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Yavuz Baydar Headshot

Myths and Facts: 'Imprisoned Journalists' in Turkey

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As Turkey's accession negotiations with the EU enters their seventh year, alarm bells become louder in the domain of freedom of expression and justice being served for those who are put on trial. Concerns are raised also because of the increasing gap between Ankara and Brussels on the reform process, mainly because the latter has lost almost all leverage over the implementation of the Copenhagen Criteria.

While the work on preparing a new constitution -- a key step for meeting the criteria -- has turned into a delicate walk on ice, critical voices with regard to restrictions of free speech and application of detentions as a norm slowly turn into a chorus. All of this must be taken very seriously.

But let me, with the occasional risk of entering a minefield, try to set some of the things straight because in the midst of the loud criticism, facts can be easily -- and often with ill intentions -- mixed with myths. Spades at such times must be called spades in the name of brutal honesty -- perhaps the ultimate virtue of any journalist.

Recently, I have heard more than once that there are "72 jailed journalists" in Turkey, and it places Turkey above China and Iran. Some others put the figure even above 100, in a recent debate at CNNTurk TV channel. At times, it sounded like an auction.

But whenever I asked them further questions about the number, I realized that they had no idea about what and whom they were talking.

Meanwhile, another eyebrow-raiser is the claim, coming from more than one Turkish minister, that "there are no jailed journalists in this country, based on the conduct of journalism." That is also a sheer lie.

So, let me enter the minefield.

There are, at the moment, around 17 journalists in jail in Great Britain, under arrest pending trial, related to the News of the World phone-tapping/hacking scandal. They are accused of breaching the law, as their conduct is under scrutiny through ethical rules as well. But some of them claim no wrongdoing, saying this was journalism in the public interest.

So far, I have not heard any protest from London that "the freedom of the media in GB is in danger'' or that ''journalism is put on trial in our country."

The precedents in the record of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) tell us that there are at least three areas that may restrict freedom of the press: undue intrusion into privacy, praising violence/glorifying terror and hate speech.

Now, let us turn to Turkey.

If such a dramatic rise is noted in "jailed journalist" cases, any journalist in the name of fairness should have been interested to hear "the other side," namely the Ministry of Justice.

The Ministry of Justice claims on its Website that the number given by the Turkish Journalists Union -- 72 -- is wrong. It says that it went through the names and analyzed each and every case. It showed that 63 people on the list were jailed, not 72; 36 of them were indicted, and 18 of them were sentenced. (The rest are still under legal investigation.) The ministry admits that four cases fall under the criticized Anti-Terror Law, and the rest "had nothing to do with the conduct of journalism."

I went through the list; 30 of the 36 were either sentenced or indicted for either membership in the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) (a big majority), or illegal leftist groups such as the Turkish Workers' and Peasants' Liberation Army (TIKKO) or the Marxist-Leninist Communist Party (MLKP) or aiding/abetting these. The remaining six are accused of being members of Ergenekon, the alleged illegal terror network. (Nedim Şener and Ahmet Şık are not mentioned on that list.)

If we are to take into some consideration European Court precedents, then we have to take a case-by-case approach. Then it becomes clear that we are not facing a full list of victimized journalists (simply because some have been linked with cases of praising openly or participating in violence), but it is also clear that many of those cases fall within the ambiguity of the Anti-Terror Law, which in the present form is wide open to abuses of power.

Hate speech, as noted by the Progress Report 2011 of the European Union on Turkey, is not criminalized in law here. If it were, some cases on the list would easily fall into that category. Let it also be known, that many of the accused have to be tested to determine if they have deliberately crossed the fine line between freedom of expression and hate speech or of being on the side of political violence. If the open praise for ETA killings is a case for prosecutors in Spain, the same should apply for those who applaud in print or broadcast violence of the PKK.

So, where is the real problem, then? Where does Turkey in terms of punishing journalists?

One has to be very specific in critique to be credible. The cases of Nedim Şener and Ahmet Şık belong to those, as cases of shame (as symbols for free opinion) for Ankara, as well as some others regarding Kurdish editors and publishers.

Enter Commitee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). NY-based monitoring organization, after meticulous work, sets the record straight. Its annual report 2011 says that the number of journalists simply for doing their job -- journalism -- put in Turkish jails is eight. Six Kurdish journalists and, yes, Nedim Şener and Ahmet Şık. (Certainly eight too many, in a country negotiating for membership with the EU, based on Copenhagen Criteria.)

Thereby, CPJ almost "agrees" with the Reporters Without Borders (RSF), which months earlier had come to the conclusion that the number of jailed journalists in TR was seven.

But, apparently the myth created about Turkey as "hell for press freedom" was so strong. When CPJ's findings led to some rapid objections, CPJ also issued a clarification online, as to why it was eight and not some 70-100, as claimed, which can be found here.

As a journalist and ombudsman who monitored the domain of freedom of expression in Turkey almost three decades, I find the findings of RSF and CPJ most valuable because they distinguish between journalists in jail simply because they did their job, and others (in various professions incl. journalists) who are kept in detention due to various charges (many of them blurred, due to serious problems in the current Anti-Terror Law) in completely unacceptable long terms. They disperse misunderstandings and put an end to myth-making.

Nevertheless, freedom of expression/media will remain a big headache for Turkey. Fırat Barık, a high-school student, is in jail for writing graffiti. Several other university students are in lengthy detentions -- some over 22 months -- for using their right to express opinions and demonstrate. Three of them are under arrest because they protested their jailed friend's case by cutting their hair and sending it to the prison directorate. In other words, Kafkaesque absurdity is on the march again.

But there is no reason at the moment to expect any changes from the government or parliament because tolerance for dissent has never been on the agenda of the elected or the judiciary in Turkey. It is a matter of mentality, which constantly reproduces intolerance for dissent.