erdogan liked Taraf and Baransu’s reporting to “treason” and suggested that they should be brought to trial. Taraf and Baransu responded by a filing a complaint accusing him of insulting and defaming them, and of “trying to influence the course of justice.” Baransu is not the only leading journalist to fall foul of the authorities in the current political tension. Nazli Ilicak, a well-known columnist for the pro-government conservative daily Sabah, was fired on 18 December, a day after an appearance on the CNN Türk TV station in which he called for the resignation of the ministers whose sons had been implicated in corruption. The newspaper ascribed his dismissal to a “difference of opinion.” Turkey is ranked 154th out of 179 countries in the 2013 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index. (Image: Ozan Kose / AFP)
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Updated on 20.01.2016