The re-election in May of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as Turkey’s president, extending his two decades in power, bodes ill for press freedom and human rights in Turkey. The media landscape during the elections was dominated by pro-government outlets, while independent voices and critical journalists were silenced. At least forty-seven journalists were behind bars in May, including thirty-one Kurdish journalists. In the past year, numerous journalists have been assaulted and independent broadcasters fined by the regulator, RTUK. PEN International’s president, Burhan Sonmez, recently commented, ‘The Turkish government’s intention to suppress criticism of its policies and silence the press is a way of walling in any calls for freedom. Its dream is to create a silent society where nobody will dissent or speak the truth.’
On 26 June, Merdan Yanardağ, editor-in-chief of TELE1, one of the few remaining news outlets critical of the Turkish authorities, was arrested in Istanbul by counterterrorism officers. His detention came in response to a broadcast six days earlier. Yanardağ had spoken on air about the breakdown in July 2015 of peace negotiations between the Turkish government and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and commented on the PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, who has been held in a high-security prison on the island of Imralı in the Sea of Marmara since 1999. Yanardağ mentioned Ocalan’s ‘isolation’ in prison and observed that had the authorities abided by the Law on the Execution of Punishments and Security Measures, Ocalan would have been released and placed under house arrest. RTUK and the public prosecutor’s office subsequently launched an investigation into TELE1 over Yanardağ’s remarks. Shortly before his arrest, Yanardağ said his words had been taken out of context and were not meant to praise Ocalan. His comment regarding Ocalan’s ‘isolation’ referred to his inability to speak with his lawyers.
Yanardağ has been charged with ‘making propaganda for a terrorist organisation’ and ‘praising crime and a criminal’. He is currently being held in Silivri Prison, near Istanbul. On 5 July, a court denied a request for Yanardağ’s release on bail ahead of his trial, saying that he is a flight risk. On the basis of the indictment submitted by prosecutors to the Istanbul 30th Heavy Penal Court, Yanardağ could face a prison sentence of up to ten and a half years if convicted.
Over the past two decades, the Turkish authorities have employed state advertising to create a culture of compliant journalism and routinely used RTUK to target broadcasters and issue financial penalties for critical news reporting. TELE1 has already been fined four times in 2023 for Yanardağ’s statements. The government controls over 90 per cent of the country’s media: public media is subject to government regulation, while much of the private media is in the hands of oligarchs aligned with the ruling party. Following the failed coup of 2016, there was a mass crackdown on independent news outlets. Scores of journalists were arrested and put on trial. Many remain in prison.
Journalists in Turkey are also subject to physical assaults, troll attacks by politicians and their supporters, and smear campaigns from government-aligned media organisations. The police regularly detain journalists at demonstrations and prevent them from reporting. Last year, the government stepped up efforts to block and censor online content through amendments to the disinformation law. Under the law, anyone convicted of spreading ‘disinformation’ or ‘fake news’ that threatens national security, public order and public morals faces up to three years’ imprisonment. Social media platforms have to comply with content-blocking requests or risk having their bandwidth reduced by up to 90 per cent and receiving six-month advertising bans. The vague term ‘disinformation’ allows the judiciary, which has been purged of independent judges, to punish opponents of the government.
PEN has repeatedly condemned the Turkish authorities’ use of wide-ranging counterterrorism laws to target dissenting voices. One tactic is to use statements from anonymous or protected witnesses (known in Turkey as ‘secret witnesses’) to prosecute dissidents on trumped-up charges of terrorism, which carry long prison sentences.
Readers might like to send appeals to the Turkish authorities calling for the immediate and unconditional release of prominent writer and journalist Merdan Yanardağ; seeking assurances that all charges against him will be dropped; urging the government to stop the prosecution and detention of writers and journalists who peacefully express their views and to desist from using anti-terrorism laws to silence critical voices; and calling for all those held in prison in violation of their internationally recognised right to freedom of expression to be immediately released.
Appeals to be addressed to:
Minister of Justice
06659 Ankara, Turkey
His Excellency Koray Ertaş
43 Belgrave Square
London SW1X 8PA
Fax: 020 7393 0066