Turkey - Media Report 2014

Steven M. Ellis
(short parts from report) FULL REPORT: Special Report on Turkey ‘Democracy at Risk’ Author: Steven M. Ellis, IPI Director of Advocacy and Communications

The current state of media freedom in Turkey is the culmination of many factors, some stretching back nearly 100 years, and must be viewed within that context. Turkey – by virtue of its strategically important location straddling Europe and Asia, and its control over the entrance to the Black Sea – has been a major influence in the region for centuries. The modern, secular Republic of Turkey was established in 1923 by nationalist leader Mustafa Kemal Ataturk after his victory in a bloody war of independence from Western powers following the Ottoman Empire’s collapse following World War I.

Efforts to reconcile the state’s secular nature with the religious beliefs of Turkey’s overwhelmingly Muslim population have been a frequent source of tension in the Republic’s history, and the country’s progress towards democracy and a market economy was halting in the decades following Ataturk’s 1938 death. The army saw itself as the guarantor of the Constitution and on many occasions ousted governments that it thought challenged secular values. These included coups in 1960, 1971 and 1980, and the so-called “post-modern coup” of 1997, when military pressure led to the fall of the government of then-Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan of the pro-Islamist Welfare Party

This history is cited as one reason why the current government led by the conservative, centre-right Justice and Development Party (AKP) vigorously supported probes of alleged military coup plots and legal changes allowing prosecution of plotters. It also has led to an ongoing belief in the existence of a so-called “Deep State” made up of elements within the intelligence and security services, the military, the judiciary and other groups. This alleged state-within-a-state is said to work covertly, sometimes through violence or other anti-democratic means, to manipulate the political system and exercise true control in order to uphold secular, nationalist and corporatist interests.

Media Atmosphere

In theory, Turkey’s media scene is vibrant, with a multiplicity of media outlets that present viewpoints across the political spectrum. But despite spirited public debate on some issues, others remain off-limits. Major examples include criticism of Islam and its role in politics, examination of the relationship between media, business and government, and any discussion of allegations stemming from the wide-ranging corruption investigation that erupted in December 2013 and threatened to bring down the AKP or the manner in which that probe was neutralised.

That list previously also included discussion of the “Kurdish question”, loosely referring to Kurds’ struggle for greater cultural and political rights, but more specifically to the 30-year-old campaign of attacks and bombings by the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which the United States, the EU and Turkey label a terrorist organisation. However, this taboo has to a large degree been lifted, especially as Turkey’s government and the PKK in recent years have made ongoing efforts to resolve the conflict.

Despite the many media outlets across Turkey, the media climate, like the political climate, is extremely polarised. Most major media outlets - which is not to say all – fall within one of five broad categories: (i) those directly under the control of the government or business owners aligned with it, (ii) Kemalist or secularist-leaning media outlets that retain a degree of independence despite government pressure, (iii) media outlets from a similar tradition that have effectively been taken hostage or assumed a voluntarily subservient position in the face of government pressure, (iv) media affiliated with the Fethullah Gulen religious movement and (iv) outlets serving Turkey’s Kurdish population.

Political Situation

Turkey’s current head of state is President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, while its government is nominally headed by Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, of the AKP. The party has held a majority in Turkey’s Grand National Assembly since a 2002 general election and currently leads a single-party government, controlling 312 of 550 seats.

The AKP was formed in 2001 by members of other existing parties, including a faction of the shuttered Islamist Virtue Party. The party initially portrayed itself as a pro-Western party, advocating a conservative social agenda and a liberal market economy. Western powers welcomed the party’s ascent, viewing Turkey under AKP rule as a functional pairing of democracy and Islam, a position bolstered by strategic geopolitical concerns that left many western countries reluctant to alienate such a strong regional partner.

In its early years, the AKP publicly favoured Turkish membership in the European Union, but the effort has recently stalled. Moreover, since achieving power, the party has taken a much more arms-length relationship toward the West. In recent years AKP-led governments have shown an increasing willingness to intervene in both economic and in social matters, pushing an increasingly traditional line with respect to the role of women and families, religious education and alcohol consumption, among other issues.

