The subject of much debate and conflict between the government and journalism organizations in Turkey, the freshly amended Press Card Regulation makes it virtually impossible for dissenting journalists to obtain press cards
It is sometimes vital for a journalist that people immediately recognize that he or she is there as a journalist, when working in the field. For instance, the “PRESS” mark on journalists working in conflict zones sends out a “Do not touch” message to all parties in conflict. It is an indicator that the journalist is performing a duty for the public. The press card is another such indicator.
That being the case, there is not a single universally accepted system that determines who will issue the press card for whom and under which circumstances. In European countries with a well-established track record of free expression, it is rather customary that press credentials are handed out by impartial professional organizations to those who can prove their engagement in journalistic activities. It should be noted that whether this practice can also cover citizen journalism, whose significance is further emphasized in the ever-changing journalism and media landscape (for example, in the case of the Syrian civil war that broke out after the Arab Spring or the anti-racist demonstrations in the US) remains unclear, given especially that the press card provides a shield of protection for journalists. However, that is the subject of another article.
Overall, it can be argued that the issuing of press cards by impartial media organizations is a widely accepted practice among news industry components such as media outlets, journalists and freedom of expression and press freedom organizations. In Turkey, however, the press card has been issued by the Presidency’s Directorate of Communications after Turkey officially switched from a parliamentary system to presidential system in 2018. We can easily claim that such a practice falls under the “unaccepted” category of practices.
However, professional journalism organizations in Turkey have long been voicing objection not only against the latest amendments to the Press Card Regulation, which this article will address further on, but against practices that have been in use for years.
Özge Yurttaş, secretary-general of the Press and Printing House Workers’ Union of Turkey (DİSK Basın-İş), argues that the fact that a state-affiliated commission has been mandated to issue press cards has been problematic since the beginning. Yurttaş explains that through numerous amendments introduced since 2015, the influence and representation of professional organizations in the press cards commission has been reduced as the structure of the commission was changed by the government. “The conditions for obtaining press cards have been based on arbitrary provisions. The latest amendment is a continuation of this long-term attitude of ‘suppressing the profession of journalism.’”
In a similar fashion, Sibel Güneş, secretary-general of the Turkish Journalists’ Association (TGC), states that the government uses the press card as a censorship tool to control the press and freedom of opinion and expression, adding: “There are more journalists without a press card than there are journalists who hold a press card. So far, the government has canceled the press cards of hundreds of journalists who cover its activities that are not in the public interest.”
A short history of the Press Cards Regulation
Before addressing the failures and corruption of the present system, let’s take a brief look at the history and the current practice of the system:
To whom and by whom the press card would be issued was first regulated by Law No. 231 on the Organization and Duties of Directorate General of Press and Information in 1984.
According to the law, the Press Cards Commission consisted of 13 members, and the Directorate General of Press and Information determined only two members. The remaining members of the commission were elected by Turkish Journalists’ Association, Journalists’ Union of Turkey, Federation of Journalists of Turkey, and the Newspaper Owners Association of Turkey.
To be eligible for the press card, journalists had to work for the media outlets specified in the Press Cards Regulation. Given the current needs, it was all but impossible for freelance journalists or digital journalists to apply for a press card according to this system.
In 2015, the regulation was amended to bring the number of members of the commission to 15. In addition, the structure of the commission was changed so that the Directorate General of Press and Information would elect a total of 5 members. According to the amended regulation, the commission would consist of:
* Two members as representatives of the Directorate General of Press and Information;
* Two members, each from among permanent press card holders and press card holders, respectively, chosen by the Directorate General of Press and Information;
* One member from among the deans of communication faculties across the country chosen by the Directorate General of Press and Information;
* Three members from two professional organizations with the highest number of press card holders;
* Three members from among newspaper owners from across the Anatolia;
* One member from professional organizations with the highest number of members, determined by owners or workers of radio and television organizations;
* One member from professional organizations representing television with the highest number of members;
* Two members from two trade unions with the highest number of members.
