Reporters Without Borders (RSF) deplores the growing harassment of media freedom defenders in Turkey, in particular pro-government media attacks on journalists covering the trial of 17 Cumhuriyet newspaper employees, and the incarceration on 14 August of a journalist for taking part in a campaign of solidarity with a pro-Kurdish newspaper.
For the past ten days, pro-government media have accused around 30 journalists covering the Cumhuriyet trial of being “traitors” and “Erdoğan enemies” bent on “sowing chaos and “promoting a coup d’état.”
The campaign’s targets have included such leading media figures as Ertuğrul Mavioğlu, Banu Güven, Fatih Polat and Canan Coşkun, and such media freedom defenders as Erol Önderoğlu of RSF and Faruk Eren of DİSK Basın-İş.
The basis for these wild allegations is nothing more than their (real or alleged) membership of a WhatsApp group that was created to swap information about the trial of the Cumhuriyet employees, which began on 24 July.
“These insane claims would be laughable if they did not put the targeted journalists in grave danger,” said Johann Bihr, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk. “We condemn this new government-orchestrated campaign, which is designed to instil fear and complete the process of silencing all media opposition.”
Since 12 July, the newspapers Sabah, Akşam, Star, Türkiye and Güneş have been developing a conspiracy theory implicating journalists covering the Cumhuriyet trial, opposition parliamentarians and eight leading human rights defenders, including Amnesty International Turkey director İdil Eser.
Turkey: free the human rights defenders!Sign the petitionThe eight human rights defenders have been detained since 6 July, when they were arrested while attending a seminar given by two foreign trainers in an Istanbul hotel. President Erdoğan and the pro-government media have branded the seminar as a “meeting of chaos” designed to “prepare an uprising.”
It was while examining the phones of the detained human right defenders that police investigators discovered the existence of the Cumhuriyet trial WhatsApp group. This was all that the pro-government columnists needed to launch their attacks.
One columnist suggested that the group, called “We will all be free on 24 July,” was being used to coordinate plans for a coup. Another named some of the alleged members as “journalists linked to the chaos group.” Another took this list, added more names and wrote: “Look who’s working with [the terrorists]! They are going to put the streets to the torch, or they will blow themselves up!”
The government’s growing harassment and control of the media has been accompanied in recent years by increasingly extensive use of this kind of smear campaign. These campaigns often pave the way for the arrests of the targets or sometimes even by physical attacks against them.
Jailed for a solidarity campaign
This latest intimidation campaign comes at a critical moment for media freedom defenders.
Journalist and human rights defender Murat Çelikkan was imprisoned on 14 August after being sentenced to 18 months in prison on a charge of “propaganda for a terrorist organization” because he took part in a campaign of solidarity with the pro-Kurdish newspaper Özgür Gündem.
He was one of 56 journalists, human rights defenders and intellectuals who, in defence of pluralism, took turns at being Özgür Gündem’s “editor for a day” from May to August 2016 because it had been hounded by the justice system. Çelikkan is the first to be sentenced to serve actual jail time for his role.
“A society without pluralism is not a democratic society,” he said in his defence in court. “Punishing and convicting people who report the news, who work as journalists and defend freedom of expression, harms not only these people but also the entire democratic system.”
RSF Turkey representative Erol Önderoğlu is also being prosecuted for his role in this solidarity campaign. His trial is due to resume on 26 December before the same Istanbul court that passed the prison sentence on Çelikkan.
Turkey is ranked 155th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2017 World Press Freedom Index. The already worrying media situation has become critical under the state of emergency proclaimed after a coup attempt in July 2016. Around 150 media outlets have been closed and more than 100 journalists are currently in prison.