The AKP was led for many years by co-founder Erdogan, who became prime minister in 2003 after a ban on his holding public office was lifted. The ban came in 1998 when he was convicted for “inciting religious hatred” for publicly reciting a martial-themed, pro-Islamic poem, a conviction for which he served four months of a 10-month prison sentence.

Turkey’s presidents have traditionally stayed out of politics and Erdogan stepped down as AKP head following his 2014 victory in the country’s first direct presidential election, a poll that resulted from changes approved in a 2007 constitutional referendum. He was succeeded as prime minister and AKP leader by Davutoglu, the former foreign minister.

However, in practice, and in break with tradition, Erdogan has continued to play a major role on the country’s domestic political stage. The president, who says that he is building a “new Turkey”, has indicated that he wishes to continue to serve the Republic until at least 2023, the centennial of its founding. Reports have also indicated a desire on his part to centralise power in the presidency, creating a unique executive model – a type of super-presidency – that many view as a gambit to end separation of powers in Turkey.

Turkey’s primary opposition party is the Republican Peoples’ Party (CHP), the country’s oldest political party, which holds 125 seats in parliament. The CHP describes itself as “a modern social-democratic party... faithful to founding principles and values of the Republic”. Other major parties include the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), a right-wing party with 52 seats in parliament, and the left-wing People’s Democratic Party (HDP), which in 2014 absorbed the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) and holds 28 seats. Twelve other seats are held by independent deputies, with the final six held, respectively, by deputies from six minor parties.

Prime Minister Erdogan’s First Term (2003 to 2007)

When Erdogan became prime minister, Turkey’s head of state was President Ahmet Necdet Sezer, a staunch secularist, and Erdogan’s ability to control the bureaucracy was limited. A major constraint was the role played by the military, which, although incompatible with democratic principles, nevertheless checked his ability to centralise power. At that time, the main political objective in Turkey was EU membership. This created a broader, common purpose, bringing together liberals, Islamists, the media and social democrats. Erdogan’s government took EU progress reports seriously and made positive democratic reforms in response to the reports’ recommendations.

Journalists have told IPI that they considered this period one of détente. While the media-government relationship was not free of problems, they were “manageable”. Room for debate was expanded and taboos on discussing certain topics, like the “Kurdish question”, were removed. However, momentum toward EU membership was effectively lost by 2008, a development many Turks blame on attitudes held by leaders in France in Germany during the last decade, and on efforts by EU members Greece and Cyprus, the latter particularly with respect to Turkey’s support of the self-declared, breakaway Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.


The atmosphere changed after the AKP won an overwhelming victory in parliamentary elections in 2007. The party secured just short of the two-thirds majority that would allow it to unilaterally amend Turkey’s Constitution without submitting changes to a popular vote, a procedure left over from the military government that took power in the 1980 coup. Erdogan, in his second term as prime minister, became more aggressive, observers say, and worked to undo checks on his power as he took greater control of state institutions.

He was given a freer hand later in 2007 when parliament selected fellow AKP member Abdullah Gul as president. The year also saw the launch of an investigation into the alleged “Ergenekon” plot. Some 250 politicians, military officers and academics, and nearly two dozen journalists, were implicated in the alleged plan to use terrorism to destabilise the AKP-led government and pave the way for another military coup.

This time period also saw Erdogan begin using tax authorities and other government agencies against media to silence criticism of his government. In 2008, Turkey’s Savings and Deposit Insurance Fund (TMSF) seized daily newspaper Sabah and broadcaster ATV from Ciner Holding to cover the company’s debts. The newspaper was one of the largest circulated dailies in the country, and its editor and many columnists were fired. A company headed by Erdogan’s son-in-law later purchased both outlets in a deal subsidised by funding from state banks.

The following year, the government sought 4.8 billion lira (then-approximately €2.3 billion) in back taxes, fines and interest from Dogan Holding, owner of the country’s largest media group. The amount was reportedly greater than the company’s value, and the move was widely viewed as retribution for reports in Dogan-owned newspapers on alleged links between the AKP and a fraud scandal at a Turkish charity in Germany. Courts overturned many of the fines and Dogan settled in 2011, agreeing to pay 1.2 billion lira and selling major newspapers Milliyet and Vatan, and broadcaster Star TV.