Following the amendment to the regulation in 2015, Turkish Journalists’ Association (TGC) and the Journalists’ Union of Turkey (TGS), which had been represented in the commission for years, withdrew from the commission.
This system was eventually abolished by Statutory Decree No. 703 published in the Official Gazette on 9 July 2018. By the Statutory Decree, the duties and mandates of the Directorate General of Press and Information, which was previously under the control of the now-defunct Prime Minister’s Office, were transferred to the Presidency’s Directorate of Communications. The decree added a clause to the regulation that the press cards of journalists would be canceled “if they engaged in conduct contrary to the national security and public order or made a habit of such conduct.”
The Progressive Journalists Association (ÇGD) appealed against the newly introduced articles in the Press Card Regulation with the Council of State, asking the high court to revoke articles in violation of the Constitution and the law and requested a stay of execution. Announcing its judgment on the application in April 2021, the Board of Administrative Law Chambers of the Council of State held that press cards could not be canceled based on the expressions laid out in the regulation as the grounds for cancellation of press cards, such as “engaging in conduct contrary to the national security and public order, or making a habit of such conduct” or “tarnishing the professional dignity of journalism,” which the Board found to be “ambiguous and arbitrary grounds.”
Presidency’s Communications Director Fahrettin Altun took to Twitter to respond to the decision of the Council of State at once, saying: “Some articles of our Press Card Regulation have been revoked by the Council of State. We have immediately started on working to make it better. So long as we are in office, we will keep fighting those who spread ‘terrorism propaganda’ under the guise of ‘journalism.’ Terrorism sympathizers should not rejoice in vain!”
It didn’t take long before Altun’s reaction was reflected in the regulation, as well. With the publication of the new regulation in the Official Gazette on 21 May 2021, the following controversial provisions entered into force:
* In cases where the permanent press card holders engage in acts in a way that tarnishes the professional dignity of the press by means of displaying methods and attitudes that may cast a shadow on the reputation of their titles;
* Create content that promotes violence and terrorism, render the fight against all kinds of organizational crimes ineffective;
* Engage in activities that will incite or encourage crime and render the fight against crime ineffective, the commission can make a decision to cancel their permanent press cards after conducting an examination and evaluation. Cancellation decisions by the commission shall be immediately implemented upon the approval of the President.
* In cases where there occurs a violation of subparagraphs (c), (ç), (d), (e), and (f) of paragraph 1 of Article 6, the permanent press cards of such people shall be canceled by the commission upon the proposal of the Directorate.
Following the latest amendments, ÇGD and DİSK Basın-İş filed a new lawsuit in request for a stay of execution.
Half of 44,000 applications rejected, thousands of press cards canceled
The official responses to certain parliamentary questions in respect of press cards illustrate the current situation in numbers:
* In response to a parliamentary question submitted by People’s Republican Party (CHP) Deputy Ömer Fethi Gürer, Vice President Fuat Oktay announced that a total of 44,417 applications were made for different types of press cards in the last three years, and that 22,202 applications of these were rejected.
* Again, in response to a parliamentary question submitted by CHP Deputy Ömer Fethi Gürer, Vice President Fuat Oktay announced in October 2019 that a total of 3,804 press cards had been canceled, with 863, 927, 590, 709 and 715 press card cancellations in 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018 and the first nine months of 2019, respectively.
* In response to questions regarding the cancellations of press cards while the 2020 budget of the Presidency was being discussed at the Parliament’s Plan and Budget Commission, Vice President Fuat Oktay stated that the press cards of 685 members of the press had been canceled on the grounds that they were “members of or in connection with or adhered to the structures that posed a threat to the national security” in the aftermath of the attempted coup of 15 July 2016.
* In response to a written question by CHP Deputy Gülizar Biçer Karaca, the Presidency’s Directorate of Communications announced in April 2021 that 1,238 press cards were canceled, and that 1,371 press cards were not renewed despite the applications in the last two years.
