Turkey experienced one of the world’s sharpest declines in press freedom in 2015, according to democracy watchdog Freedom House’s latest report.
Turkey’s press freedom score plunged six points, surpassed only by Bangladesh, due to a massive ongoing media clampdown.
“The crackdown has been going on for awhile but the intensity is getting worse and worse,” Özgür Öğret, from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), told The Media Line.
In March Öğret realized that he was reporting between three to five press freedom violations per day in the country, and CPJ decided to start publishing long weekly reports dedicated exclusively to Turkey. The organization doesn’t do this for any other country.
“At this point I can say that if it continues or gets worse, there won’t be any media that’s not pro-AKP,” Öğret said. “I believe that’s the goal.” AKP refers to the ruling Justice and Development Party.
On Thursday, Ceyda Karan and Hikmet Çetinkaya, from Turkey’s oldest daily and government critic Cumhuriyet, were sentenced to two years in prison for “insulting religious values” and “openly encouraging hate and enmity.”
The columnists had republished French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo’s cover depicting the Prophet Mohammed with a tear in his eye in their columns after the January 2015 massacre in the magazine’s Paris offices.
Amongst the 1,280 people who had filed criminal complaints against Karan and Çetinkaya were Erdoğan and his children.
“I didn’t commit any crime by republishing an innocent caricature,” Karan told The Media line. “There was nothing offensive in it. It was something merciful after an awful terrorist attack.”
Karan said she’s had a bodyguard since then, and no longer feels safe in Turkey as a journalist, or as an ordinary citizen.
“If you’re not afraid, then you’re stupid,” she said, pointing to not only state suppression, but several recent bombings and militant groups wreaking havoc.
The government has targeted Cumhuriyet since the paper published footage of intelligence services allegedly sending weapons to militants in Syria illegally. The paper’s editor-in-chief Can Dündar and Ankara bureau chief Erdem Gül face possible life imprisonment, charged with espionage and trying to overthrow the government.
“They’re trying to harm us by opening cases against our writers,” Karan said. “We have lots of pressure on us.”
Karan and Çetinkaya, who are not currently in custody, will appeal the cases against them.
“Cumhuriyet remains one of the few independent media organs left in Turkey because it’s run by a foundation,” Öğret said. “It doesn’t belong to a business holding or a political party. Therefore it’s very important, whether you like their reporting or not.”
Öğret says Turkey’s media suppression is getting more and more unpredictable. Before the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), there was harsh censorship, but everybody knew what the red lines were. Now it seems anyone reporting critically of the AKP could be targeted.
“If you asked me two years ago, I would say this is probably a warning, and I don’t think [Karan and Çetinkaya] will spend time in jail. Today, I’m really not sure,” Öğret said.
Kurdish journalists and anyone who covers the insurgency in the southeast face the worst of the government’s suppression.
The pro-Kurdish Dicle News Agency (DİHA) has been one of the hardest hit by the press crackdown, with nine of its reporters currently in custody. Its website was recently blocked by the government for the 35th time since July 2015.
“Dicle News Agency faces an exclusive crackdown,” Öğret said. “[Its] reporters are being harassed in the field, sometimes beaten, insulted, searched, or blocked in other ways by security forces.”
Last October, a plainclothes police officer in Silvan was filmed putting his gun to the head of DİHA journalist Serhat Yüce and threatening to shoot him for covering police operations.
DİHA is often accused of supporting the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), but Öğret says it’s a legitimate news organization. “It’s a legal agency. It pays taxes, it has offices at known addresses,” he said.
DİHA’s Diyarbakır bureau chief Dicle Müftüoğlu told The Media Line that security forces try to block her reporters when they see what agency they’re with, but she refuses to give in to state intimidation.
“We’ll never give up on informing the world about what the people are going through, and we’ll continue despite the pressure,” she said.
Another form of suppression not seen in Turkey before the AKP is the targeting of foreign journalists. Many have been detained and deported in the last year, and several were targeted in April alone.
On April 19, German public television broadcaster ARD’s journalist Volker Schwenk was detained and later deported because of an entry ban.
On April 20, Tural Kerimov, reporter for Russian news website Sputnik was denied entry to the country.
On April 23, Dutch journalist Ebru Umar was taken into custody while on vacation in Turkey for allegedly “insulting” President Erdoğan over Twitter, and was later released but banned from leaving the country.
On the same day Greek photographer Giorgos Moutafis was barred entry.
On April 25, American correspondent David Lepeska, in Turkey for three years, was denied re-entry.
On April 28, Finnish writer Taina Niemela was accused of espionage and links to terrorism after allegedly attending the funeral of a PKK militant, and was deported.
A supporter of the Bugun Newspaper and Kanalturk holds a placard outside its headquarters during a protest in Istanbul against the Turkish government’s crackdown on media outlets on October 27, 2015.