This period also saw the imposition of a series of bans on YouTube – including one which would ultimately last two years – on the grounds that the website carried content insulting Ataturk. It also saw the filing of numerous criminal and civil defamation cases by Erdogan against journalists and cartoonists who criticised him; reports at the time estimated that dozens had already been brought since he took first office.

OdaTV Case

The situation worsened following a 2010 referendum in which voters approved constitutional changes pushed by Erdogan that, among other measures, allowed greater government control of the judiciary. In February 2011, authorities launched raids targeting news website OdaTV, which had criticised coup plot investigations. Prosecutors said that documents found on seized computers showed an “operational plan” by defendants to use positions in media or as authors to advance the alleged Ergenekon plot by undercutting public support for the government’s investigation.

The defendants, however, argued that the documents were fabricated, an assertion later supported by independent experts. They also said the case, assigned to a special security court in Istanbul, was a pretext to silence or at least de-legitimise their critiques of the Fethullah Gulen religious movement. The movement, a one-time base of support for Erdogan and the AKP, is named for a Turkish author, educator and Muslim scholar who in 1999 fled to Pennsylvania. Its adherents are alleged to be strongly entrenched within Turkey’s judiciary and police forces.

Erdogan and AKP officials rejected these arguments, publicly maintaining that those targeted, including prominent journalist Ahmet Sik, were supporters of terrorism. Shortly after police raided a publisher’s office to prevent publication of Sik’s then-unreleased book examining the Gulen movement’s influence, Erdogan, in a speech before the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, compared the book to a bomb.

2011 OSCE Report

Based on the OdaTV arrests and others, Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Representative on Freedom of the Media Dunja Mijatovic in April 2011 issued a report finding that Turkey was holding 54 journalists behind bars. However, in parliamentary elections two months later, the AKP again won overwhelmingly, albeit with a smaller majority of seats, and Erdogan began his third term as prime minister.

Following widespread criticism of the deteriorating state of media freedom, an international mission of journalists and media organisations travelled to Istanbul and Ankara in November 2011 to examine allegations that authorities were misusing criminal and anti-terrorism laws to imprison journalists on politically motivated charges brought in retaliation for critical reporting.

Participants included representatives of IPI, Reporters Without Borders (RSF), the German Deutscher Journalisten Verband (DJV), the European Association of Journalists (AEJ) and the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ). Finding that the situation had worsened, they urged members of parliament to work to immediately release all journalists imprisoned in relation to their work and to reform provisions in Turkey’s Anti-Terror Law and Penal Code that had led to most of the detentions.

Instead, Turkish authorities soon detained dozens more journalists in a case targeting the Union of Kurdistan Communities (KCK), an umbrella group the government labelled the “urban wing” of the PKK. The “KCK Press Committee case” involved some 44 journalists and press workers who the government said spread propaganda for the group, supporting and, in some cases, engaging in terrorism. Critics noted that the indictment cited many standard journalistic activities, and they asserted that the defendants were targeted because their reporting embarrassed or angered authorities.

Initial Releases

As the trial continued, international pressure led in March 2012 to the release of some of the OdaTV defendants, including Sik and investigative journalist Nedim Sener. However, less than one month later, Mijatovic in a follow-up report found that 95 journalists were now behind bars. The report highlighted “exceptionally long prison sentences” given to convicted journalists and Mijatovic urged the government to reform broad, vague provisions in Turkey’s criminal and anti-terror laws.

Parliament made some changes that summer in its “Third Judicial Package” allowing the release of some journalists, eliminating imprisonment as punishment for some offences and abolishing “special courts” in future trials. The package also provided that convictions for crimes committed via media that were punishable by five years in prison or less could be suspended and thrown out.

But it placed a “Sword of Damocles” over those journalists, requiring them to avoid convictions for similar crimes for three years. Those who failed to do so risked a return to prison to serve out their original sentences, plus the new one, and the measure did nothing to address the situation of most imprisoned journalists, who faced charges under vague criminal and anti-terror laws.

