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Jailed journalists a sign of declining press freedom in Turkey

Turkey is often held up in the U.S. and Europe as a model of how democracy can work in a Muslim country. But activists say press freedom continues to erode.

February 19, 2012|By J. Michael Kennedy, Los Angeles Times
  • Demonstrators in Istanbul hold placards last month while marking the fifth anniversary of the assassination of ethnic Armenian Turkish journalist Hrant Dink, who was killed by an ultranationalist.
Demonstrators in Istanbul hold placards last month while marking the fifth… (Mustafa Ozer, AFP/Getty…)

Reporting from Istanbul, Turkey — One ofTurkey'sbest known publishers and human rights activists is sitting in prison — again — waiting for a court case that appears to be at a virtual standstill. He is far from alone.

Ragip Zarakolu was arrested in October along with dozens of other people suspected of having links to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party, also known as the PKK.

While he sits in a high-security prison in northwest Turkey, dozens more journalists are in jail around the country on orders of the nation's judicial system. Some say the number of those incarcerated is as high as 100.

"Everything is proceeding in an exceedingly Kafkaesque manner since the start," Zarakolu, 63, wrote in a letter to the Hurriyet Daily News in late December. "If lies pass as the truth, and denials have replaced apologies, then everything is rotten."

Turkey is often held up in the United States and Europe as a model of how democracy can work in a Muslim country. But human rights activists say the arrests of journalists is putting a damper on press freedoms that have been steadily eroding in recent years.

Zarakolu is a veteran of Turks' battle with censorship. He began in the early 1970s by publishing controversial works by Kurdish, Armenian and Greek authors. He was jailed in 1971 for three years on charges of belonging to a communist organization, and was barred from leaving the country until 1991. His office was bombed in 1995, and he has been charged over the years with many violations of censorship laws.

He is not the only prominent journalist arrested in recent months. Others include investigative reporter Nedim Sener, who has been writing about government corruption for 20 years, and Ahmet Sik, who has written about how a cult-like Islamic movement has found its way into the state security forces.

Last month, tens of thousands of people took to the street to remember ethnic Armenian Turkish journalist Hrant Dink, who was gunned down five years ago by an ultranationalist teenager. The number of people who turned out underscored the level of discontent about how the media are treated in Turkey.

"Without belittling the achievements of the government, the roof has fallen in on freedom of expression," said Hurriyet columnist David Judson.

Paris-based Reporters Without Borders recently published its annual press freedom index, which dropped Turkey 10 places to 148th in the world, just behind countries such as Malawi and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

"The unprecedented extension of the range of arrests, the massive phone taps and the contempt shown for the confidentiality of journalists' sources, have helped to reintroduce a climate of intimidation in the media," the organization said.

Last month, noted American author Paul Auster said he would not visit Turkey as long as so many journalists and writers remained behind bars.

The issue goes well beyond the arrest of journalists and writers. Over the last year, hundreds of people, among them politicians and high-ranking members of the military, have been arrested as suspects in a plot to overthrow the government.

The arrest of journalists has drawn the attention of the European Union, which Turkey for years has been trying to join.

"The right of freedom of expression is undermined by the large number of legal cases and investigations against journalists, writers, academics and human rights defenders," Stefan Fule, the commissioner overseeing EU expansion, recently wrote to the president of the European Federation of Journalists. "This leads to self-censorship and, together with undue pressure on the media, raises serious concerns."

Until recently, the response of the Turkish government has generally been to dismiss the criticism. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan characterized it as nothing more than a "smear campaign" to discredit the judicial system.

"We have a situation here that Western intellectuals have never experienced," Erdogan recently told a group of media executives. "In the West, journalists do not take part in coup plots, they do not write books to lay the ground for coups."

Ozgur Ogret, an Istanbul journalist who has written extensively about the crackdown, said much of the problem lies in Turkey's anti-terrorism law, which gives the judiciary a free hand in deciding who might be an enemy of the state. Those jailed can spend months, even years, not knowing what charges have been leveled against them, he said.

Because of Turkey's robust economy and emerging role as a regional leader, Ogret said, the government, has been less inclined to bow to outside pressure.

"They don't think they need support anymore," he said.

But there are signs that Turkey is beginning to take the criticism more seriously. The parliament is scheduled in coming days to take up the question of pretrial detention of journalists. And Erdogan said last month that he would consider dismissing cases against journalists accused of crimes that would have sentences of less than five years.

As for Zarakolu, his lawyers are challenging his detention in a suit filed with the European Court of Human Rights. Meanwhile, he has been able to win one small victory behind bars. At the time of his arrest, his 36-year-old son, Deniz, was also taken into custody on suspicion of having links to the PKK, but he was sent to a different prison. The elder Zarakolu campaigned to be confined in the same prison, and that wish was granted.

Ogret said there are many other journalists with equally compelling stories.

"I can give you dozens of people who would also be a symbol," he said.

Kennedy is a special correspondent.

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