Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses members of parliament from his ruling AK Party in Ankara. Photo: Reuters

For two years running, the international Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has declared it the “worst country in the world” for jailing news gatherers.

In 2017, it sank to 155th out of 180 countries on the Reporters Without Frontiers (RSF) press freedom index.

Now, a new law on digital media looks set to push the country’s ranking down even further, while a recent corporate acquisition has left it with around 90% of its mainstream media owned by government-linked companies.

The country in question is Turkey, which until recently had a thriving media sector – even if the press has always been partly restricted. The current environment, however – and the speed with which it has been created – have left many fearing the worst for the country’s future.

“Critical voices are being eliminated from the public sphere,” said Erol Onderoglu, RSF’s representative in Turkey. “I’m afraid the danger and the challenge, not only to the press, but to civil society, opposition political organizations and any critical voice, is now more massive than ever.”

Indeed, some 73 journalists were in jail in Turkey at the end of 2017, according to the CPJ. This February, six of these were given life sentences. Other reporters – some household names – have fled into exile, with foreign journalists also not immune from prosecution. Last October, for example, Wall Street Journal Turkey correspondent Ayla Albayrak was given a two-year jail sentence in absentia.

At the same time, the Turkish authorities have shut down some 150 media organizations since an abortive coup in July 2016. Prior to that, several major newspapers had also been closed, including one, Zaman, which had had the highest circulation in the country.

Meanwhile, the media outlets left open have largely been brought under the control of pro-government businesses.

The recent decision by the Dogan Group, which had once dominated the Turkish media landscape, to sell its media arm to Demiroren Holding marks the end-game in that process.

“The Dogan sale is particularly important,” said Burak Bekdil, a former columnist with the Hurriyet Daily News – one of the Dogan Group’s former titles, along with the mass circulation Hurriyet and popular TV news channel, CNN Turk. “Under new ownership, the Dogan Media Group will gradually recalibrate editorial policy to maximize President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s popularity.”

Erdogan had long targeted the Dogan Group for criticism, while he is also widely thought to have been instrumental in a 2009 court decision to slam the group with a tax fine equivalent to US$3.3 billion – a decision from which it never fully recovered.

Online media, too, have been increasingly restricted. The Turkish authorities have repeatedly banned global majors, such as YouTube and Wikipedia, with no court order currently required to close a website

Online media, too, have been increasingly restricted. The Turkish authorities have repeatedly banned global majors, such as YouTube and Wikipedia, with no court order currently required to close a website.

At the same time, “Turkey has deployed massive online surveillance,” said RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia head, Johann Bihr. “This explains why scores of people are being sent to jail now for tweets and other forms of online expression.”

The most famous recent case of this was the former Miss Turkey, 18-year-old Itir Esen, who faced a possible year in jail last December for a tweet that prosecutors found offensive.

The new digital-media law, passed by the Turkish parliament at the end of March, also brings online broadcasting under the same government-controlled authority that regulates television – the High Council for Broadcasting (RTUK). This means that any online video service will require a license, and “to get this, you may have to be subject to a police investigation,” Bihr said.

This will not only affect video streaming services such as Netflix and those posting video to Facebook, but will also hit a cluster of opposition media platforms currently running shoestring Web TV services.

State of emergency

The government’s supporters, however, argue that Turkey is currently going through a time of great challenges to its national security, with this justifying tighter control of the media.

Indeed, back in 2015, the southeast of the country was shaken by a resumption of violent conflict between the Turkish military and the separatist Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), which is seen by Ankara as a terrorist organization.

Some of the shuttered media outlets had taken a pro-Kurdish nationalist line, which prosecutors have often interpreted as meaning pro-PKK. Likewise, recent critics of the Turkish military offensive into Syria’s Afrin region have also been accused by the government and its supporters of backing the PKK-linked Kurdish Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG), which have been fighting Turkey’s troops.

The abortive coup in July 2016 also saw 241 people killed, most of them civilians. After this, the government declared a state of emergency that is still in force.

The government blames supporters of the cleric Fethullah Gulen for the coup attempt. Gulen heads a global organization from self-imposed exile in the US, with this also being behind the newspaper Zaman and some other now-closed media outlets. This organization has also been branded a terrorist organization by the government.

“It’s clear that after the attempted coup, any national authority would be justified in confronting such a threat with a state of emergency,” said Andrew Gardner, Amnesty International’s senior Turkey researcher. “But in this case, this has not been used to counter threats to national security, but to counter all forms of opposition to the government.”

Amnesty Turkey’s honorary chairman, Taner Kilic, himself celebrated his 300th day in jail on April 5. He is awaiting the outcome of his trial on terrorism charges, leveled after he had used the same encrypted communications software as some of Gulen’s supporters.

Certainly, public prosecutors and the courts appear to be interpreting threats to national security extremely widely.

In one other example, last November, Oguz Guven, a reporter for the newspaper Cumhuriyet, was given a three-year-and-one-month jail sentence for tweeting that a public prosecutor had been “mowed down by a truck.” This was seen as discrediting the state’s fight against terrorism, as the prosecutor had been preparing an indictment against the Gulen group when he had been killed in a road accident.

The small-circulation Cumhuriyet is Turkey’s oldest newspaper and now one of the only titles not owned by a pro-government company. More than a dozen of the paper’s staff are also on trial, facing a total of 43 years in jail among them.

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