In September 2012, representatives of IPI and the EFJ visited Istanbul to observe ongoing trials of journalists. They found that the country continued to hold some 76 journalists, the vast majority on what appeared to be politically motivated, terrorism-related charges stemming from alleged connections to banned left-wing groups, Kurdish separatists or right-wing ultranationalists. Supporters argued that the journalists were targeted, more often than not, in retaliation for exposing alleged wrongdoing.

The representatives concluded that ongoing pressure on independent, critical journalists had led to an ever-growing climate of fear and that the Third Judicial Package failed to make real structural reforms guaranteeing media freedom. They also expressed deep concern over what they said was a lack of fair treatment and due process afforded to journalists and many others in trials that remained in front of special courts.


As dozens of journalists continued to languish in prison, observers saw that the number of cases in which government officials targeted journalists for “insults” continued to mount. They also noted a growing trend whereby AKP officials barred certain journalists from covering events, such as the party’s October 2012 convention in Ankara.

These developments led IPI to organise a three-day international mission in December 2012 led by former IPI Executive Board Chair Peter Preston, a former editor of The Guardian (UK). The mission sought to examine the impact of purported reforms of criminal and anti-terror laws, and to push for an end to prosecutions on charges related to the exercise of journalism and the release of journalists still behind bars.

Preston was joined by fellow former IPI Executive Board Chair Prof. Dr. Carl-Eugen Eberle, former director of legal affairs for German broadcaster ZDF, and IPI Executive Board Member Ravi Narasimhan, editor-in-chief of The Hindu. Other delegates included Milton Coleman, senior editor of The Washington Post; Michael Lake, a former European Commission official and former EU Ambassador in Turkey; former IPI Executive Board Member Ismaila Isa, president of the Newspaper Proprietors Association of Nigeria (NPAN); and IPI Executive Director Alison Bethel McKenzie.

Delegates met in Istanbul with publishers, journalists and imprisoned journalists’ families. In meetings in Ankara with officials from the four parties then holding seats in parliament – including then-State Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc (AKP) and CHP Chairman Kemal Kilicdaroglu – they urged lawmakers to enact comprehensive reforms of anti-terror and criminal laws, as well as all other laws used against the media.

The delegates found a pervasive climate of self-censorship, concluding that most journalists imprisoned in Turkey were victims of vague anti-terrorism legislation and a criminal justice system that failed to differentiate between terrorists and journalists who write about the subject. They also observed that trials conducted before special courts relied on thin evidence, often of dubious authenticity, and that reporting on terrorism or terrorist groups was treated as lending support to those causes.

The delegates acknowledged that the Third Judicial Package was a positive step, but they noted that abolishing special courts had no effect in ongoing proceedings. Further, they found that the package encouraged self-censorship by journalists whose convictions for “media crimes” had been suspended.

Citing the 2009 case against Dogan Holding, the delegates finally found that self-censorship related to economic concerns was becoming increasingly problematic, given the growing relationship between media, business and government. They concluded that pressure to suppress critical reports or be fired was growing, noting that when Erdogan singled out columnists for criticism while lecturing parliamentarians, those columnists often lost their jobs. The delegates also faulted Erdogan for his practice of calling together media owners for private meetings.


Unfortunately, media freedom continued to deteriorate. Reforms that Arinc promised the 2012 mission delegates failed to fully materialise, although a “Fourth Judicial Package” drew some distinction, for the purposes of defining “terrorism”, between reporting and endorsing ideas. But by this time, media owners’ continuing economic dependence on government connections, and its impact on journalists, had begun to eclipse use of anti-terror and criminal law as the primary threat to media freedom.

Close behind was the growing use by Erdogan and others of heated, anti-media rhetoric. In March 2013, Erdogan denounced the newspaper Milliyet for publishing minutes from a meeting on Imrali Island between Kurdish parliamentary deputies and imprisoned PKK founder Abdullah Ocalan regarding negotiations to end the group’s ongoing insurgency. Veteran columnist Hasan Cemal, an AKP supporter, was suspended from the paper when he publicly backed the decision to publish the story, and then fired when he declined to withdraw a column on the relationship between media, business and government.

Also fired was Milliyet’s editor. A recording leaked later caught a contemporary conversation between the prime minister and Milliyet proprietor Erdogan Demiroren in which the latter, reduced to tears by the prime minister’s scolding, asked: “Why did I get involved in this business?”

