ISTANBUL - Dozens of Turkish journalists writing for the Tutuklu Gazete newspaper have very personal reasons to be concerned about media freedom in their EU-candidate country. They are all in jail.
From prison cells across Turkey, they contributed articles to a special edition protesting against restrictions on freedom of expression which have drawn criticism from the United States and Europe.
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US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton voiced concern about the issue on a visit to Istanbul this month, saying it was not in Turkey's interest to be "cracking down".
A report by the Council of Europe, an intergovernmental pan-European human rights body, has called for urgent measures to address a "particularly worrying" situation for media freedom.
Writing from jail in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir, Kurdish
newspaper editor Vedat Kursun says it is particularly tough for
journalists who write about a 27-year-old Kurdish separatist insurgency
in which more 40,000 people have died.
"Journalists in this country have been put in a situation where they
virtually can't practice their profession. They always feel the cold
breath of the authorities on their neck," he wrote in Tutuklu Gazete
, published as a free supplement in leftist Turkish newspapers on Sunday.
Kursun was sentenced to 166 years in jail for membership of the militant
Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), viewed by the US and EU as a terrorist
group. He, like other journalists, says he was only convicted for
articles in his newspaper.
Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan rejects such an argument, saying
journalists are not in jail because of what they wrote. They are
generally prosecuted under widely implemented laws against membership of
terrorist groups or spreading their propaganda.
Since coming to power in 2002, Erdogan's government has earned praise
internationally for political reforms aimed at bringing Turkey in line
with European Union political norms, and for liberalizing an economy
that now ranks among the fastest-growing in the world.
However, the ruling AK Party, which polled 50 percent of the vote to win
a third term in power in parliamentary elections in June, also faces
accusations of trying to tame the media and smother opposition to its
Turkey has fallen to 138th out of 178 countries reviewed for the World
Press Freedom Index by Reporters without Borders, a media freedom
pressure group, from 101st in 2007 due to the proliferation of lawsuits.Ottoman abolition of censorshipTutuklu Gazete
date of July 24 was symbolic. It marked the anniversary of the official
abolition of censorship in the Ottoman Empire under Sultan Abdul Hamid
II at the time of the Young Turks revolution in 1908.
"Resistance to Censorship," the newspaper proclaimed in a front-page
headline above a picture of people protesting against media restrictions
at a demonstration attended by thousands in Istanbul earlier this year.
The Turkish Journalists Union (TGS), which organized the project, says
the paper is part of a year-old campaign to secure the release of 70
jailed journalists and prompt changes in the anti-terrorism laws.
"If journalists are prosecuted on charges of being terrorists due to
their professional activities, it means there must be a mistake in those
laws and they must be changed," TGS Chairman Ercan Ipekci told Reuters.
"We hope public opinion will be influenced by these articles and that
this wave of public opinion will hit parliament and that it will make
the necessary changes in the laws," he said.
The organizers wrote to all the jailed journalists about the project and
published articles from 39 of them. For now, there are no plans for
further editions of the paper.Coup plot allegations
While charges of links to the PKK predominate in the prosecution of
reporters, some of the journalists in jail are among hundreds of people
detained over a series of alleged coup plots against Erdogan's
Among them is the Kanalturk television channel founder Tuncay Ozkan, who
has been in jail since September 2008 charged with seeking to overthrow
the government in a trial which is still continuing. He says his
opposition to the ruling AK Party is the reason for his prosecution.
"I was jailed for conducting my profession without compromise, for
exercising my right to freedom of thought and dissidence," Ozkan said in
an article written from Silivri prison, near Istanbul in northwest
TGS says journalists are the subject of some 4,000 investigations. Many
of those are for articles about the alleged anti-government plots of the
shadowy "Ergenekon" network since the investigation was launched four
years ago. Some 2,000 cases have been opened against reporters.
Well known journalist Ahmet Slk was detained earlier this year. The
co-author of a book about Ergenekon, Slk faces a jail sentence of up to
four years on a charge of "violating the secrecy of an investigation".
Turkey has long faced criticism from campaigners over its human rights
record. Writers including Nobel prize winner Orhan Pamuk and slain
Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink were prosecuted under laws
restricting freedom of expression.
A Reporters Without Borders report in June called on Turkish authorities
to boost the status of journalistic principles in the law to
counterbalance the protection of legal confidentiality, state security
and personal privacy.
"A legislative strait jacket continues to stifle journalists," the report said.
"Reporting of some topics is still routinely punished by the courts.
Journalists are arrested and tried for doing their job or expressing an
opinion," it said.