Turkey's Censorship Puzzle

Turkey has surpassed the likes of China, Iran and Russia, when it comes to the number of journalists/authors in prison, many of whom are being held without charge.

Turkey has surpassed the likes of China, Iran and Russia, when it comes to the number of journalists/authors in prison, many of whom are being held without charge. At the time of writing this, anywhere between 70 to 100 journalists/authors sit in Turkish cells, their pens silenced for having an opinion on events unfolding in their own country. Many are internationally recognised for ground breaking work, uncovering corruption and organised crime. This can mean only one thing - free speech is becoming a thing of the past in Turkey, or is it?

There has been an explosion of news agencies and TV news channels in recent years. There are hundreds in fact, all with their own style, from the hijab-covered reporter, a rarity in the past, to the secular glossy European style-presenter. But, no matter how diverse the image, they all seem to propagate one message. The government is good and the opposition is evil. As an MP from the pro-Kurdish BDP party puts it, "There are two voices in Turkey, the state run media and the private media, both of which are pro-government."

In recent months the government has taken an advisory role when it comes to the media, courting newsroom editors with fancy lunches over how to shape their editorial, especially when it comes to the Kurdish story. A photo opportunity showed up to 30 editors from Turkey's leading publications and TV stations sitting down to lunch with the PM in November last year. This does make one wonder, what on earth did these media chiefs think they were doing?

Aljazeera Turk plans to launch this year, and the question many newsrooms in Turkey are asking is; how this leading broadcaster will cover the Kurdish issue. Presently, most, if not all, media describe pro-Kurdish PKK fighters as terrorists, inline with official doctrine. Prime Minister Erdogan has personally chastised Reuters for choosing the word rebel. So, will Aljazeera be able to break the stranglehold the government currently holds over this story and bring a different dimension to the issue promoting dialogue rather than military action coupled with increased natioanlist sentiment? And if they do, what will be the consequences over swimming against the Erdogan tide?

Ahmet Sik, a colleague and friend, was imprisoned for writing a book about an exiled Islamic scholar, who lives in Pennsylvania, and who is believed to assert influence over the police force in Turkey. In the week after his arrest the book titled 'The Imam's Army' was downloaded hundreds of thousands of times from Twitter - a clear demonstration that Turks will not be told what to read or listen to, although internet filters came into effect in August last year.

Imprisoned for almost a year, Ahmet is accused of being part of a terror network that is allegedly working to bring down the government. Ironically, it was while working at the investigative Nokta journal, that an alleged military plot against Erdogan's government came to light. Sadly Nokta no longer exists, closed down by the authorities, but the diaries of a naval colonel published in the journal are evidence in the trial.

In an Istanbul courtroom earlier this week, a former police chief who is being questioned alongside Ahmet, admitted to an audience of laughter that he had been instructed to follow journalists in the past. Wire-tapping is a well-known tactic by officialdom in Turkey in such cases. As a journalist one only needs utter the words 'teror orgutu' (terror organisation) to hear the click and scratch of the tap kicking in.

Erdogan is widely known for launching slander cases against anyone who criticises him, although he did promise last year to drop the hundreds of open cases. However, the widely circulated Hurriyet daily, reported in December, an Ankara prosecutor launched a case against a youth who had 'insulted Erdogan' on Facebook. What does that tell us about Internet monitoring? It seems these tactics are still at play. Turkey's popular prime minister has opened cases against journalists, authors, cartoonists and student theatre groups for criticising his rule.

So, how will this end? Over 50% of the public voted YES for his policies, giving him a third term in power. With political interests often crossing over into private media ownership - the mayor of Ankara has his own TV station, Beyaz TV - it's difficult to see how this trend can be reversed. Journalists practise many layers of self-censorship in Turkey just to remain employable. In this abstract media landscape, it must be confusing to know who is telling the truth, although Twitter and Facebook are highly popular and are fast becoming the alternative voice.

A colleague expressed her concerns just last week, "I was Tweeting at 1am when I received a call from a ministry employee telling me he understood my concern, but that really there was nothing to worry about." Needless to say she stopped Tweeting for a few days, but it didn't take long for her confidence to return and her Tweets.

As one of the imprisoned journalists said this week, "You can imprison me, but you can't imprison the truth." The government has said it will push reforms to end lengthy detentions, but surely they should be addressing the real problem of Turkey's censorship or face the digital voice of defiance.


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