Then, in May 2013, a crack appeared in the AKP’s facade of dominance: protests erupted across Turkey when police brutally cleared demonstrators protesting the planned demolition of Istanbul’s Gezi Park. At least 126 journalists said they were beaten by police, hit by tear gas canisters or rubber bullets, or detained arbitrarily and forced to delete footage. Turkey’s High Council of Radio and Television (RTUK) fined broadcasters that showed live footage of the protests, reasoning that it encouraged violence and harmed “the physical, moral and mental development of children and young people”.

Broadcasters that failed to cover protests live came in for public scorn, most notably CNN Turk. In contrast with its American cousin, which gave the protests live coverage, the broadcaster gave only updates during the initial police action and aired a previously scheduled documentary on penguins. As a result, the birds were widely adopted to symbolise both the protests and traditional media outlets’ inability to resist government pressure to suppress coverage.

Meanwhile, Erdogan publicly accused foreign media outlets such as CNN, the BBC and Reuters of “fabricating news” and “conspiring against Turkey”. He accused easily identifiable reporters – albeit not by name – of treason and conspiring with foreign agents. His supporters took up the chase; in one example, Turkish BBC reporter Selin Girit said she received thousands of threatening messages after Ankara’s mayor mounted a public campaign against her.

Mass Firings

Journalists that dared to criticise the crackdown, or to speak about media owners’ dependence on government, were fired en masse. By August 2013, the Turkish Journalists Union said at least 75 journalists had been forced from their posts or had left since the unrest started. One of the most prominent was daily Sabah ombudsman Yavuz Baydar, fired after he tried to write on the links between media owners and government, and, later, on the significance of protecting editorial freedom from external interference.

During the Second Congress on Freedom for Journalists – held that summer in Istanbul by the Freedom for Journalists Platform, an umbrella organisation of free expression groups – delegates urged the government to take steps to ensure judicial independence, reform anti-press laws and release journalists imprisoned in connection with their work. They also demanded respect for the freedom to unionise and to work safely, including during protests; protection for editorial independence from government pressure; and an end to prosecutions targeting those who merely expressed opinions in social media.

Those calls were not heeded. Within months, nearly two dozen journalists were sentenced to prison terms varying from five years to life in the Ergenekon case. In November, another five journalists were sentenced to life in prison for alleged ties to the Marxist-Leninist Communist Party (MLKP). In the latter case, some defendants, including journalist Fusun Erdogan, had already spent seven years behind bars prior to conviction. Despite some releases, some 60 journalists remained behind bars at the end of 2013.

Meanwhile, Erdogan continued to lodge defamation and insult complaints against his critics, to bar certain media outlets from government events or accompanying him on official travel, and to employ overheated rhetoric against journalists. In December, he told a crowd that daily Taraf reporter Mehmet Baransu committed “sheer treason” by reporting that the government had in 2004 endorsed an “action plan” developed by Turkey’s National Security Council targeting the Gulen movement. Prosecutors would later seek charges carrying up to 52 years in prison for Baransu and his editor.

AKP-Gulen War

The “action plan” disclosure blew the lid off of a long-simmering rift between the movement and the AKP, one that had started to become apparent in 2011 amid speculation that transfers of judges and prosecutors represented an effort to check the movement’s power and mitigate criticism of the AKP over cases targeting journalists. Following the release of Baransu’s report – and revelations of government plans to close private university exam prep schools, a major source of financial and human resources for the movement – the rift quickly developed into outright war.

On Dec. 17, 2013, security officers detained dozens with ties to the AKP in a wide-ranging corruption probe that targeted state officials and members of their families, including four sitting cabinet ministers, as well as businessman and local politicians. When rumours surfaced that a second wave of arrests was imminent, Erdogan initiated a wide-ranging purge of prosecutors and police officers. Authorities also sought a ban on reporting information about the probe, ostensibly to protect the integrity of the investigation, and journalists were banned from entering police stations.

