Middle East


The Committee to Protect Journalists has named Turkey as the world's leading jailer of journalists - ahead of Iran, China and other authoritarian states. A delegation from the group raised the issue this week with officials in Ankara. The Turks insisted that the scores of journalists who are jailed in their country's prisons have broken criminal laws. But as NPR's Peter Kenyon reports, activists have some reason to hope for reforms leading to greater press freedom.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Halidah Kurt is a successful Istanbul interior designer, but these days she's best known as the partner of Soner Yalcin, the owner of the online news outlet, OdaTV, and one of the sharpest critics of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government. Nearly two years ago, Yalcin and more than a dozen of his employees joined a growing list of incarcerated Turkish journalists. As their trial proceedings dragged on, challenges to the state's case grew and most of the OdaTV journalists were released, pending the trial's conclusion. But Yalcin and two others remain behind bars - 22 months and counting. Kurt gets to visit Yalcin once a week, and she says the three are kept in isolation, away from the other prisoners. But Yalcin is finding plenty of time to read and to write.

HALIDAH KURT: Actually, he's written a book in jail. It's about 600 pages, and he wrote it by hand because no computers or no typewriters are allowed in the prison. And it's called "Samizdat," and it tells about the cases, the latest cases which are taking place in Turkey.

KENYON: Choosing the title "Samizdat," the Soviet-era term for censored material circulated underground by dissidents, seems likely to infuriate the ruling AK Party. It casts this government, with its roots in political Islam, in the same harsh authoritarian light Erdogan often used to portray the secular military-backed governments that once dominated Turkey. The title would also strike a chord with Kati Marton, the journalist and author who led the delegation from the Committee to Protect Journalists to Turkey. Growing up in Soviet-ruled Hungary, Marton saw her journalist parents arrested and jailed for two years on fabricated charges of espionage. She told reporters in Istanbul that Turkey is nothing like a Soviet state, and that's why its record regarding journalists is such a sore point.

KATI MARTON: At this particular time, when Turkey has become an even more important regional and world power, and when Turkey has made so many big steps toward democratization, there is a real problem here, and the problem is that there is a climate of fear and self-censorship among big sections of the media.

KENYON: Marton described her meeting with Turkey's justice minister as tough. The government rejects CPJ's finding that it's holding 61 journalists for doing their job as journalists. Turkey says many of the journalists are facing terrorist-related charges. A statement from the Justice Ministry said, in part: These people are not journalists, but members of terrorist organizations. Do bombings and killing policemen have anything to do with journalism? The problem, according to several analysts, lies with Turkey's sweeping anti-terrorism law and how it's being interpreted. Prosecutors have used the law to bring terrorism-related charges against journalists for such activities as interviewing security officers or gathering documents and information related to the Kurdish independence movement. Turkey's decades-long battle against Kurdish separatist militants has left some 50,000 dead and passions raging on both sides. Analysts also say journalistic practices among some Turkish media leave much to be desired. Marton says no one disputes Turkey's right to deal with security threats, but this widespread media crackdown won't accomplish that.

MARTON: By the way, we understand that Turkey has real security problems. But jailing journalists is not a way to make the country more secure.

KENYON: For now, civil rights advocates are pinning their hopes on a legislative effort to enact judicial reforms that many say could go a long way toward guaranteeing media freedoms here. The government wants a reform package by the end of the year. In the meantime, Halidah Kurt and dozens of other family members of journalists will keep making their weekly visits to Turkish prisons. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul.

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