The Rt Hon Theresa May MP
10 Downing Street
26 January 2017
Dear Prime Minister,
I am writing on behalf of Reporters Without Borders – known internationally as Reporters sans frontières (RSF) – to urge you not to miss the opportunities of your meetings with President Trump and President Erdoğan to address the press freedom situations in their respective countries. In different ways, the vocal attacks of the President of the United States against journalists, and the extensive media crackdown being overseen by the President of Turkey, are clear violations of press freedom – one of the most important values in the UK.
In the United States, since Donald Trump assumed the presidency less than a week ago, his administration has already been carrying out a coordinated attack on the media, and has demonstrated a clear disregard for facts. In his first few days in office, Trump called journalists ‘among the most dishonest human beings on earth’, and White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer harshly scolded journalists for ‘deliberately false reporting’, making a number of false claims about attendance levels at Trump’s inauguration. Senior Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway then defended these incorrect statements, referring to them as ‘alternative facts’.
Several credentialed reporters were reportedly denied access to cover inaugural events. On inauguration day, a Washington Post video reporter was thrown to the ground by police while covering the arrests of dozens of anti-Trump protesters and rioters, and a photographer was pepper sprayed in the face. Two journalists were arrested along with rioters and protestors, and have been charged with participating in a riot, for which they could face up to 10 years in prison and a $25,000 fine. The Guardian has since reported that four other journalists arrested while covering these events face the same charges.
All of this follows a campaign period during which Trump threatened to sue newspapers for publishing stories that are ‘purposely negative’, pledged to reform US libel laws so that ‘when the New York Times or the Washington Post writes a hit piece, we can sue them’, and revoked the press credentials of the Washington Post and other outlets, because of their ‘incredibly inaccurate coverage’. Trump also insulted and bullied reporters who portrayed him negatively or asked him tough questions, and refused to participate in a Republican debate because Fox News refused to remove its moderator. The United States is currently ranked 41 out of 180 countries in RSF’s World Press Freedom Index.
Following the Trump administration’s first White House press conference, Turkish President Erdoğan praised Trump for putting a CNN reporter ‘in his place’. This reaction was hardly surprising given Erdoğan’s presence in RSF’s list of ‘press freedom predators’, and the unprecedented crackdown he is overseeing on the ground in Turkey, which is currently ranked 151 out of 180 countries in RSF’s World Press Freedom Index.
In Turkey, the press freedom situation has deteriorated sharply under the state of emergency proclaimed just over six months ago. Since July 2016, Turkish authorities have jailed around 100 journalists without trial, closed 149 media outlets, rescinded 775 press cards, withdrawn journalists’ passports, and seized their assets without justification.
RSF representative Erol Önderoglu is among the dozens of journalists facing serious jail time in connection with their work in Turkey. Önderoglu, who is standing trial as part of a group of three journalists and human rights defenders, has been charged with ‘terrorist propaganda’ in connection with a campaign of solidarity with Özgür Gündem, a Kurdish daily newspaper that has since been closed by the authorities. The next hearing in their case has been set for 21 March.
Another prominent journalist, former Cumhuriyet newspaper editor Can Dündar, remains at serious risk despite the fact that he now lives in exile abroad, having been forced to flee Turkey for safety after he was sentenced to five years and ten months in prison on trumped-up charges of divulging state secrets. His wife, Dilek Dündar, is stuck in Turkey, following the cancellation of her passport without explanation last August, as she was about to leave. Journalists like Dündar who have fled the country now face the additional threat of being stripped of their Turkish nationality, under Decree-Law No. 680, which took effect on 7 January.
Thank you for your attention to these extremely worrying issues, which we urge you to raise as matters of urgent priority in your meetings at the highest level in the United States and Turkey. The United Kingdom must make it clear that press freedom matters in its bilateral relations, and that it will hold its partners accountable for upholding their own laws and their international obligations.
Reporters Without Borders (RSF)