Erdogan publicly accused foreign media, including the Wall Street Journal and the BBC, as well as business lobby groups of being behind turmoil in the country. Despite having rejected claims by journalists in the OdaTV trial and other cases who said they were targeted for criticising the Gulen movement, Erdogan now reversed course, adopting that argument as his own. He suggested the AKP graft probe was based on fabricated evidence, orchestrated by movement adherents mounting a “coup” against his government. The movement had become Erdogan’s new version of Turkey’s ubiquitous “Deep State”.

Wiretapped Recordings

As the probe and the attendant purge roiled Turkey, a stream of recordings of wiretapped conversations was leaked online, including through Twitter and YouTube. Some purported to implicate AKP figures in the scandal, including Erdogan and his son; others ostensibly presented Erdogan contacting media owners and demanding specific changes in news coverage and the firings of employees.

One of the most damning involved a July 2013 conversation between Erdogan and Justice Minister Sadullah Ergin, who was replaced later that year in a cabinet reshuffle amid the graft probe. In the conversation, Erdogan demanded that courts convict Dogan Holding head Aydın Dogan in a pending criminal case and the then-prime minister predicted that “something very serious will happen [to Dogan]”.

In response, AKP lawmakers took some positive steps. In early 2014, they abolished specially-authorised courts, such as the one hearing the OdaTV case. They also moved, in line with a decision by Turkey’s Constitutional Court declaring lengthy pre-trial detention unconstitutional, to reduce the maximum allowable period from 10 to five years. As if by coincidence, numerous journalists who claimed that Gulen-movement-linked prosecutors had fabricated evidence against them were released. Following widespread accusations of a double standard, journalists detained in other cases were released in the following months as well.

But lawmakers in early 2014 also hastily approved a package allowing Turkey’s Telecommunications Directorate (TIB) to block websites and conduct mass surveillance of Internet users, although it was later changed to require a court order to obtain individuals’ traffic data. Another amendment approved later required the TIB, upon blocking a website, to seek court approval within 24 hours and to end the block if that approval was not received within another 48 hours.

Municipal Elections

As embarrassing, wiretapped recordings continued to dribble out – a TIB report revealed that some half a million people had been wiretapped in the preceding two years – the country moved toward municipal elections in late March and authorities put their new power to use. First moving to block Twitter, where numerous corruption allegations were being shared, they then shuttered YouTube following release of a recording in which Turkey’s top intelligence officer and its foreign minister purportedly discussed “false flag” operations that would justify intervention in Syria.

Both bans were later reversed, but only by Turkey’s Constitutional Court. Examining the Twitter ban, the Court said it was “illegal, arbitrary and a serious restriction on the right to obtain information”. Meanwhile, the AKP was victorious in the municipal elections, despite widespread accusations of electoral irregularities and tilted coverage by state broadcaster TRT favouring the party. AKP lawmakers, seeking to protect the secrecy of negotiations with the PKK, then approved a measure threatening journalists who published leaked intelligence materials with up to 10 years in prison and they granted MIT officials immunity for some human rights violations and broad access to private data.

As lawmakers gave the government increased powers, Erdogan continued to attack those who criticised his record. After 301 miners died in May 2014 following an explosion at a mine in Soma, the prime minister attacked columnists who suggested that the tragedy resulted from lax government efforts to ensure workers’ safety. He urged victims’ families to sue journalists, which many reportedly did. Reporters for the BBC and Der Spiegel who interviewed victims’ families were barraged with threats online, leading the Der Spiegel reporter to flee Turkey for his safety.

The following month, when Islamic State group militants seized Turkey’s consulate in Mosul, Iraq, taking 49 people hostage, a Turkish court banned reporting or commentary on the issue. Ostensibly issued to protect national security and the hostages’ well-being, the order continued in force after their release in September.

The ban was only the latest in a string of gag orders against Turkey’s media. Others included a ban on discussing a February 2014 border search of trucks owned by Turkey’s intelligence service that uncovered weapons headed to Syria; a June 2013 ban preventing Taraf from publishing claims that the MIT spied on Turkish businessmen with alleged ties to opposition parties to prevent them from bidding in public tenders; and a May 2013 ban on covering twin bombings in the border town of Reyhanli that killed 46.

President Erdogan

When the AKP announced Erdogan as its candidate in Turkey’s first direct presidential election in August 2014, the party imposed a media accreditation ban on numerous outlets. During the election itself, state broadcaster TRT virtually ignored other candidates.

