In the follow up to the attempted coup in July 2016, the Turkish government launched an unprecedented attack on press freedom: Thousands of journalists lost of their jobs, hundreds were arrested on terror charges, dozens of media outlets were shutdown and the journalists who remained worked in fear. Turkey is now the largest jailer of journalists in the world. As part of this trend, the Turkish judiciary system has been condemned for its abuse of power, by international governments and institutions including the UN, EU and Council of Europe. As a result, international media and actors have perceived the Turkish state as responsible for suppression on the media freedom, but that claim is not enough to capture the full picture. Fragmentation amongst Turkish media workers, which is sometimes perpetuated by the state, is also a factor in the deterioration of press freedom in Turkey.
Reports show that some of Turkey’s leading journalists are being used as agents by the military and the intelligence organization against their colleagues. For example, the two biggest newspapers of Turkey, Sabah and Hurriyet, published in 1998 a list of journalists who were allegedly collaborators of the outlawed PKK . According to veteran journalist Cengiz Candar, the list was prepared by the Turkish military and given to his colleagues. As a result of this list, several journalists including Candar lost their jobs. Senior journalist Ergun Babahan, one of the co-editors of Ahval News , said in an interview that journalists working with intelligence can exist in every media. They are supposed to report what is happening within the newspaper they work for. In Turkey, they exist to intimidate their colleagues and even to suppress them”. In this interview, he mentions known journalists collaborating with the intelligence agency and the military to manage the public opinion including Fatih Altayli and Tuncay Ozkan.
Many Turkish journalists have turned their back to their colleagues during the Ergenekon trials that implicated Turkey’s political environment on a large scale between 2007-2013 and led to the judicial investigations of a number of journalists including Mustafa Balbay, Ahmet Sik and Nedim Sener. Many unsubstantiated allegations about dissident media workers were reported by Turkey’s media, especially by pro-government and Gulenist journalists, as if all of the allegations were proven facts. To describe the defamation of journalists by their colleagues in this era, Ozge Mumcu wrote in her column “A gossip campaign run by an army of media can only be called ‘propaganda’. Even if its name has changed after Goebbels, this can only be called propaganda.”
Years have passed but the tradition of defaming and attacking to colleagues has not changed in Turkish media. A prominent case involves journalist Hayko Bagdat has been lynched by his colleagues last year. Bagdat has fled Turkey to Germany following an incident of his passport was temporarily seized in August 2016 by the police on landing at Istanbul Airport. He escaped the waves of persecution targeting dissident journalists and started to live in Berlin wearing a bullet proof vest on the recommendation of the German police. A couple of weeks before Turkey’s presidential election held in June of this year, Bagdat penned a piece saying people who support the pro-Kurdish HDP like himself should never vote for the oppositional candidate Muharrem Ince who he described as an ultra-nationalist. A massive wave of lynching has targeted him immediately after his article was published online. Among his critiques, well-known journalist Ahmet Sik who was one of the victims of earlier persecutions, also a candidate of HDP for the parliament, accused him of being on the side of police in Gezi Protests and said he was “greedy of fame” in his tweets. Following Siks’s tweets, many other fellow journalists and politicians made insulting statements about Bagdat. For example, Haluk Hepkon, a publisher and columnist, said “I am losing my hope for a bright future as I see that people keep reading and discussing Hayko Bagdat’s writings. I mean, well, this is Hayko Bagdat… Just feed him, give water, clean his litter and provide him pocket money if you want him to write what you want.” Ayhan Bilgen, HDP Spokesperson, reacted against Bagdat’s bold statement saying “It is wisely said that you better have a smart enemy instead of a stupid friend”. As a result, Bagdat was demoralized and his reputation is severely damaged which is a big burden on a journalist who already has to live in exile for his dissenting opinions. He said in his later column “ I will support you (Muharrem Ince) and encourage my friends to vote for you. By doing this, I am, as an Armenian, apologizing to the founding elements of Turkey. I am apologizing to my killer as I have always to do. I am betraying myself by writing this. I am betraying not because I am afraid of the Turkish state but because my friends are upset.”
Another journalist who has recently been lynched by colleagues is Ece Sevim Ozturk. She is an investigative journalist and the editor of Cagdas Ses (Contemporary Voice) News Portal. Recently, she has been investigating the failed coup attempt. In her documentary about the aborted coup, Ece questioned the government’s narrative and raised new questions based on the testimonies of the suspects and witnesses of the ongoing trials. Her thorough investigation has made her one of the latest victims of the brutal crackdown on the journalists. First, pro-government Yeni Safak daily pointed her as a target by publishing an article in which she was pictured as a collaborator of so-called coup plotters. The day after Yeni Safak’s article, ODA TV’s Nihat Genc published[ an article calling her “whitewasher of the coup plotters”. A few days later, Ozturk’s house was raided by police at 02.30 am and she was detained. She had been held in prison until recently.
One of the most recent attack to independent journalism is the Cumhuriyet’s takeover by a group of ultranationalists supported by the government. Cumhuriyet was left as the strongest voice of the dissidents before the takeover as its Chief Editor and several journalists including Kadri Gursel, Erdem Gul and Ahmet Sik were arrested in the aftermath of the attempted coup. The group supported by the government has taken the control of the newspaper. Kati Piri, Member of the European Parliament and Turkey Rapporteur said “ After raids, legal proceedings, arrests & imprisonment of its journalists, last independent newspaper #Cumhuriyet now taken over by ultra-nationalists, aligned with President #Erdogan. Is this final blow to what was left of press freedom in #Turkey?” Following the takeover, many journalists have lost their jobs.
What’s important to note is that the state has created a climate of fear in which journalists are working in. The constant threat of trumped up charges or of being fired forces other media workers to remain silent.
Journalists should be free to criticise anyone including their peers. In Turkey, these critcisms can lead to campaigns of harassment which can lead to arrest or job loss. Journalism is under serious threat in Turkey but this pressure emanates not only from the government and a lack of an independent judiciary but also the fragmentation of the media enables the government to sustain its suppression. International organizations and institutions should try to facilitate overcoming this fragmentation and unite around the idea of liberty for the peaceful expression of opinions.