At the current juncture of Turkish politics and transformation, which to a large extent has defined and shaped national politics, it would be misleading to think that all the doors to the “old regime” are completely closed. The elements of the past are very much vital to the present and in some areas visibly excessive. The sense of being in the middle of the old and new can be perceived as hopeful or threatening, depending on which one you identify with.
As the latest crisis has clearly shown, the reforms being carried out on the judiciary (since the referendum on Sept. 12, 2010) need to be urgently backed by stronger human resources, and efforts must be concentrated on changing the “pro-state” mentality as well as enriching the weak, old-fashioned “know-how” of the enforcement of law in accordance with the norms of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). All key trials, from Ergenekon to Hrant Dink to match fixing, have exposed the burden along with the shortcomings and breaches of judicial procedures.
This emphasis is necessary, I feel, to comment on the undue pressure on the media in Turkey in general. Also, paradoxically, at this critical juncture, the judiciary and the media, struggling badly for independence, are at odds with each other.
The most concrete result of this is the recurring theme of imprisoned journalists. “More than 100 of them are behind bars” has almost become an international slogan these days. Even if both the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and Reporters Without Borders (RWB) insist that according to their criteria only eight to 10 Turkish journalists have been incarcerated because of their professional conduct, this leaves us with the notion that numbers do not matter in Turkey’s case: There should be no journalist jailed for what they do professionally. But the numbers, as usual, turn into convincing propaganda tools to blacken the picture more than it really is.
True, Turkey is no China or Iran, but media freedom here is an extremely serious issue. So, it would be wiser to look at a nuanced picture to identify the root causes that create confusion and myths.
If we look at the main bulk of 104 journalists, all of whom are claimed to have been stripped of freedom simply because they are journalists, we mainly talk about Kurds who have been detained under the Anti-terrorism Law. An overwhelming majority of those jailed are in a grey area, accused of aiding and abetting the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). But, it is clear at the same time that a certain segment of the Kurdish press, however politicized or ideologized, are silenced thereof indirectly. This is an area that reminds us of the “old Turkey,” and it is unacceptable.
Therefore, and rightly so, this point was made clear by Işıl Karakaş, a Turkish judge who is a member of the ECHR, who said, “The fight against terrorism cannot and must not curb freedom of expression.”
Will the government do a thorough revision of the Anti-terrorism Law? If Thomas Hammarberg, the Council of Europe commissioner of human rights, is right in his latest views on Ankara’s upcoming reform package, the complications will continue. But, if the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government had amended Article 6 of the law properly, a large quantity of the Kurdish journalists would be out of jail. Yet, as we know from the cases related to the separatist ETA in Spain, it is an open question where the boundaries between glorifying political violence and free debate on minority rights, etc. are.
As noted positively by Hammarberg, the proposed amendments of articles 285 and 288 in the Turkish Penal Code (TCK) narrow the scope of bans regarding “breaching the confidentiality of criminal investigations” and “attempting to influence a fair trial.” This will also help around 4,500 pending cases to be dropped, changing the climate in favor of more free journalism.
Meanwhile, those journalists that have remained in custody for a long time in Ergenekon, Odatv type trials is a complex group. There seems to be no doubt in the international arena that the cases of Ahmet Şık and Nedim Şener have nothing to do with their profession (if at all, both may be criticized for unethical behavior, but that is different), and that they should be released or tried without being detained. I agree with this.
For the rest, some 15 of them, the recent decision by the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) on the Özkan vs. Turkey case, nuances the picture and shows a large part of the myths. The most important part of the court’s decision, finding the application (on strong enough evidence) “inadmissible” was that the applicant, Tuncay Özkan, was treated not as a “jailed journalist,” but as a person accused of “coup plotting.” There are many others in the same position as Özkan in these trials, and this decision may be seen as a precedent.
The question in such cases is whether or not being accused of being involved in plotting coups falls into press freedom. As the case of the News of the World in Britain has, in a different context, shown us there are areas where a journalist’s freedom ends and law enforcement enters. Colleagues who are “copying and pasting” myths on this matter in the international arena must be much more prudent, because they are acting wrongly.