EU needs to push Turkey on press freedom

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of PLC.

The EU should take a clear position and create more incentives regarding media freedom in Turkey as part of the country's accession negotiations, write Alison Bethel McKenzie and Steven M. Ellis of the International Press Institute in Vienna.

Alison Bethel McKenzie is executive director of the International Press Institute and Steven M. Ellis is IPI's press freedom advisor for Europe and North America.

The Duchess of York, Sarah Ferguson, recently joined an unlikely club – the dozens of people accused crimes in Turkey after having engaged in journalism that irked authorities.

A Turkish court charged Ferguson with violating children’s “privacy” when she went under cover in the country to help British broadcaster ITV film a controversial 2008 documentary on the treatment of children in orphanages. But Ferguson is fortunate.

Unlike numerous media workers and journalists currently detained in Turkey on vague accusations of support for terrorism, she knows exactly what charges she faces. More importantly, the United Kingdom’s decision not to extradite her means she will not languish for months or years in pre-trial detention.

The accusation that Ferguson committed a crime by making society confront the shocking conditions in which orphaned children in Turkey are forced to live is both repugnant and absurd. However, many of the nearly 100 journalists and media workers currently imprisoned in Turkey on accusations that they supported armed terrorist organisations face similar absurdities. (The government admitted in August that 63 journalists were in jail and authorities last month arrested another 36 journalists and media workers following raids targeting a group tied to the militant Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK.)

Investigative journalist and IPI's World Press Freedom Hero Nedim ?ener, for example, is accused of spreading propaganda for a terrorist organisation. His detractors say his questions about the government’s conduct in investigating the so-called Ergenekon plot, in which secularists and ultra-nationalists allegedly planned to use terrorism to overthrow the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP)-led government, were secretly intended to undermine the investigation.

Never mind the fact that the alleged Ergenekon plotters who would be served by such a move represent, in many instances, elements of the same “deep state” within a state who ?ener has accused of complicity in the 2007 murder of his friend, Turkish-Armenian journalist and fellow IPI World Press Freedom Hero Hrant Dink. Or the fact that, despite the Turkish government’s claims that ?ener and other journalists are not being detained for their work, it is unclear how the journalists could have spread propaganda other than through their statements and writings.

Last month, Interior Minister ?dris Naim ?ahin accused “those who fight against those who stand against terrorism” as being part of terrorist organisations themselves, evoking memories of US President George Bush’s 2001 statement: "Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists."

Journalists in Turkey are caught in a Kafkaesque nightmare in which a climate of fear and self-censorship escalates with each raid and arrest. While such a situation is unacceptable anywhere, it is even more so in a democracy that seeks membership in the European Union.

If EU members value the fundamental values to which they have committed themselves, including the right of free expression, they need to link accession to improvements in press freedom. Just as EU members have criticised Hungary over restrictive new media laws that sought to muzzle the press, they must emphatically repeat their concerns over the worsening situation of press freedom in Turkey.

But EU members can do more.

Member states should link economic policies towards Turkey to improvements in press freedom. EU members invest billions of euros in Turkey annually and the country receives hundreds of millions in foreign aid from the EU. Despite a booming economy, Turkey would feel the loss of these and other funds.

The EU should further create and finance an independent body to monitor the cases of arrested journalists and it should send observers to monitor journalists’ trials. 

EU members should also actively support the efforts of the Council of Europe’s secretary-general, Thorbjørn Jagland, who said during a November visit to Ankara: “Turkish courts and prosecutors need to have a better understanding of European standards of what journalists are allowed to write and say without being put in jail.”

Turkish officials reportedly agreed to work with Jagland’s office to reform Turkey’s anti-terror legislation and to accept training for prosecutors on recognising their obligations to safeguard free expression in cases where the right is implicated, both much-needed steps.

If Turkey wishes to continue to serve as a bridge between East and West, it needs to fulfil its obligations as a democracy and to respect the freedom of the press. But the country will only do so if its partners in the West, including the EU, hold Turkey to it.