According to the report, during the first four months of 2021, a total of 213 journalists stood trial; 20 journalists were sentenced to a combined 57 years and 10 months in prison. By the end of April, at least 68 journalists were in prison
Expression Interrupted has published the first of its regular Freedom of Expression and the Press Agenda reports. Compiled using trial monitoring data and information available in open sources, our report covers the free speech agenda in Turkey during the first four months of 2021 with a particular focus on press freedom.
The report asserts that despite President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s pledge that 2021 would be a “year of reform” and the announcement of the government’s Human Rights Action Plan, the dramatic developments that unfolded during the first months of the year proved that expectations of improvement in the area of human rights and democratic rights in Turkey are not likely going to be fulfilled soon.
Noting that the deterioration in press freedom and freedom of expression in Turkey, which particularly worsened in the aftermath of the attempted coup of 2016 and the subsequent declaration of a state of emergency (OHAL), continued unabated in 2021, the report underlines that according to 2020 statistics issued by the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), Turkey ranked first among Council of Europe member states in terms of violations of the right to freedom of expression (enshrined in Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights) in 2020; as well as ranking 153rd among 180 countries in the 2021 World Press Freedom Index compiled annually by Reporters Without Borders (RSF). The report also stresses that the ECtHR’s Osman Kavala and Selahattin Demirtaş judgments, which became final in May 2020 and December 2020, respectively, have yet to be implemented despite numerous calls by the Council of Europe.
Number of imprisoned journalists falls below 70 for the first time in a while, but…
The report’s section focusing on the prosecution of journalists provides detailed information concerning press trials held in the first four months of 2021. The report found that during the said period, the number of imprisoned journalists in Turkey has fallen below 70 for the first time since 2016. According to the Expression Interrupted database, there are currently 68 journalists in prison in Turkey whereas in the beginning of the year, the number was 87. However, the report stresses that the reason behind the declining number of journalists in prison is not due to a lessening of the judicial harassment faced by journalists but rather to the fact that a majority of the journalists who have been released from prison since the beginning of 2021 were released because they have completed the execution of their respective sentences and most of them have remained behind bars for almost five years. Among them were Ahmet Altan, who was released in April based on a decision by the Supreme Court of Appeals after spending 4 years and 7 months in pre-trial detention; and Büşra Erdal, a former courthouse reporter for Zaman daily, who was also released last month after remaining behind bars for 4 years and 8 months, serving a 6-year-and-3-month sentence.
213 journalists stand trial, 20 journalists sentenced to a combined 57 years and 10 months in prison
The report also notes that despite the decrease in the number of imprisoned journalists, there has been no notable decline in the number of journalists facing prosecution in Turkey. According to the report, during the first four months of 2021, a total of 213 journalists and media professionals appeared in court in at least one court case against them. During the same period, at least 107 court cases against journalists were pending while at least 16 journalists faced new indictments against them.
In the trials that concluded during this period, a total of 20 journalists, including Müyesser Yıldız, İsmail Dükel, İnan Kızılkaya, Alican Uludağ and Hakan Aygün, were sentenced to a combined 57 years and 10 months in prison on various charges. The sentences given to former Özgür Gündem editors and executives Eren Keskin, İnan Kızılkaya, Zana (Bilir) Kaya and Kemal Sancılı in the “Özgür Gündem main trial,” which was one of the major press trials that also concluded during this period, amounted to 21 years in total. The trial court argued in its reasoned judgment that there was “a need for a genuine and national outlook on human rights” and that the defendants “used human rights advocacy as a veil.”
The report underlines that at least nine journalists suffered physical attacks in separate incidents during the first four months of 2021, stressing that public statements by politicians openly targeting journalists have been giving rise to serious concern about the safety of journalists in Turkey.
According to the data compiled in the report, at least 20 journalists were taken into custody at least once during the period covered, while at least one journalist was jailed. During the same period, at least 14 journalists were questioned as part of new investigations launched against them.
Public ad embargo on Evrensel and Yeni Asya
Another section in the report focuses on administrative fines and public advertisement bans issued by the Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK) and the Press Advertising Agency (BİK) -- which, under the current government, have transformed into major means of political pressure on opposition and/or independent media outlets.
The report finds that BİK continued to impose public ad bans on newspapers even after the Constitutional Court held in a recent judgment concerning an application filed by the administrators of Korkusuz newspaper that public advertisement bans violate press freedom and freedom of expression.
In addition to new advertisement bans, Evrensel and Yeni Asya newspapers have been unable to receive public ads due to a BİK-imposed restriction on their rights to run public ads since September 2019 and January 2020, respectively. These two newspapers are also facing the likelihood of permanently losing their license to run public ads.
Similarly, RTÜK also primarily targeted opposition media outlets during the first four months of 2021, with Halk TV, TELE1, KRT and FOX TV receiving the majority of administrative fines imposed by RTÜK. The broadcasting watchdog did not impose any broadcast suspension or program suspension penalties during this period.