Erdogan would go on to win, but not without taking more shots at journalists. In one notable episode, during a public rally he labelled The Economist correspondent Amberin Zaman a “nasty woman” and urged her to “know your place”. The remarks followed an interview in which Zaman asked a leader of the political opposition whether Muslim society, by its nature, experienced difficulty in challenging authorities.

The following month, the parliament approved greater Internet surveillance in a package providing that the TIB, not private ISPs, would store users’ traffic data. Lawmakers decided that a court order would be necessary only if the directorate was sending information to a public institution by request. The package also expanded the TIB’s authority to allow it to block websites to “protect national security and public order, as well as to prevent crime", and it gave ISPs just four hours to comply with blocking orders.

Also that month, New York Times reporter Ceylan Yeginsu was the target of verbal abuse by officials and pro-government media, and threats on social media, after the newspaper posted a photo of Erdogan and Davutoglu leaving a mosque next to her story on recruitment efforts in Ankara by the Islamic State group. Although the newspaper later acknowledged that the photograph’s presence could be misconstrued and published a correction, the officials and pro-government media denounced Yeginsu and the Times as “biased”, and the reporter received thousands of threatening messages online.


These developments led IPI and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) to organise another international mission to Turkey. From Sept. 28 to Oct. 2, 2014 members of both groups travelled to Istanbul and Ankara to examine the plight of journalists still in prison, ongoing political and economic pressure on journalists and media outlets, and the rise in bans on discussion of certain topics. Among other issues, the groups also focused on interference in editorial policy; pressure on media owners to rid newsrooms of critical voices; the practical effect of heated, anti-media rhetoric coming from top echelons of power; and the impact of restrictive practices with respect to press accreditation.

IPI Executive Board Chair Galina Sidorova, head of the Foundation for Investigative Journalism - Foundation 19/29 in Russia, led the IPI delegation. She was joined by IPI Executive Board Vice Chair and Miami Herald World Editor John Yearwood, and by IPI Executive Board Members Owais Aslam Ali, chairman of Pakistan Press International (PPI); Ravi Narasimhan, editor-in-chief and director of The Hindu; Tom Hetland, editor of the Stavanger Aftenblad; Toshihiko Uji, an advisor with the Chunichi Shimbun; and Umud Mirzayev, chair of the Azerbaijan-based International Eurasia Press Fund (IEPF).

Yearwood, Ali, Ravi, Hetland and Mirzayev also chair, respectively, IPI national committees in North America, Pakistan, India, Norway and Azerbaijan. Other delegates included Ito Fujitaka, manager of the Nihon Shimbun Kyokai (Japan Newspaper Publishers & Editors Association)’s Technology & Telecommunications Section, and present on behalf of IPI’s Japanese National Committee; journalist Ayaz Nizamioglu of Azerbaijan; Steven M. Ellis, then-IPI senior press freedom adviser; and Oliver Vujovic, secretary general of IPI affiliate the South East Europe Media Organisation (SEEMO).

In meetings and newsroom visits in Istanbul, delegates spoke with journalists from domestic and international print, broadcast and online media outlets and news agencies. The meetings included journalists subjected to harassment or loss of employment after being targeted for criticism by government officials, and those imprisoned in recent years. Delegates met with representatives from traditionally Kemalist and secular media, media affiliated with the Gulen movement, and outlets serving Turkey’s Kurdish population. They also met with academics, media lawyers and representatives of civil society.

Mission organisers sought meetings with the state broadcaster and pro-government media outlets, but those requests were declined. However, delegates travelled to Ankara where they met, respectively, with President Erdogan, Prime Minister Davutoglu and Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag, as well as with Constitutional Court President Judge Hasim Kilic and Judge Zehra Ayla Perktas, and with CHP Chairman Kemal Kilicdaroglu.


In the wake of the mission, as delegates sought to draw conclusions and draft a report of their findings, events in Turkey moved quickly. Within days, the Constitutional Court deemed Parliament’s September 2014 changes to the Internet law unconstitutional. The decision was a positive development, but a singular one. In October, the main opposition party unveiled a report indicating that some 1,863 journalists had lost their jobs during 12 years of AKP rule. The report also found that the number of unionised journalists in Turkey had declined from 21 percent in 2009 to less than five percent in 2014.

