Journalist, Not Terrorist

Text by Anna Monastyrova – 

Photo source;  Instagram, @nevsinmengu

For decades several journalists in Turkey have been prosecuted as terrorists who are trying to overthrow the existing regime. But the recent “disinformation bill” submitted to the parliament signifies a new approach to the oppression of journalistic freedom of speech. We can’t help but wonder, are independent Turkish media heading for complete extinction?

The original aim of the Anti-Terror Act of Turkey was to prevent any terrorist attacks related to the growing Kurd nationalist movement. But the reality of its’ use? Drastically different. 

The old law was passed in 1991 amidst the chaos of the Gulf War, along with the declaration of martial law in the country. Like in many cases of history, the fear of terroristic violence was used to push a restrictive political agenda.

Due to the very general definitions of terrorist acts, anyone aiming to “weaken…the authority of the State” or to “damage the indivisible unity of the State” can be prosecuted as a terrorist. Unfortunately, that is the case for over 50 Turkish journalists and activists who dared to criticise ruling party politicians or the police. Still, even before dealing with the Terror Laws, Turkish independent media face a lot of issues. For example, the government can tamper with the amount of money they get as state funding or block the advertising possibilities.

Another wave of oppression began after the failed coup in 2016. A violent purge of the Turkish civil service came in response to this attempt, with President Erdoğan warningx his opponents that “they will pay a heavy price for this.” Many people who had nothing to do with the rebel Gülen movement (a former tactical alliance of the AKP that combines nationalistic beliefs of Atatürk with flexible Islamic faith) were nonetheless put on trials. However, the government still needed an excuse.

“So how are you going to solve the issue? Just call them terrorists and put them in jail”. comments Orhan Sener, director of the Academy of the Journalists’ Union of Turkey. “This is their argument: we’re not putting the journalists in prison, we’re putting the terrorists in prison. And if those journalists call themselves terrorists, that’s their problem”.

There are some topics that will inevitably get a journalist in hot water: stories about the Kurdsish activists, corruption of the government party or president Erdoğan’s personal life. But Turkish journalists writing about politics can never be completely safe.

“Sometimes the political environment changes so quickly, that you find yourself in trouble by doing the simplest story.” tells Nevsin Mengu, a prominent Turkish journalist.

Lately, however, the government has been choosing their measures more sofisticately. And there’s a reason for that: according to Mr Orhan, president Erdoğan’s government doesn’t like having a bad reputation. A major breakpoint happened in 2019 when Turkey became the country with the highest number of journalists in prison, around 150, surpassing even China. Today, according to the Press Freedom Index Turkey holds the 149th place. As for the 9th of June 2022, the number of imprisoned journalists is 32, according to the “Free Turkey Journalists” movement.

“Is the situtation better now? Are the media free? No, it’s actually worse, but they just changed the methods!” – comments Mr. Sener. 

Today a journalist would get a three-year sentence without going to jail. However, if for the next five years they would do something similar that the government doesn’t like, their new jail sentence would add up to the old probation sentence. 

“Even me, I can’t even count, I have five, seven different court cases.” shares Nevsin Mengu. “These are called “slaps”. They always file suits against you, they take your time, take your money. And that’s how they silence you.”

But even this situation might just get worse. The “disinformation bill” was submitted to the parliament on May 27th by the governing alliance of Justice and Development Party (AKP) and Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). Together they have the majority of the parliament votes necessary for the bill to pass. 

The new law threatens up to three years of imprisonment to those who are found guilty of deliberately publishing “disinformation and fake news” intended to instigate fear or panic or harm the state. But as Mr. Sener fears, with the current political landscape even a retweet from an opposition politician can lead to big trouble. Moreover, now online newsrooms are subjected to the same restrictions as more traditional media. 

Of course, the bill was met with significant backlash. Understandably, the opposition protested, but the interesting thing is – the ruling party is also not as united in their opinions on the bill as it seems. 

“The bill is so badly written that even their own bureaucrats don’t want to put their signatures on it”. laughs Mr. Sener. “There’s also this feeling that this regime might fall. And then it will not be Erdoğan himself signing it, there will be their signatures. And they might be put on trial, because it’s just a very weird law”.

It appears now as if the whole fate of the media freedom in Turkey now depends on the results of the upcoming presidential elections in 2023. Surely, no one can make any definite predictions of the results. While the dissatisfaction with Erdoğan’s policies grows stronger every day, the opposition remain scattered and unsolidified.

“If the opposition takes over, we might have an optimistic ending.” predicts Nevsin Mengu. “And if this government wins again, I don’t think it would be wise for journalists to remain in Turkey. Realistically, you would not be able to do any story here”.

“Things can always get worse and worse and worse. If they pass this bill, we’ll be in the league with North Korea and Saudi Arabia. Right now we’re in the league with Russia” contemplates Orhan Sener. “If the law passes, I might be put to jail because of it. Isn’t it just the weirdest thing?”