Has the Committee to Protect Journalists Betrayed Turkey’s Journalists?

Has the Committee to Protect Journalists failed to protect imprisoned journalists in Turkey, asks Oray Egin.

Mustafa Ozer / AFP / Getty Images

On Dec. 8, the New York–based Committee to Protect Journalists released its annual prison census of imprisoned journalists. Turkey, according to the report, was currently imprisoning eight journalists. It did not take long for Turkey’s Minister of Justice Sadullah Ergin to cite this number as justification that “there is no press freedom issue in Turkey.”

The CPJ’s report was somewhat surprising.

Turkey has, in fact, more than 70 journalists sitting in prison on various charges. Just last Tuesday, more than 38 pro-Kurdish activists, many of whom are journalists, were taken into police custody in an ongoing investigation of Kurdish rebels. The latest arrests spread to the mainstream media and include a photographer from Agence France-Press. These journalists have been accused of “having links to a Kurdish separatist group.”

Over the last few years, threats to freedom of the press in Turkey have been noted in talks between officials by both the U.S. State Department and the European Commission. Turkey’s Minister of EU Affairs Egemen Bagis, at a recent press conference in Brussels, responded to critics by repeating the same cliché that journalists are arrested for “other crimes.” Later, he somewhat retreated from this statement in Turkish papers by underlining that his official post “obliges him to defend Turkey’s rights.” Yet, just as the erosion of a free press in Turkey is becoming an international issue, it seems that the Turkish government has found an unlikely ally to back its position.

Iran tops the CPJ’s list with 42 journalists, but this number is far lower than the count of other domestic and international organizations. The Istanbul-based Progressive Journalist Association (PJA) currently lists 66 journalists imprisoned in Turkey on its website, while the Turkish Journalists Union counts 72 imprisoned journalists. (Both organizations update their lists to keep up with the ongoing arrests of journalists.) The European Federation of Journalists’ recent release also defies CPJ’s research, reporting “over 70 journalists in jail in Turkey.” In fact, every published list in existence cites far more jailed reporters than CPJ counted in its recent tally. Turkey’s own prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, publicly spoke about 27 arrested journalists in March 2011.

These numbers are from before the latest wave arrests, but it is still doubtful that they would have made the CPJ list. Following last Tuesday’s arrests, CPJ did not update its census, but instead released a statement that “the government must … immediately produce supporting evidence for this alarming, widespread crackdown.” In response to why they listed only eight journalists from Turkey, CPJ’s Executive Director Joel Simon told me via email that “in only eight cases are we confident that the journalists were jailed because of their professional activity.” This statement alone contradicts Simon’s July 2011 letter to Ergin demanding the release of 57 arrested journalists. “I cited [the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s] number of 57 journalists in jail because CPJ had not yet completed its own research,” Simon explained. He did not disclose the details of their research or what criteria they used when compiling their list. He did say, however: “We anticipated that some would be disappointed by our conclusions, and we recognize that other groups and institutions carrying out their own research have reached different conclusions. We can all agree, however, that the press freedom situation in Turkey is grave and getting graver. We have expressed this concern in our public statements and appeals.”

In a blog post, CPJ staffer Mohamed Abdel Dayem, elaborated: “In conducting our research, we traveled to Turkey on a fact-finding mission, interviewed journalists and press freedom defenders, and enlisted the help of a Turkish-speaking researcher. In those cases where we conclude from our research that a government is using fabricated or retaliatory charges to silence critical reporters, we include those journalists in our tally. If we cannot determine that a journalist's work is the basis for his or her imprisonment, we do not include the journalist on the list, but continue to consider new information as it becomes available. Our research is ongoing, including into cases that have been flagged to us again today.”

In a letter condemning the CPJ census, Turkey’s Freedom for Journalists Platform stated that “accepting your figure as the truth would mean agreeing with those who have charged the remaining 56 (in jail for long periods of time, even though the trials of many are yet to start) with terroristic activities.”

