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September 15, 2015 - Updated on January 20, 2016

Dangerous surge in censorship liable to exacerbate crisis


In the latest alarming development for freedom of information in Turkey, prosecutors in the Istanbul district of Bakırköy today began investigating one of the country’s biggest media groups, Doğan, for alleged terrorist propaganda.

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The move followed raids on the newspaper Nokta and the blocking of the daily Cumhuriyet’s website in what appears to be an all-out drive to censor the government’s media critics.

In response to a report five days ago in the pro-government newspaper Güneş, several Doğan Media Group outlets are being investigating for allegedly blurring the face of a Kurdish rebel killed by government forces but not blurring the faces of soldiers killed in an attack by members of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

The prosecutors are also investigating other accusations by Güneş although they were already dismissed by judges.

Doğan Media Group under mounting pressure

Several of Doğan’s media outlets, which include such leading ones as the Hürriyet daily, the CNN Türk TV station and the DHA news agency, have long been critical of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government.

In 2009, a government-orchestrated case resulted in a court imposing an astronomical fine on Doğan that was eventually quashed, but the group replaced several of its editors who were particularly critical of the government and sold several of its outlets to pro-government press groups.

The pressure on Doğan has stepped up again in recent months, with President Erdogan accusing it of terrorism and destabilization – accusations that became even more hysterical during the campaign for the June parliamentary elections and again after fighting resumed between government forces and PKK rebels in late July.

Unruly demonstrators attacked Hürriyet’s headquarters in Istanbul twice last week – on 6 and 8 September – and it was only after the second attack that the government formally condemned the violence.

The condemnation nonetheless lacked conviction because a parliamentary representative of the ruling AKP party who was one of the leaders of the first attack was neither arrested or questioned and was instead promoted within the party a week later.

Generalized censorship of critics

Censorship is becoming increasingly widespread as the security situation continues to deteriorate amid a major political crisis. Media that support all leading opposition tendencies have been censored in the past two weeks, including Kemalist and left-wing outlets, and those that support the Gülen Movement or the Kurds.

“This sudden spate of censorship is intolerable, unconstitutional and a violation of all the government’s international obligations,” said Johann Bihr, the head of the Reporters Without Borders Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk.

“These measures not only restrict media freedom but will also fuel tension and deepen divisions in a society already on the brink of the precipice. We urge the authorities to stop making things worse and to instead help to defuse the situation by allowing a democratic debate.”

Reporters Without Borders also reiterates its call for the authorities to overhaul Turkey’s anti-terrorism legislation and loosen its media legislation in order to reduce the risk of such abuses.

The newspaper Nokta found itself at the centre of a storm yesterday after publishing a photomontage showing President Erdogan taking a selfie in front of the coffin of a Turkish soldier, in a reference to the escalation in fighting between government forces and PKK rebels.

Far from being amused, the authorities launched a series of raids, withdrew the offending issue from most newsstands and suspended Nokta’s Twitter account. Managing editor Murat Çapan was briefly detained and charged with terrorist propaganda and insulting the president.

At the same time, the website of Cumhuriyet, another government bugbear, was blocked for still unclear reasons. On 1 September, the headquarters of Koza İpek, a media group that supports the Gülen Movement, was raided on the grounds of alleged tax irregularities.

Foreign journalists have not been spared. Three were expelled in the space of a week at the start of September after covering clashes between government soldiers and the PKK in the southeast, while VICE News journalist Mohammed Ismael Rasool is still being held in a high-security prison in the southern city of Adana.

Turkey is ranked 149th out of 180 countries in the 2015 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index.

(Photos : AFP Photo / Turkish Presidential Palace Press Office / Murat Cetin Muhurdar - Dogan)