Çakırözer says press freedom has always been problematic in Turkey and the situation hasn’t really changed during the pandemic
Main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) lawmaker Utku Çakırözer, a career journalist, issued a report earlier this month, in which he compiled violations of freedom of expression and the press in Turkey during the Covid-19 pandemic. According to the report, which covers the period between 11 March, when the first coronavirus case in Turkey was officially announced, and 1 May, access to 273 news reports were blocked for allegedly damaging the impression made in the fight against the pandemic; investigations were launched against 30 journalists; 11 journalists were arrested; one journalist was jailed pending trial.
In an exclusive interview, Çakırözer told P24 that press freedom has long been a problematic field in Turkey and that the situation hasn’t improved after the pandemic emerged.
Reminding that about 100,000 prisoners were freed under the early release law, Çakırözer said: “Journalists and politicians continue to remain in prisons for thinking, for writing. Several journalists from both local and national media faced judicial procedures for reporting on the pandemic. Furthermore, the Presidential Communications Directorate, the Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK) and the Press Advertising Agency (BİK), which are essentially government institutions responsible for safeguarding the freedom of the press, enforced interventions targeting the press. For instance, while the presidency and the Banking Regulation and Supervision Agency (BDDK) filed criminal complaints against [Fox TV news anchor] Fatih Portakal over a post he shared on social media, RTÜK imposed a heavy fine on Fox TV. Likewise, numerous other broadcasters, including Halk TV and Tele1 were imposed heavy fines.”
“BİK has been acting like a prosecutor”
Çakırözer said the Press Advertising Agency (BİK), the regulator of publicly funded advertisements in print media and an important source of revenue to sustain the press, started acting like a prosecutor: “For a while now BİK has assumed the role of a prosecutor. BİK has gone in the direction of punishing newspapers by banning public advertisements over reports for which not even a single investigation has been launched. If BİK imposes a public ad ban on a newspaper for six consecutive months, the paper loses its right to publish public ads for a certain period. Right before the pandemic began, Evrensel and BirGün newspapers were about to run out of this six-month period. The agency stopped implementing the ban during the pandemic but they didn’t give up on the administrative fines.”
Noting that during the pandemic, newspaper sales declined by 22 to 60 percent, Çakırözer added: “Instead of working to come up with ways to reunite newspapers with more readers, during the pandemic, BİK continued to assume the role of a prosecutor to bring newspapers into line.”
Çakırözer also reminded that under a new provision introduced with the early release law, newspapers that become “embargoed” after receiving no public ads from BİK for six months in a row will no longer be available in prisons. “This way, BİK has turned into a government body that decides which newspapers will be allowed in prisons and which will not. This is unacceptable,” Çakırözer said.
Gov’t bodies’ pressure intensified
In the same vein as RTÜK and BİK, the Presidential Communications Directorate has been seeking to punish dissident media, Çakırözer said, adding: “This institution’s priority should also be to ensure optimal working conditions for the press during the pandemic, but regretfully the person at the head of this institution too is someone who censors newspapers and who takes the initiative to block access to hundreds of online reports. Journalists are facing criminal investigations on terrorism charges for reporting about him.”
Çakırözer continued: “While the politicized judiciary continues to put pressure on the press through investigations, arrests and trials in the post-pandemic period, the government’s pressure on TV stations and newspapers has also increased. It is a worrying development that these bodies are positioning themselves as the government’s weapon against the press.
“In this model of governance where there is no separation of powers, the judiciary is politicized and has lost impartiality and independence, the press is forced to only write what this one-man rule wants to see written and to turn a blind eye to things it doesn’t. Newspapers, journalists, TV stations that do report about the truth are frowned upon [by authorities] and punished.”
“By purchasing, encouraging the purchase of, and/or shutting down media outlets, the government has already managed to take control of 90 percent or perhaps an even larger portion of the media. Right now the remaining 5 to 10 percent of printed, visual and digital media outlets which are out of their control is being pressurized and censored. The government is seeking to intimidate, silence or shut down these media outlets using both its judiciary and its administrative powers.”
The goal in regulating social media is to scare and intimidate
A bill proposed in the early days of the pandemic by the ruling AKP as part of measures to fight the spread of the pandemic contained a series of obligations concerning social network providers, such as appointing a legal liaison officer in Turkey and storing user data for review by Turkish authorities. However, after public outcry, the provision in question was withdrawn. Days later, on 30 April, government ally MHP proposed a bill aimed at tackling misinformation and fake accounts on social media, proposing that each user log in to social media using their national ID numbers.
About the government and its ally’s attempts at controlling social media, Çakırözer said: “After taking control of at least certain newspapers and television stations, the government realized that people were still getting news from social media; that they were joining forces to organize campaigns; that people can still reveal their dissidence there. The government wants to know about and regulate our Whatsapp correspondences, our conversations on video conference calls, or even conversations between teenagers while they’re playing online video games; and to ban or shut these down when it deems necessary. The draft law has many dimensions. Some provisions proposed in the withdrawn bill are included in this one. In addition, there is the proposal to login to social media with national ID numbers. I do not know how this could be put in practice, but if enforced, this would be the violation of our freedom of thought. Furthermore, the elimination of the privacy of our personal data would also be a downright violation of the Privacy Act. There are 54 million internet users in Turkey. Every one of the 54 million users will connect to the internet with their ID numbers, which would require all the identification data of the citizens of the Republic of Turkey to be shared with private companies that are not under our regulation. Through such a regulation, the government wants to mainly exert control over social media, and if this is not possible, at least to scare, intimidate the citizens.”
“Bill implies complete censorship of freedom of expression”
Çakırözer said if the bill is passed by Parliament, it would be a complete censorship of freedom of expression in Turkey: “This is in no way a modest bill. We are talking about a collective censorship attempt that will affect all areas of our lives. This should be a matter of concern not just for journalists and lawmakers, but for every single individual who uses the social media or just wants Turkey to be a free country that respects the rule of law, a democracy that protects human rights and liberties. We should all be opposing this bill, before it even gets to the parliamentary stage.”