Part of the problem is that authoritarian regimes know better than to attribute arrests to matters related to journalism. Instead, other accusations, such as “being a terrorist,” are invented to silence opposition while avoiding charges of tampering with press freedoms. The perfect example is the OdaTV.com case last spring. Thirteen journalists, linked to the opposition website, were arrested in two police raids in February and March on charges of “participating in an armed organization plotting to overthrow the government.” The 134-page indictment was released months later and failed to mention anything about the discovery of any arms caches. Instead, evidence against the reporters largely consisted of aggregated news stories, books, and newsroom discussions. The annexed folders contain wiretapped telephone conversations exposing the private lives of journalists and their friends. Some of these journalists, whose books on counterterrorism topped the bestseller lists for years, were charged with forming the “media leg” of an alleged secret terrorist organization aimed at overthrowing the government, and the indictment explains their crimes: reporting on opposition-slanted news, publishing books, and trying to launch a television channel.

The CPJ’s list obviously caused fury among many Turkish journalists, while the pro-government media is delighted with the census. “CPJ or CHJ (Committee to Harm Journalists)? Especially Turkish journalists who are in jail,” tweeted Haluk Sahin, a former journalist and a professor of media studies in Istanbul Bilgi University. In contrast, Sabah (Daily Express), whose parent company’s CEO is the Turkish prime minister’s son-in-law, reported that CPJ’s census “put an end to the myth of Turkey’s imprisoned journalists.”

On Dec. 26, 13 journalists will stand trial and have a chance to defend themselves for the first time in 10 months. Many of them, having lost faith in the impartiality of Turkey’s judicial system, rely on international pressure for their release. The Committee to Protect Journalists’ census, crushing their morale, has most likely sent shudders through many journalists working under oppressive regimes. With a name like that, the committee cannot afford to hang the world’s journalists out to dry and embolden authoritarian regimes.

Oray Egin is a Turkish journalist based in New York. His latest book was published in April 2011 in Turkey.

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Update 5:15pm: The Committee to Protect Journalists emailed us a response:

The suggestion that the Committee to Protect Journalists is betraying imprisoned Turkish journalists is flawed. Our global annual list of journalists in prison for their work is deemed too low by some. However, CPJ has denounced deplorable restrictions on press freedom in Turkey and has a solid history of standing up for a free press in the country.

The real betrayal is by a government that compromises Turkey’s democracy by utilizing secret evidence and an opaque legal system. In doing so, it keeps groups like CPJ from confirming the real motive behind individual cases as it pursues a policy to pursue and imprison journalists.

Declaring that CPJ’s figure provides cover for Turkey’s repression of the press is incorrect. In a letter to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan today, we noted that CPJ research has confirmed that at least eight journalists have been jailed directly because of their work. This number places Turkey among the world’s worst jailers of journalists, just behind Burma. We also condemn the jailing of every single journalist in Turkey because of pervasive due process violations.

In conducting our research, CPJ applies the same standards regardless of country or region. We are also keenly aware of the fact that states routinely use a wide range of charges to persecute the press. In fact, a large majority of the journalists in prison today for their work, are there on anti-state charges, which include the pervasive use of anti-terror laws in various countries. We have argued this in the past.

Our definition of journalists is inclusive, but CPJ does distinguish between journalism and political activism. Exerting pressure on a government requires certainty and accuracy. Otherwise, claims for justice become easy to dismiss.

In 1996, CPJ determined that Turkey was the world’s leading jailer of journalists, with 78 journalists in prison. At the time, some in the Turkish media deemed this an inflated figure. We ignored the criticism and focused on advocating for the release of these reporters. Our continuous work led CPJ to attend the 2006 trial of five newspaper columnists charged with denigrating the Turkish state in their writings, and we defended them vigorously. In an effort to shed light on the complex challenges faced by Turkish journalists, we undertook a mission earlier this year and reported on the increasingly difficult climate.

We will continue to defend press freedom in Turkey, with ongoing investigations and another mission to the country in 2012.

Gypsy Guillén KaiserAdvocacy and Communications Director Committee to Protect Journalists