Chipping away at press freedom in Turkey

Chipping away at press freedom in Turkey
Comment: As the Turkish government cracks down on voices critical of President Erdogan, the pro-Kurdish publication Ozgur Gundem runs a campaign showing its support for those arrested, writes Yvo Fitzherbert
4 min read
24 Jun, 2016
Reporters Without Borders SG Christophe Deloire and others show solidarity with jailed Turkish journalists [Getty]
The Turkish government has stepped up its campaign against oppositional figures by arresting two prominent human rights activists and a writer, for disseminating "terrorist propaganda" after they took part in a campaign to show support for the pro-Kurdish publication, Ozgur Gundem.

Erol Onderoglu, who is the Turkish representative for the Paris based organisation Reporters Without Borders, Sebnem Korur Financı - the head of Turkey's Human Rights Foundation and the writer Ahmet Nesin, were all arrested and placed in prison in Istanbul last week. A few days prior to his arrest, Onderoglu had lamented the lack of diversity in the media in Turkey. "The mainstream media is under the control of the government, and there are only a handful of small newspapers left that publish critical content."

Sebnem Korur Financı, who in addition to being the head of Turkey's Human Rights Foundation is also a forensics expert, has documented many torture claims. She responded to her arrest by stating that "It's an honour to be arrested by the state in Turkey. We have done something right."

This move against Financı and Onderoglu is the latest development in a government crackdown against voices critical of President Erdogan. Whilst this is not the first time journalists or academics have been targeted, there are fears that this latest string of arrests could herald a new crackdown on human rights activists.

Emma Sinclair-Webb, senior Turkey researcher for Human Rights Watch, stated that "These are the very people who have been documenting the human rights deterioration in Turkey...We've seen this kind of crackdown on the media, we've seen this kind of crackdown on academics, and I think now this is the beginning of a crackdown on human rights defenders themselves."

Ozgur Gundem campaign

On May 3rd, Ozgur Gundem launched a campaign in which prominent figures would act as symbolic editors-in-chief for a day to raise awareness of the numerous investigations the publication is facing. The journalist Can Dundar, who faces five years in jail for reporting on arms deliveries to Syria from Turkey, showed support for the newspaper by acting as its editor-in-chief on Tuesday, immediately following the arrests.

"They are saying that they will arrest you if you stand with the oppressed and if you show solidarity," Dundar said. "We got their message and came to show solidarity. If they tell us not to go to this newspaper, we will insist on going. If they tell us not to watch a certain TV station, we will insist on watching it, and this is how we will defend our rights."

There are fears that this latest string of arrests could herald a new crackdown on human rights activists

The crackdown on anti-government media has been ongoing throughout 2016, with Turkey now ranked 151st out of 180 countries on the Reporters Without Borders 2016 World Press Freedom Index. Many journalists face terrorism charges for reporting on the Kurdish conflict in the south-east, while many others have been charged with "insulting the President".

"The government chose the specific names of Financı and Onderoglu to show that they can arrest the most prominent supporters of our campaign," explained Davut Ucar, a journalist at Ozgur Gundem from their offices in central Istanbul. "Financı has done important work on torture victims in Kurdish areas in the past, whilst Onderoglu knows the history of persecution against Kurdish journalists very well."

Many of the names that have come to show solidarity with the Kurdish newspaper have done so, not because they agree entirely with the stance of Ozgur Gundem, but because they believe in the right to publish such views. "The important part of this campaign is it shows that you don't have to agree with our editorial line to support our right to publish," Ucar said. "The ruling-AKP want to provoke an all-out war between Turks and Kurds, but our campaign shows the ability for Turks and Kurds to resist such divisions and show solidarity with each other."

Such a show of solidarity is a threat to the government's insistence on its fight against terror

Recently steps have been taken to imprison Selahattin Demirtas, the co-President of the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), after the government voted on lifting parliamentary immunity. Such a move is an attempt to label all pro-Kurdish campaigners as "terrorists", an attempt to criminalise the Kurds.

The Ozgur Gundem campaign, which has brought in prominent figures to recognise the importance of the pro-Kurdish publication, threatens such a government line. By acting as editors-in-chief, Onderoglu and Financı resisted such sentiments, showing outward solidarity to a newspaper that regularly circulates a pro-Kurdish, anti-government position. Such a show of solidarity is a threat to the government's insistence on its fight against terror.

However, it is unlikely such a move will have the desired effect. "The government is trying to isolate our pro-Kurdish stance from the rest of Turkish civil society," Ucar explained. "But it will never succeed. This week, Can Dundar represented us, and we have another 100 journalists and activists already signed up to act as editor-in-chief over the coming months."