x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Pushing the envelope of press freedom

Turkey relaxed its rules governing the media to improve its international image, but new court rulings point to a renewed tightening of control.

Urgras Vatandas, managing editor of Evrensel, faces up to a year in jail for publishing the demands of the Kurdish separatist group PKK.
Urgras Vatandas, managing editor of Evrensel, faces up to a year in jail for publishing the demands of the Kurdish separatist group PKK.

ISTANBUL // For a man who is looking at one year in a Turkish prison cell, Ugras Vatandas is remarkably calm. After all, it is not the first time he is facing the courts. Sitting over a glass of tea in a cramped conference room of his newspaper Evrensel last week, Mr Vatandas, the managing editor of the small, left-leaning Istanbul daily, was smiling and shaking his head as he talked about the frequent calls he gets from local prosecutors who want to talk to him about articles in Evrensel that may trigger yet more court cases against the paper.

"We are summoned by the prosecutor regularly," Mr Vatandas said. "On average, there are three investigations a month against us. Some are dropped, but some result in trials." Currently, his newspaper is facing three trials. "They want us to stop publishing the paper." As a country applying for membership in the European Union, Turkey relaxed rules limiting the freedom of expression in recent years. But the EU and observers in Turkey said that progress has not gone far enough and that recent court rulings and government actions are worrying signs of a renewed tightening of control.

"Turkish judges and prosecutors apply a wide interpretation of the provision on 'incitement to violence' or 'public interest', in particular as concerns Kurdish-related issues," the EU said in a report about Turkey's progress as a candidate for membership that was published this month. That interpretation was not in line with decisions of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, which are binding for Turkey, the report said. The approach of the Turkish judiciary "implies, in particular, a lack of differentiation between violent and non-violent opinions".

Late last month, Mr Vatandas, who is only 29, and Ahmet Sami Belek, Evrensel's publisher, were both sentenced to one year in prison by a criminal court in Istanbul for spreading propaganda of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, a Kurdish rebel group that is considered a terrorist organisation by Turkey and much of the international community. The newspapermen were prosecuted under Turkey's anti-terror laws.

Evrensel, or Universal, is appealing against the sentences. But if Turkey's Court of Appeals confirms the verdict, Mr Vatandas and Mr Belek will have to go to jail for publishing a set of seven PKK demands concerning Kurdish autonomy. "Other newspapers published the demands as well," Mr Vatandas said. "They called them 'demands of the separatist terror organisation', and we said 'PKK'. That was all." He said Evrensel saw the sentence against himself and Mr Belek "as a serious blow" to press freedom.

Prison is not the only threat for the media. A total of 19 newspapers were closed temporarily in the past two years, said Ramazan Pekgoz, a board member of the pro-Kurdish Gundem, or Agenda, newspaper, which was shut down six times and is no longer published as a daily but as a weekly under changing names. Another daily, Alternatif, has been shut down three times for a month each since it started life in May, Mr Pekgoz said. Each time the reason given was PKK propaganda.

Shortly before the Istanbul court handed down its ruling in the Evrensel case, another court in the city fined a reporter and two news editors of Hurriyet, Turkey's biggest daily, 100,000 Lira (Dh220,000) for publishing reports from the PKK's headquarters in the Kandil Mountains of northern Iraq. The reports included an interview with Murat Karayilan, a PKK leader, and descriptions of everyday life in the rebel camp. Among other things, Hurriyet reported how PKK rebels watched football matches on television and that there were love affairs between male and female fighters.

As in the trial against Evrensel, the court ruled that Hurriyet had published PKK propaganda. The same argument was behind a verdict in September against journalist Cengiz Kapmaz. He was sentenced to 10 months in jail for publishing an interview with Orhan Dogan, a late Kurdish deputy in Turkey's parliament, in a pro-Kurdish newspaper in 2006. Dogan told Mr Kapmaz in the interview the prison sentence against the PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan could be changed into house arrest.

Mr Kapmaz was sentenced although his lawyer told the court the views expressed in the interview were those of Dogan, not of Mr Kapmaz. Like Mr Vatandas, Mr Kapmaz has lodged an appeal against the verdict. Not only the courts are seen to be tightening the reins. A decision by the office of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, last week to drop seven journalists from the list of reporters whose job it is to write about him and his office triggered accusations that the government wants to stifle free and fair reporting. Reporters of Hurriyet and Evrensel were among those whose special press passes have not been renewed by Mr Erdogan's office.

"This is dictatorship," opposition leader Deniz Baykal said. "This is a fascist understanding." The Turkish Journalists' Trade Union called the decision a sign of "censorship". News reports said at least some of the seven reporters had angered Mr Erdogan by asking difficult questions or by publishing stories that he did not want to see in the press. Joost Lagendijk, a Dutch member of the European Parliament and co-chairman of an EU-Turkish parliamentary group, told the daily Milliyet on Thursday the decision showed that Mr Erdogan's "threshold of tolerating criticism is not high".

In this month's report about Turkey, the EU noted that Turkey had amended article 301 of its penal code, a law that had been used by nationalists in recent years to drag dozens of intellectuals and journalists to court for allegedly "insulting Turkishness". But other articles of the penal code as well as the anti-terror law "have been applied to prosecute and convict those expressing non-violent opinions on Kurdish issues", the report said.

At Evrensel, Mr Vatandas said although reform laws in recent years had introduced the principle that freedom of speech should be limited only in instances where it is used to call for violence, that principle was often ignored in daily life. "There are many charges that are being brought because something has been said, not because of some concrete action." Mr Vatandas said he did not expect any change for the better. "The actions of the government show that," he said. "We don't think that there will be good things happening."

tseibert@thenational.ae