x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Turkish media freedom questioned after more than 60 journalists jailed

Convictions of journalists under Turkey's antiterror laws show the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, 'doesn't react kindly to criticism'. Thomas Seibert reports from Istanbul

ISTANBUL // The jailing of more than 60 journalists and the sprawling business interests of media owners highlight serious concerns about Turkish media freedom, critics say.

"In Turkey, we have a system which is headed in the wrong direction," Anthony Mills, director of communications at the International Press Institute, a non-governmental media freedom watchdog based in Vienna, said yesterday.

"Diversity suffers to the point that there are serious concerns about media freedom."

He said convictions of journalists under Turkey's antiterror laws and pressures on journalists, some of whom were concerned about lawsuits or about losing their jobs, had created "entrenched self-censorship". The government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, "doesn't react kindly to criticism", Mr Mills said.

Sixty-three Turkish journalists are in prison at the moment, according to the European Federation of Journalists. Many of them are accused of being member of terrorist organisations. The government says the journalists are not behind bars because of their work, but because of suspected links to militant groups.

Turkish journalist associations say several dozen of journalists have been fired because of their reporting of the anti-government unrest in June or have resigned in protest against pressure by their employers.

A police operation against protesters in Gezi Park in Istanbul on May 31 triggered nationwide demonstrations and street battles that went on for weeks. Six people were killed and thousands injured in violent clashes.

The Turkish media have also been criticised for failing to cover the protests in greater depth.

Yavuz Baydar, a prominent Turkish journalist, said the reason behind the lack of coverage was the fear of media owners to lose out on government business for critical articles.

Baydar was fired from his post as an independent readers' ombudsman at the pro-government Sabah newspaper last month after he accused Turkish media owners of avoiding serious criticism of the government for fear of falling out of favour in Ankara and losing out in non-media state tenders and other business opportunities.

Some of Turkey's biggest media are part of conglomerates that are also active in the banking, energy, automotive or construction sectors.

"This unholy alliance is very poisonous for our profession, which exists for serving the interests of the public," Baydar said yesterday.

He said the resulting lack of critical reporting was "systemic" and had been highlighted during the Gezi unrest, when major television networks in Turkey played down the protest in their coverage.

Baydar said the government's aim was to "take control of the media as a whole".

The government rejects the criticism and insists that the media are free.

"The state takes measures to ensure press freedom and freedom of information," Bulent Arinc, the government spokesman and a deputy prime minister in charge of media affairs, said last month. He added the government enacted press-freedom laws that were in line with EU standards.

Several commentators at major Turkish newspapers have lost their jobs in recent weeks.

Among them was Can Dundar, a prominent columnist at Milliyet, who said he was dismissed for his anti-government stance during the Gezi protests. Two other Milliyet columnists have been fired as well, and Derya Sazak, the editor, resigned last month.

Writing on his website last month, Dundar said the government had started a "witch hunt" against critics. He said his firing was brought on by government pressure.

"I am not the first, and I will not be the last," he wrote. "We are not just losing our jobs, we are about to lose a whole profession."

tseibert@thenational.ae

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