MFRR report: Journalists in Turkey are faced with trumped-up charges

MFRR documented a record number of press and media freedom violations in Turkey - 136 cases involving 172 persons or media entities.

The Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) publishes the latest edition of the consortium’s monitoring report, compiling and analysing all media freedom violations recorded on Mapping Media Freedom between January and June 2023 in all EU Member States and candidate countries.

In the six-month period, the MFRR partners recorded 575 media freedom violations in European Union Member States and candidate countries, involving 844 individuals or media outlets. 307 of those took place in EU Member States, while 268 occurred in candidate countries.

The current monitoring report offers an overview of the media freedom situation across the EU and candidate countries in the first half of 2023, and it starts with a thematic chapter on the crackdown on independent media in Turkey amidst devastating earthquakes and national elections that took place at the beginning of the year, followed by a chapter on the war in Ukraine and its repercussions on media freedom.

Highlights from the MFRR report in the Turkey chapter are as follows:

The large-scale crackdown on press freedom and systemic repression of independent media in Turkey continued in the aftermath of the devastating February earthquakes and in the run-up to the presidential and parliamentary elections in May.

Within the reporting period, the MFRR documented a record number of press and media freedom violations in the country – 136 cases involving 172 persons or media entities.

Arbitrary arrests and imprisonment as tools of oppression

Legal incidents remained the most common threat to press freedom in Turkey, making up nearly half (44.9%) of the recorded cases. Arbitrary arrests, criminal charges, and convictions were continuously used to intimidate journalists and silence critical and independent reporting.

Accusations of terrorism, “insulting public officials”, “insulting the president” and “openly inciting people to hatred and enmity” were often used in the trumped-up charges against journalists. Turkey remained one of the biggest jailers of journalists in the world. At the time of publishing, 21 journalists were imprisoned.

In April, at least 10 Kurdish journalists were arrested during coordinated dawn raids across Turkey that targeted the homes and offices of 126 people, including journalists, lawyers, rights defenders, political activists, and artists in 21 provinces in relation to anti-terror investigations led by the Diyarbakır Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office.

The raids took place in the run-up to the parliamentary and presidential elections in Turkey, which were held on 14 May, and represented another step in the systematic harassment and intimidation of journalists reporting on issues of public interest, in particular those of Kurdish descent.

On several occasions, journalists, including foreign reporters, were blocked from entering Turkey, or detained while attempting to leave the country.

Journalists covering earthquakes and elections subjected to physical violence

Journalists in Turkey were often subjected to physical violence, especially by private individuals, while covering the elections and earthquake-hit areas. Public officials and their security guards were also behind several physical assaults on journalists.

Instead of protecting press freedom, RTÜK continues targeting free media

Turkey’s government-controlled media regulator, the Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK), continued sanctioning media outlets in a discriminatory manner due to their critical reporting, especially on the earthquakes and elections. The sanctions consisted of monetary fines and temporary bans on TV programmes.

Turkish courts issued access blocking orders on hundreds of news articles and social media posts, and due to the large volume of these violations, not all of them could be recorded on MapMF.

Verbal harassment of reporters covering earthquake aftermath

In the aftermath of the devastating February earthquakes, reporters were repeatedly obstructed from carrying out their work in the disaster areas, most often by the police, but also by private individuals and public authorities. Journalists also faced severe verbal harassment and threats from citizens while reporting from the earthquake zone.

Politicians, pro-government media, and RTÜK publicly discredited, threatened, and intimidated independent news outlets and journalists, especially over their critical reporting of the earthquake aftermath. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan threatened widespread retaliation for spreading “disinformation” about the earthquakes, and RTÜK chairperson Ebubekir Şahin intimidated and targeted journalists and broadcasters covering the disaster on several occasions.

Access to Twitter (X) limited during critical times

Soon after the earthquakes, local sources reported that access to X, formerly known as Twitter, was temporarily blocked by the government. Turkish authorities also arbitrarily denied journalists’ accreditation to the earthquake areas, and later on, multiple reporters were prevented from covering the voting processes in different cities.

Ahead of the national elections in May, X announced that, in compliance with legal requests from Turkey, the platform would limit access to certain content within the country. The specific accounts affected and the specific details of the legal request were not disclosed to the public. Twitter CEO Elon Musk defended the restriction by stating that “the choice is [to] have Twitter throttled in its entirety or limit access to some tweets”.