Turkey has been hailed as a beacon of democracy in a troubled region. Many cite it as an example for post-revolutionary countries of the Arab Spring, as it is held up as a successful fusion of liberalism and Islam.
But a report by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) published on Tuesday sheds a different light on the country’s record of liberalism. With 49 journalists in prison, CPJ calls Turkey “the world’s worst jailer,” and it sits at the top of a list that includes Iran, China and Eritrea.
“There is no independent media left,” says Nuray Mert, one of the country’s most prolific journalists and columnists. Like her, many journalists in the country complain that an atmosphere of intimidation and self-censorship has reigned since Prime Minister Reccep Tayyip Erdogan began consolidating his power. Mert used to write for Turkey’s biggest papers and was a regular guest on political talk shows. This changed when Erdogan singled her out during a public speech for her criticism of government policies.
“I wrote a column saying that we have to take the Kurds seriously and not treat them as subjects, that we have to grant them collective rights,” says Mert of the 15 million Kurds in Turkey whom the government has denied cultural and political freedoms for decades.
In a speech after her column ran, Erdogan more or less accused Mert of treason. Her editors understood the message, and she was fired. “Later I got a call not to show up on TV anymore either.” She started receiving a flood of hate mail and threats. “I was afraid that someone from the ultra-right nationalists would attack me.”
Still, Mert was never arrested, unlike dozens of other journalists who were charged with “helping terrorist organizations.” Just reporting on the outlawed Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK), passing on contact details or assigning stories on the organization is enough to be labeled a terrorist by the Turkish government.
Erdogan’s officials and the courts use draconian anti-terror legislation written after the military coup in the early 1980s. The cases are handled by “special-authority courts,” which can hold suspects in custody for years without trial. Detainees can have their access to their lawyers and files restricted and are often prohibited from communicating with anyone outside their detention centers.
In the past, these courts have practically erased the presumption of innocence.
“There is a new term for journalists used by the government,” says Elif Ilgaz, a leading press freedom advocate. “They call it ‘organized journalism’ to discredit us.”
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