“Visa for government-approved journalism”
As a result of these moves, the Press Card Regulation, which has always been the subject of much debate and conflict between the government and professional journalism groups and organizations ever since its entry into force, has been reduced to a regulation that makes it virtually impossible for dissenting journalists to obtain press cards, and deprives them of accreditation and personal rights accorded by the card.
Regarding the latest amendments to the regulation, DİSK Basın-İş’s Yurttaş states that the concept of “fighting against terrorism” has been “highly obfuscated and its use gradually expanded to the point that it has become an administrative instrument” in the last decade.
“We don’t even have to call them dissidents; anyone who does not align themselves with the line of the government in any matter is faced with the charge of ‘terrorism’ on the grounds of their social media posts; social lives, or, as we have seen in the Cumhuriyet newspaper trial, the people they have dealings with,” says Yurttaş, adding: “Almost all journalists who don’t work in media outlets close to them can be easily accused by the Justice and Development Party (AKP). The accusations include ‘membership in a terrorist organization,’ ‘committing crimes on behalf of a terrorist organization while not being its member’ and ‘terrorism propaganda.’ The latest amendment to the regulation can be interpreted as the AKP’s use of legal pressure on journalists as an excuse to not grant them with press cards, which have become a visa for government-approved journalism.”
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) expressed similar concerns in a recent public statement: “Pro-government journalists have no trouble obtaining CIB [Presidency’s Directorate of Communications] press cards, even those guilty of hate speech, disinformation or hounding human rights defenders. But in recent years leading critical journalists have had their press cards withdrawn or their renewal requests have gone unanswered.”
Recalling that press cards of many journalists have been canceled, and many applications have been kept “under review” by the Presidency’s Directorate of Communications, TGC’s Güneş states: “The structure that poses as the Press Cards Commission consists of pro-government journalists. To date, we have yet to see this structure exhibit an approach that will protect the rights of independent journalists.”
Güneş stresses that with the recent amendments to the Press Card Regulation “the government continues the tradition of attempting to line up and discipline the profession of journalism,” and adds: “The government wants to decide for itself who will become a journalist. It is incompatible with the principle of legal certainty to make a myriad of amendments to the regulation or to issue a new regulation every time there is a government changeover. It is by no means possible to accept the unlimited arbitrariness granted to the government by the regulation. Holding a press card does not equate to being a journalist. It is also a fact that many a journalist holding press cards nowadays act in violation of the essence of the profession and the principles laid out in the Declaration of Rights and Responsibilities of Journalists of Turkey. The recent revelations regarding the relations between politicians, businesspeople, mobsters and media attest to that.”
“The press card cannot be used to control journalists”
Recalling that the amendment to Article 25 of the regulation facilitates the cancellation of permanent press cards through a unilateral commission review, Güneş notes that “an unlawful practice will once again come into play with this regulation to increase the pressure on journalists in independent media outlets.”
“The press card is not a license for the profession of journalism. The press card cannot be used to control journalists. The government should stop introducing unlawful amendments to the Press Card Regulation and instead comply with the universal principles of journalism,” Güneş says.
Both professional organizations cite the current practices in the allocation of press cards across the world. “The press card is issued by powerful unions across the world,” Güneş says, noting that however, the unionization rate of journalists in Turkey is as low as 7.27 percent.
TGC, TGS and DİSK Basın-İş hand out the International Press Card (IPC) issued by the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) to their members. Even though the IPC is recognized by many official institutions and organizations across the world, its validity in Turkey is arbitrary.
Güneş underlines that press cards should be issued by an independent commission.
Recalling that there are basically two trends in the allocation of press cards across the world, Yurttaş notes the common practices in European countries, and says, “In countries such as the UK, Germany, Italy and Greece, the press cards issued by the trade unions are directly recognized as official press cards. In countries like France and Belgium, commissions of trade unions can issue such a card. In Turkey, on the other hand, the issuance of press cards under the conditions set by none other than the state bring about government control over the profession of journalism.”