By Elliot Adams
Turkey has a culturally ingrained history of censorship and has long ignored the European Convention of Human Rights, of which it is a signatory, over the imprisoning of many journalists for reporting news concerning Turkish Kurdistan* and other ‘crimes of opinion’.
This has of course attracted sustained criticism, especially in light of Turkey’s continued pursuit of accession to the European Union. For example, the Chartered Institute of Journalists (CIoJ) has sent a protest to the London Turkish ambassador in response to the treatment of Verdat Kursun, former editor of the Kurdish daily newspaper, Azadiya Welat.
Kursun had already served 13 months in prison for publishing articles that mention the PKK – this was seen as both glorifying criminals and “helping and abetting the PKK organisation by spreading propaganda” . He is being prosecuted for 32 additional charges related to the publishing of such articles, the total prison sentence for which would be 525 years.
The newspaper he formerly edited has been temporarily banned in direct opposition to the freedom of the press. Over the past four years, six successive chief editors of the newspaper have either been imprisoned or have had to flee Turkey to avoid arrest.
John Szemerey, chairman of the International Division of the CIoJ, wrote that “it is the function of the media to inform its readers of news, without fear or favour.” He points out that the PKK is seen by many in Turkish Kurdistan as a freedom movement and, though outlawed, still a influential political force. So no Kurdish publication or broadcaster would be credible if it did not report on the activities and policies of the PKK.
Szemerey, who is also the CIoJ’s representative in Brussels, warned the ambassador that Turkey’s lack of a free press and its imprisoning of
journalists will “make it impossible for the countries of the EU to admit Turkey to membership.” As freedom of the media and freedom of speech are both integral to the European Convention of Human Rights.
Such judicial harassment of journalists is facilitated by a range of repressive legislation, mostly imposed by the military junta after its 1980 coup. These have variously banned communist ideas, separatist propaganda, denigration of Turkishness, speech in a language forbidden by law and possible threats to public order – but these can be, and have been, made to fit whatever report or article that has irritated the wrong people.
Under external pressure the government has reworded many of these laws, but only in the most superficial way. For instance, article 301, the law that has perhaps put away the most journalists, has been modified to now punish “denigration of the Turkish nation”, rather than “denigration of Turkishness.” This of course amounts to exactly the same thing in the eyes of prosecutors and writers will continue to be arrested for mentioning historical and socio-political facts that do not portray Turkey or Turkish politicians in the most positive light.
But there is at least one positive development, the established media within Turkey seem to have finally come down in full support of people like Verdat Kursun. The journalist, who has already been sentenced to a total of 166 years in prison, has been awarded a prestigious press freedom prize by the Journalists Association of Turkey. On the same day, Irfan Aktan, editor of the Fortnightly Express, was also awarded a Journalists Association of Turkey prize. Aktan is currently serving a 15 month sentence for reporting on the PKK. Kursun’s father received the award on his son’s behalf, saying “Defend everyone’s right to freedom of thought. Today, unfortunately, this prize is going to prison.”
The drive to censor Turkey’s media is not slowing down, only this July the government adopted new resolutions on TV news broadcasts. One of which told television executives that they had a duty to avoid broadcasting “programmes, interviews or statements that appear to justify terrorist actions or are likely to be interpreted as propaganda on behalf of people … encouraging future attacks.” Something of a implicit threat urging news providers to self-censor and one that the Contemporary Association of Journalists warns is “likely to result in abuses.”
These resolutions, like the legislation that has come before them, are vague and open to interpretation. Combined with current anti-terrorism law, they provide the authorities with yet more powers for arbitrary prosecution of journalists.
But that at least one of the three main journalism organisations in Turkey has weighed in on the side of people like Kursun shows that the majority media is perhaps ready to start pushing back in defence of their colleagues in media that represents minorities like the Kurds.
It’s a obvious truism, but it is the first duty of the media to report the truth. For democracy to function journalists cannot turn a blind eye to organisations the government wishes to pretend don’t exist. Something that is recognised in the European Convention of Human Rights.
Turkey must ensure that it’s media is free to report the truth if it wishes to someday enter the European Union.
But regardless of Turkey’s negotiations with the EU, the only way to treat the people of your nation with the respect and dignity that every human deserves, is by respecting their right to have opinions and an identity that differs to yours. Deny them that and you deny them their humanity.
* It should be noted that Kurdistan is not a nation-state, rather it is a geo-cultural region wherein the Kurds form the majority population, and Kurdish culture, language, and identity have historically been based. Some groups like the PKK campaign for the autonomy of that area (sometimes in armed conflict), but most are pushing merely for recognition and equal rights for Kurdish people within the region.