In Turkey, the state is targeting scores of journalists

Image by Arzu Geybullayeva

Scores of journalists were detained in Turkey for allegedly spreading misleading information between October 31 and November 2. Among them were prominent journalists who have been investigating organized crime. Media freedom advocates “expressed their concerns over a widening state crackdown on press freedom.” Over a dozen international media and human rights organizations co-signed a statement “condemning the Turkish government’s attacks on media freedom.”

On November 1, 2023, journalist Tolga Şardan, was arrested over an article, “What is in the ‘judicial report’ presented by the National Intelligence Organization to the Presidency?” published on the independent online news platform T24 on October 31. The article looked at the scale of graft within the judiciary. Şardan is being accused of “publicly disseminating misleading information” under Article 217/A of Law No. 5237. Shortly after Şardan's arrest, the article was blocked.

Last month, in October, an article by journalist Timur Soykan, investigating the Istanbul Anatolian 4th Criminal Judgeship of Peace issuing access bans in exchange for bribes was blocked for access. An article by Free Web Turkey documenting all the decisions related to access bans made by the Istanbul Anatolian 4th Criminal Judge of Peace was also blocked. In a thread on X (formerly known as Twitter), Free Web Turkey detailed the court's decision issuing the access ban: “Within the scope of the [court's] decision [to block], Soykan's relevant article, the news citing that article, and later all news and social media posts regarding Soykan's article were blocked.” The same decision also ordered the removal of all types of coverage, including social media posts and videos from all published platforms, reported Free Web Turkey, affecting 171 separate reports on the topic.

“Şardan’s news article was the latest in a series of investigative reports of hard-hitting allegations of corruption in Turkey’s justice system, which fall squarely within the frame of legitimate public concern. All of these reports were blocked online by court orders,” read the joint statement by eighteen media and human rights organizations.

The removals were justified by the “disinformation bill” adopted in October 2022.

The infamous bill has already been used in cases of at least 20 journalists since the law came into effect, according to Reporters Without Borders. Erol Onderoglu, the organization's country representative, said:

One year of use has been more than enough to demonstrate that the disinformation law was passed solely in order to further undermine journalistic reporting and investigation. This repressive tool has been used above all against journalists covering the crisis following the February earthquake and the parliamentary and presidential elections held from 14 to 28 May. It has helped to reinforce the climate of intimidation for journalists, who are already subject to many other forms of judicial harassment. Its misuse must stop.

Another columnist detained on the same day and on the same charges as Şardan was Cengiz Erdinç. His latest article was on the low conviction rate in money laundering cases in recent years.

On February 7, a day after the devastating earthquake that hit Turkey, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan addressed the nation from the State Information Coordination Center. In his address, he warned that the state was following “those who intend to set our people against each other with fake news and distortions. This is not the day of debate. When the day comes, we will open the notebook we keep.” Although scores of individuals, including journalists, were reprimanded after this statement, most recently, on November 2, Evrim Kepenek, from the independent platform Bianet, received a notification from the prosecutor's office informing her that she must provide a statement over her social media posts related to the February 6 earthquake.

Another journalist accused of “spreading propaganda for a terrorist group” was Dilsah Kaya, who was also arrested on November 2 over an article published in the independent online news platform Ozgur Gundem.

A separate investigation was launched against three journalists from BirGün newspaper, Uğur Şahin, İsmail Arı, and Uğur Koç, on charges of “publicly disseminating misleading information” over a report Birgun published about the land sale by one of the ruling Justice and Development Party municipalities.

Among those detained was also a reporter with an independent Halk TV television, Dincer Gökçe, from Halk TV, on the same charges as Şardan. Gokce was released the same day under judicial control measures. His arrest was related to a news piece on the release of two alleged gang leaders.

In a post on X, Turkey's main opposition party leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu said the detention of the three journalists was “hostility toward free media.”

Six journalists were indicted on November 2.

Blocked news

Content about corruption or irregularities in due process is frequently blocked in Turkey. By some estimates, close to half of the blocked news is directly related to Erdoğan, his family, or AKP mayors and officials.

According to the most recent internet censorship report by the Media and Law Studies Association (MLSA), an organization providing legal support to journalists and individuals facing trial in freedom of expression cases, “access to at least 35,066 domain names, 3,196 news articles, 2,090 social media posts and 184 social media accounts were blocked in 2022.”

The report found that among blocked domain names are 53 websites known for their independent or opposition views.

The most common content blocked for access among news articles is about the ruling Justice and Development Party, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his family, and individuals and organizations affiliated with the government, party, or president. Out of 3,196 news articles, 1,770 were blocked for this reason. Other common reasons for blocking news articles include “violation of personal rights is in the first place (of the 3,196 news articles blocked in 2022, 3,191 were blocked for this reason), protection of national security and public order, and statute of limitations and the fact that the news article no longer met the criteria of ‘truth and accuracy’ at that time.”

According to Reporters Without Borders 2023 country report, Turkey is ranked 165th out of 180 countries where “authoritarianism is gaining ground, challenging media pluralism” and “all possible means are used to undermine critics.”

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