THE BLOG

The Turkish People Have a Right to Know What Is Happening in Their Country

07/03/2016 16:52 GMT | Updated 08/03/2017 10:12 GMT

As EU leaders sit down today to a summit with Turkey to negotiate how to cope with the biggest immigration crisis the continent has seen for decades, desperate deals are likely to be made.

But while Merkel and company discuss with Turkish prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu the ins and outs of a €3million deal to stop the flow of asylum seekers from Turkey to EU countries, and repatriate others, Turkish leaders may feel they are immune from any pressure to moderate their attacks on media freedom at home.

Turkey's agreement is essential to the migration deal, and so it will be feeling the power of its elbow, and expecting little fallout from European leaders on its recent and on-going crackdown on journalists who attempt to report inconvenient truths.

Last Friday's court seizure of Zaman, a large newspaper group which had the temerity to cover stories the current leadership would rather they didn't, is just the latest in a long line of moves by Turkish President Erdogan and Prime Minister Davutoglu to silence their media critics. Protestors turned out in thousands over the weekend to show their abhorrence for this latest twist in Turkey's slide into authoritarianism, facing tear gas and rubber bullets shot into the crowds by police. By Sunday, with its new imposed editorial team in place, Zaman newspaper was publishing pro-government stories.

The takeover of Zaman was just the latest attack on media who dare to question or criticize the current state of affairs in Turkey. Foreign journalists are not being granted permits to cover the country, and others are being arrested.

But in the current climate with EU leaders desperate to work with Turkey on tackling the refugee crisis, Erdogan and Davutoglu may believe they have immunity from any significant European pressure. They may also feel a tiny bit smug that this union of countries, which have so long denied Turkey the right to be a member, is now coming to them cap in hand, desperate for their help.

Turkey is increasingly a dangerous place to be a journalist, and to report what you see. It is also increasingly difficult for foreign correspondents to get in.

Index on Censorship's Mapping Media Freedom project, which reports on attacks on media freedom across the continent, has recorded the deaths of 15 journalists in Turkey since July 2014. Seven of those were in 2015, and already there have been two this year.

Gülsen Yıldız, a journalist working in Ankara for Tarim TV, was killed on 18 February. She was among 28 people who died during a terrorist attack, according to a MMF report.

On 11 February, Nazım Daştan, a journalist for Dicle News Agency (DİHA), which reports in Kurdish, was arrested in Gaziantep on charges of spreading online propaganda for the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which the Turkish state lists as a terrorist group. On the next day, he was brought to testify in court and then taken to jail.

On the same date, Feyyaz İmrak, also a journalist for Dicle News Agency (DİHA), was arrested along with 16 others on charges of being members of the PKK. Police searched his home and confiscated his reporting equipment and notes.

İmrak appeared before a criminal court 15 February to hear the charges against him, and is currently being held at Antalya Prison, pending trial.

In another report to the MMF project, which is run jointly with Reporters Without Borders and the European Federation of Journalists, in February Turkish authorities rejected a permanent press accreditation application from Silje Rønning Kampesæter, a correspondent for Norway's Aftenposten. No reason was given for the rejection.

The authorities also detained Claus Blok Thomsen, a Danish journalist working for Denmark's daily newspaper Politiken, at the Istanbul airport, barring him from entering the country. The journalist was seeking access to report on refugees at the Turkish-Syrian border.

According to further reports, when Thomsen identified himself as a journalist, police forced him to open his phone and computer, undermining the confidentiality of his sources. He was then detained in a cell overnight and put on a plane to Copenhagen the next day. He was reportedly told to not try re-entering Turkey.

Media freedom is at the heart of any democracy. A freedom to report different sides of the same story. And a freedom to criticise government policies. Turkey increasingly feels like it is steadily sliding towards secrecy. EU leaders must put media freedom on any negotiating table, and not abandon the right of Turkish people to be free to know what is happening in their country.

Rachael Jolley is the editor of quarterly Index on Censorship magazine, which has been publishing censored writers for 43 years. Index has launched a petition calling on Turkey to reverse its decision to seize the Zaman newspaper here

Ryan McChrystal is assistant online editor for Index