Also that month, a court banned coverage of the funerals of three Turkish soldiers killed in the Kurdish city of Yuksekova in an attack that Turkey’s government attributed to the PKK – a claim the group denied. Weeks later, Erdogan, in a thinly veiled swipe at IPI and CPJ, accused international media of waging a “psychological war” against Turkey, and he denounced local media outlets as collaborators in the alleged campaign.

In November, a court granted authorities’ request for a sweeping gag order on coverage of a parliamentary inquiry into corruption accusations against four former cabinet ministers stemming from the 2013 AKP graft probe. By the end of 2014, all prosecutors involved in the probe had been transferred, and the AKP-dominated Parliament soon opted not to send the four former ministers to stand trial, bringing the probe to an end.

Then, in December, one day after Erdogan announced a new campaign against Fethullah Gulen and his supporters, and almost one year to the day after the AKP graft scandal first erupted, authorities raided offices of the Zaman newspaper and the Samanyolu Media Group, both tied to the cleric. Authorities detained editors and others on accusations that they were part of an “armed terror organisation” that had plotted to fabricate evidence against an anti-Gulen group. Soon, Turkey issued an arrest warrant seeking Gulen himself.

Following the January 2015 massacre of eight staffers from French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris, Davutoglu marched there with world leaders in protest of the attacks. One week later, Turkish police raided the printing press of daily Cumhuriyet in Istanbul to prevent the newspaper from distributing an issue printed in solidarity with Charlie Hebdo, and issue authorities feared contained images of the Prophet Mohammed.

Criminal probes were later initiated against media outlets that dared to reprint the cover of Charlie Hebdo’s first, post-attack issue, which contained such an image. Additionally, two Cumhuriyet columnists who included an image of that cover in their columns received a number of death threats.

On March 1, 2015, authorities detained Taraf columnist Mehmet Baransu, who was already facing a possible 52-year prison sentence for his revelations of the government “action plan” targeting Gulenists. This time, Baransu was targeted in connection with his role in the Balyoz (Sledgehammer) affair. Like Ergenekon, the case centred on an alleged plot by elements in the military to use violence to pave the way for yet another coup. Also like Ergenekon, defendants alleged that key evidence of the plot’s existence and their involvement in it was fabricated.

Baransu was instrumental in breaking the story of the plot, having reportedly received a voluminous set of damning materials that he later delivered to prosecutors. In 2012, hundreds of defendants were convicted in the case. Turkey’s Constitutional Court, however, ordered a retrial in 2014, which led to a re-examination of evidence and to experts’ reports confirming claims that evidence was indeed fabricated. For his part, Baransu now stands accused of helping form an illegal organisation, and of publishing, and destroying, classified documents.


Turkey’s press freedom problems are the product of many factors, including the country’s history, legal traditions and current economic situation. The Republic has seen numerous threats to press freedom in its history, notably under military governments installed following coups. However, at present, the primary threat is a growing tendency toward authoritarianism under AKP rule. Despite hopes that the party would protect democratic safeguards and continue moving toward Europe, checks and balances have been weakened and Turkey is perhaps farther away from the EU than at any other time in the last decade.

Further, the state of press freedom in the country appears, again, to have reached a nadir. While a varied media landscape with multiple viewpoints appears to be present, sharing unwelcome information or opinions comes at a high price. Journalists or media outlets that fail to heed red lines face consequences. This is especially true with respect to allegations of government or AKP wrongdoing, regardless of legitimate public interest.

Recent history suggests that those in power in Turkey view the media not as a watchdog of democracy, but a threat that must be controlled. Efforts to do so fall, chiefly, within three broad categories: (i) active efforts by politicians to exploit economic pressure to bend the media to their favour, (ii) the nourishment of a toxic political climate, marked by illiberal, anti-media rhetoric emanating from the highest levels of power and (iii) the manipulation of the legal framework and practices of the judiciary.

The impact is compounded by efforts to expand government control over individuals’ ability to share and receive information online, and by the limited degree to which crimes against journalists in Turkey have been met with accountability.