Turkish journalists fear war on media amid crackdown

With nearly 100 in jail, fear for democracy rises

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Many Turkish journalists fear the Islamist-rooted government is waging war against the media, with about 100 reporters in prison and thousands afraid to write freely.

“The numbers speak for themselves,” said Haluk Sahin, professor of journalism at Istanbuls Bilgi University.

“With nearly 100 journalists in jail, you cannot claim that Turkish democracy is in good shape.”

Reporters Without Borders recently ranked Turkey 148th out of 178 countries on its press freedom index. Turkey was second to last in Europe, behind only Belarus, ruled by an authoritarian former Soviet president.

The number of detained journalists in Turkey has been hotly contested, but most independent watchdog groups agree that close to 100 reporters are behind bars. Turkey’s record is worse than China’s with 42 jailed journalists and Iran’s with 27.

Many say there is also an unspoken rule against harshly criticizing Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Nina Ognianova, coordinator for the Europe and Central Asia program at the Committee to Protect Journalists, complained about a lack of due process.

“In many of these detentions, they are made under vaguely worded anti-terror and criminal code provisions, and the evidence against the detained is very flawed,” she said.

Last week, two of the most famous detainees, investigative reporters Ahmet Sik and Nedim Sener, were released on bail pending trial on charges that they conspired to overthrow the government.

“Everybody’s a little intimidated,” said one prominent Turkish journalist who requested anonymity to speak candidly about the situation. “Turkey has a democracy deficit right now that is widening.”

The journalist said the arrests undermine Turkey’s international image as a democratic model for the “Arab Spring” revolutions last year.

The firing of several prominent Turkish newspaper columnists in recent weeks has raised concerns about self-censorship.

“The papers and TV outlets find it a liability to have somebody who criticizes the government on their payroll because it makes the relationship with the government more difficult for the owners,” the journalist said.

Observers say the new campaign against journalists represents a turnaround from the promising first few years of Mr. Erdogan’s government.

After its 2002 victory, the AKP expanded press freedom to bolster its chances of joining the European Union and to prove to historically secular Turks that the Islamist party supported democracy.

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About the Author

Ben Birnbaum

Ben Birnbaum is a reporter covering foreign affairs for The Washington Times. Prior to joining The Times, Birnbaum worked as a reporter-researcher at the New Republic. A Boston-area native, he graduated magna cum laude from Cornell University with a degree in government and psychology. He won multiple collegiate journalism awards for his articles and columns in the Cornell Daily Sun.

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