In April, members of the European Parliament paused from their usual business to write letters to imprisoned journalists held in Turkey, specifically to political cartoonist Musa Kart. Kart has been held for five months without trial and could be facing almost thirty years in prison.
“Stay strong, Musa. Turkey, your fellow citizens, your readers, we all need you. Without you, without a free and independent press, citizens are no longer free and independent,” members of the European Green Party wrote in a letter to Musa. “You are the guardians of democracy, even more so in troubled times, and and we are grateful to you for that.”
Kart’s situation is disturbingly common in Turkey, where more journalists are imprisoned than in any other country. According to the NGO that organized the letter writing, Reporters Without Borders, over 120 journalists have been arrested and held in prison within the past year.
“Reporters Without Borders has suggested this campaign of support from the members of the European Parliament,” said North America Advocacy and Communications Director Margaux Ewen in an interview with MediaFile. “Turkey has expressed wishes to join the European Union and so we believe it was a symbolic act and powerful message to show that imprisoning journalists and cracking down on the press is not something that a democratic country does”.
The ‘crackdown’ on press stems from Turkey declaring a state of emergency after the attempted coup last July. The results include the closing of 149 media outlets, 775 rescinded press cards, and the withdrawal of hundreds of journalists’ passports. Those imprisoned have no access to lawyers or any legal help whatsoever.
Under the state of emergency, Turkey has jailed 40,000 and fired or suspended 140,000 https://t.co/k284J6hu5L pic.twitter.com/7l9Ea1hhBw
— New York Times World (@nytimesworld) May 21, 2017
In a May 21st announcement, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced that the state of emergency would continue, in the name of “welfare and peace.”
“Turkey was not a haven for press freedom before the failed coup attempt last July but ever since that point in time, things have gotten significantly worse,” states Ewen. She then goes on to say that the imprisoned journalists are denied “preliminary hearing or due process.”
According to Freedom House, Turkey is ranked as ‘not free’ for press freedom. Turkey also dropped four spots on RSF’s 2017 World Press Freedom Index, making it 155 out of 180 countries.
The political climate of the country began to deteriorate when winning parties failed to form a coalition in the first parliamentary election in June. In the second election in November after the coup, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) secured a majority of parliamentary seats. The AKP is led by current President Erdoğan and uses “the penal code, criminal defamation legislation, and the country’s anti-terrorism law to punish critical reporting”.
In addition to the sharp change in legislature, conflict with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and in Syria have escalated hostility towards the media in Turkey.
#Turkey: Website editor is 12th @cumhuriyetgzt employee to be jailed. He is facing up to 7 and half years in prison. https://t.co/zOpHBhNl9V pic.twitter.com/qGyk9MmSgp
— RSF in English (@RSF_en) May 20, 2017
#Turkey: Joint call for French photographer’s immediate release! https://t.co/NA1KS9jzno pic.twitter.com/jOVk8yAKsB
— RSF in English (@RSF_en) May 20, 2017
The Turkey representative for Reporters Without Borders, Erol Önderoğlu, now faces charges for attending a Kurdish solidarity campaign on World Press Freedom Day.
“This is a clear policy to keep distant critical journalists, civil society and human rights organisations to avoid them, to bring a ‘human’ approach, to humanize Kurdish issue which is seen by the government just as a ‘terrorism issue,’” said Önderoğlu in an interview with MediaFile. Önderoğlu also stated that the Turkish government “started to criminalize and discredit all kind of human rights activities toward Kurdish issues in 2015.”
Onderoglu, along with Şebnem Korur Fincancı, President of the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey, and Ahmet Nesin, a journalist, were jailed June 20th, 2016. They will go to trial on June 8th, 2017 before 13rd High Criminal Court in Turkey.
In the meantime, more and more journalists face similar hardship as Turkey continues its campaign against press freedom.