Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Powers That Be

PHOTO from Radikal
Thousands of protestors organized this Saturday to mark the one-year anniversary of the detention of journalists Nedim Sener and Ahmet Şık. Both men have been in prison since March of last year on what appear to be trumped up terrorism charges (see past post), and are by no means alone. They are joined by more than 100 other journalists who are imprisoned on a variety of charges ranging from membership in a terrorist organization to spreading propaganda on behalf one. The overwhelming majority of these cases are against Kurdish nationalist journalists or journalists whom prosecutors have attempted to link to Ergenekon, the shadowy deep-state network thought to be continually plotting to overthrow the government.

Rather than repeat what I have written in past posts on the issue (click here), I would simply like to draw attention to a recent statement released by Reporters Without Borders calling for Turkey to live true to its internationally articulated position that freedom of expression is paramount in a democratic society. These remarks came in response to the recent effort in France to make it illegal to deny the 1915 crimes committed against Armenians as genocide.

In response to both the French National Assembly and Senate's passing of the law, Turkish diplomats joined press freedom advocates and liberals throughout Europe and the world to denounce the law as an unjust and dangerous restriction on the freedom of expression. For the most part taking the moral high ground, French liberals and Turkish diplomats won a major victory last week when the French Constitutional Council ruled that the law violated French constitutional provisions protecting freedom of expression. From RSF:
“We are pleased that freedom of expression has not been sacrificed to a cause, no matter how just the cause may be,” Reporters Without Borders said. “The dangerous breach opened by this law has been closed for the time being but it has already damaged the credibility of the democratic values defended by France and those who defend human rights and the Armenian cause in Turkey.

“We urge France’s politicians to renounce any intention of drafting an amended version of this law. Any thought of using legislation to establish an official history of past events should be ruled out for good after this precedent.

“The Turkish authorities must now face their responsibilities. In the name of free speech, they have for weeks been condemning the French parliament’s meddling in history. Now they must prove that their comments were not just tailored to the circumstances by allowing Turkish citizens to mention the Armenian genocide without fear of being prosecuted.

“Consistency requires that, at the very least, they immediately decriminalize two offences, insulting the Turkish nation (article 301 of the criminal code) and insulting the memory of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (Law 5816 of 25 July1951).

“This decision does not exempt Turkey from finally confronting its own history; quite the contrary. Now that Ankara no longer has the excuse of ‘foreign meddling,’ it must remove the straightjacket of official history from the Turkish republic, open a debate about the fate of Turkey’s minorities and end the growing criminalization of journalistic activities.”
Yet the aforementioned restrictions remain, in addition to a host of other offenses that--vaguely interpreted--can be wielded against journalists, including, inter alia, accusing journalists of influencing judicial processes, discouraging citizens from military service, and inciting hated among the citizenry.

While these laws still exist on the books, most concerning, of course, is the use of anti-terrorism laws against journalists, a practice that has picked up under the helm of Ergenekon and KCK prosecutors and within the past three years. Using anti-terrorism laws against journalists is common practice in authoritarian countries ranging from Ethiopia to Venezuela, but it is Turkey who now rivals Iran and China in having the highest number of jailed journalists in any country in the world.

For the past report by the Council of Europe's Human Rights Commission Thomas Hammarberg (April 2011), click here. Since the reporting dates, both the KCK and Ergenekon investigations have continued, raising the number of jailed journalists even higher. In December, at least 29 journalists were detained in a wave of operations against the KCK. Prosecutors accused the journalists of relaying PKK messages to Kurdish nationalist protestors. Numerous other arrests, sometimes on a mass scale, took place throughout 2011.

For a detailed accounting, see Bianet's recently released 2011 Media Monitoring Report, released just last week. I am adding a link to it in the "Key Documents" column on the right-hand sidebar. Bianet reports there are over 104 journalists in prison, up from 30 at the end of 2010.

According to AKP officials, this number is inflated since these people merely happen to work as journalists. They are not in prison for their writing or for being journalists, but because they are members of terrorist organizations who happen to be journalists. Attempts to portray the issue in terms of press freedom are therefore insincere, and according to some, part of an international smear campaign devised by -- guess who? -- terrorist aligned with the ultra-nationalist deep state.

[For those based in Washington, the Center for International Media Assistance, an initiative of the National Endowment for Democracy, will be holding an event on press freedom in Turkey on Tuesday, March 13, at 2 p.m. The event is entitled, "The Big Chill: Press Freedom in Turkey," and you can RSVP here.]

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