Press freedom in Turkey has received a blow in the past year, according to a report by a leading press watchdog. The annual report by Reporters Without Borders shows Turkey has slipped 20 places to 122. Experts and press freedom advocates in Turkey believe this embarrassing result coems from the Doğan tax case, the unjust penalties given to the press and the banning of Internet sites such as YouTube
Turkey is performing worse each year as far as freedom of the press is concerned, according to a report released by Reporters Without Borders, or RSF.
The “Press Freedom Index 2009” report released Tuesday shows that, in the past year, Turkey has slipped 20 places, from 102 to 122 among 175 countries.
The world’s leading press watchdog, Reporters Without Borders, or Reporters Sans Frontières, is a Paris-based international non-governmental organization that advocates the freedom of the press.
The index shows that although Europe still holds the top 13 places in the list, with Denmark at the head, countries such as France, Slovakia, and Italy fell eight, 37 and five places respectively.
Journalists in Iran and Israel have had a difficult year. Ranking 172nd, Iran comes just above what RSF called the "infernal trio" of Turkmenistan, North Korea and Eritrea. Israel no longer tops Middle Eastern countries. Listed 93rd, it has dropped 47 places and has been overtaken by Lebanon, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates.
The index also shows the effect U.S. President Barack Obama has had as the United States rose 20 places in the year since he took office. It is now level with Britain in 20th place.
Press freedom in Turkey loosing ground
“Although I have always been skeptical about rankings of all kinds, I believe that the RSF’s worldwide index should be taken as an indicator of how press freedom in Turkey is rapidly losing ground,” said Associate Professor Aslı Tunç, vice dean of the school of communication at Bilgi University. She said, “We were not proud of our previous rankings either, but our latest spot is simply embarrassing and it should be interpreted as a wake-up call for the political establishment.”
“In Turkey, there are numerous articles in the press law, in the criminal code, and the law for combating terrorism that are unsuitable for the freedom of the press,” said Hürriyet columnist Ferai Tınç in an interview with the Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review. Tınç is also the International Press Institute’s, or IPI, Turkish national committee chairperson.
Tınç said reporters were subject to harsh penalties for what they write, adding that, “A jail sentence for reporters is not acceptable for democratic countries. No journalist can be sentenced to jail for what he or she writes. Furthermore, monetary fines [given to reporters to penalize them for what they write] are unreasonably high.”
Turkey was among the countries that suffered a big slump. “Two candidates for EU membership also suffered dramatic falls. They were Croatia (78th), which fell 33 places, and Turkey (122nd), which fell 20 places,” read the RSF report.
“Turkey’s big fall was due to a surge in cases of censorship, especially censorship of media that represent minorities (above all the Kurds), and efforts by members of government bodies, the armed forces and the judicial system to maintain their control over coverage of matters of general interest,” the report said.
DMG case a major cause
Tınç believes the Doğan tax fine case, which was also criticized in the recent European Union Progress Report, is an issue that drags Turkey down in terms of press freedom. “The eradication campaign by the [Turkish] government against the Doğan Media Group [or DMG] for the past one year creates an environment that not only threatens the DMG but the whole of [the free Turkish] press,” she said.
Another one to believe the DMG tax fine case has been instrumental in Turkey’s dramatic fall is Tunç. “The colossal tax fine on DMG is a big blow to the free press and it is getting a lot of coverage in the foreign media also because of its connection with the German media group, Axel Springer,” she said.
Tunç added: “In addition to the Prime Minister’s call to boycott DMG newspapers and his escalated verbal attacks on the group, there has come an effective tool to mute the voice of opposition: the tax fine. So this must have been noted as a negative development on the index.”
Internet ban and closings
Other events of the past year have also violated the principles of free press, Tınç said. “Many television channels and newspapers have been given closure penalties in the past one year. YouTube is banned; an Internet ban is a practice that is applied only in countries with autocratic governments that have nothing to do with democracy,” she said, adding that “democratic steps should be taken in terms of press freedom.”
Tunç agrees with Tınç that the Internet bans, as well as the closing of newspapers have also constituted a breach of press freedom and has caused Turkey’s slip. “Turkey keeps blocking a large number of Web sites under law 5651 including YouTube, Daily motion and Google Groups. Also, in the midst of efforts of democratization, daily and weekly newspapers that defend Kurdish rights have been banned for one-month for allegedly promoting the cause of the PKK,” Tunç said. “So this mentality easily puts us in the same league with countries like Kyrgyzstan and Bangladesh in terms of press freedom.”
The RSF compiles the index on the basis of questionnaires completed by hundreds of journalists and media experts around the world. The index reflects press freedom violations that took place between Sept. 1, 2008 and Aug. 31, 2009.