For years, the Presidency Communications Directorate (CIB) has been using its press cards to restrict the freedom to inform. Pro-government journalists have no trouble obtaining CIB press cards, even those guilty of hate speech, disinformation or hounding human rights defenders. But in recent years leading critical journalists have had their CIB press cards withdrawn or their renewal requests have gone unanswered.
Journalists without this press card cannot cover the activities of the president or government ministers and are even liable to be prevented from covering street protests. A directive issued by the national police on 27 April bans them from filming or recording police interventions during demonstrations, as was the case during this year’s May Day demonstration in Istanbul and Ankara.
“As it seems too much to expect a presidential office to manage press card allocation impartially, we ask the government to reinstate an autonomous journalistic entity in order to put an end to biased practices that penalise critical journalists,” said Erol Önderoglu, RSF’s representative in Turkey.
Mustafa Sönmez, a journalist and economist who is the subject of several prosecutions including one for “insulting the president,” has been without a press card since November 2019. He nonetheless obtained a favourable ruling last month from the Ankara administrative court, which ordered the administration to reissue his press card on the grounds that he satisfied all the criteria for holding the card on a permanent basis and that the administration could not suddenly change this.
Nadire Mater, a journalist who was RSF’s representative in Turkey in the 1990s and is now a consultant for the Bianet.org news site, has also been denied a press card for the past two years. She has taken the matter to court and is awaiting a decision. The author of “Mehmedin Kitabi” (Mehmet’s Book), in which soldiers describe fighting Kurdish armed separatists in the 1990s, she was definitively acquitted in 2000 on a charge of “denigrating the security forces.”
Aydin Engin, a former columnist for the newspaper Cumhuriyet (Republic), also asked an administrative court to order the government to restore the permanent press card he had for nearly 25 years. The case is pending a final decision from the Court of Cassation’s Higher Criminal Council. He was sentenced to seven and a half years in prison at the end of a Kafkaesque trial in April 2018 on a charge of “supporting an illegal organisation” in connection with a police raid on Cumhuriyet when Can Dündar was still its editor.
Finally, the lack of any response to his press card application was the subject of the court case brought in April by Kazım Güleçyüz, the news editor at the Islamist daily Yeni Asya (New Asia). On the basis of his social media shares and articles, an Istanbul court sentenced him to 20 months in prison in January 2020 on a charge of “propaganda” in support of the organisation led by Fethullah Gülen, the US-based Islamic scholar alleged by the government to have been behind the abortive coup in July 2016.
Thousands of cards rescinded
These four cases illustrate the battle over press cards waged between journalists and the authorities, who have taken a tougher stance since the 2016 coup attempt. In the past five years, they have rescinded around 2,000 press cards held by journalists close to pro-Gülen circles or by journalists of other political colours, including Islamists critical of the government, republicans, secularists and those who support the Kurds.
In the three years that the CIB has been in charge of press cards, it has rejected 1,371 of the 10,486 applications submitted by journalists and is still processing 220 applications. It has also rescinded 1,238 press cards since 2019. Gökhan Durmus, the head of the Journalists Union of Turkey (TGS), estimates that only a quarter of Turkey’s 25,000 journalists have the press card.
In response to a complaint by the Association of Progressive Journalists (CGD), the Council of State’s administrative affairs section nonetheless ruled in November 2020 that a CIB directive listing very vaguely-worded reasons for refusing a press card was “liable to create a climate of intimation for journalists.”
The directive’s reasons included “undermining or acting against the honour of the profession,” “acting against national security or endangering public order” and “making a habit of such conduct.”
A new directive issued by the CIB on 21 May still falls far short of satisfying journalists. It says, “a journalist who cannot find a job after a month of unemployment will have their press card cancelled” and “a special committee may decide to cancel a journalist’s permanent press card.” In the view of journalists’ associations and media bodies, including the TGC, TGS, DISK Basin-Is and Press Council, the CIB “does not have the right to dictate who is and is not a journalist.”
Turkey is ranked 153rd out of 180 countries in RSF's 2021 World Press Freedom Index.