Istanbul, Turkey – Perched on a velvet chair inside Istanbul’s luxurious 1970s-era Marmara hotel, overlooking Taksim Square and Gezi Park, Zeynep Oral lamented the state of Turkey’s media landscape.
“These are the worst times for press freedom in Turkey,” the veteran journalist and president of human rights group Pen Turkey told Al Jazeera.
“At least during the military rule you knew what you could say and not say. They gave you a list with forbidden topics. Today you know nothing,” Oral added. “Any given story can be dangerous for one journalist and safe for another. There’s no standard. It’s a labyrinth.”
While Turkey has enjoyed press freedom “from time to time”, Oral said, the situation now is worse than ever: “During the military regimes, I was questioned by the press prosecutor. I’ve lived through three different military coups. Press freedom was never under such danger as it is now.”
According to the International Federation of Journalists, a total of 21 journalists or media workers – including reporters, columnists, photographers and technical staff – are currently behind bars in Turkey because of their work or political opinions.
“We consider that even a single imprisoned journalist is already too much,” Anthony Bellanger, the federation’s deputy general secretary, told Al Jazeera.
Jailing journalists is just one of the government's strategies to suppress free speech.
In 2013, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) described Turkey as “the world’s biggest prison for journalists”, with an unprecedented 42 journalists and four media workers in jail at the time. By 2015, however, Turkey had climbed from number 154 to 149 on RSF’s World Press Freedom Index, “above all due to the conditional release in 2014 of around 40 journalists who nonetheless continue to face prosecution and may be detained again at any time”.
“Jailing journalists is just one of the government’s strategies to suppress free speech,” Emre Kizilkaya, vice president of the International Press Institute’s Turkish National Committee and managing editor at the English-language Hurriyet Daily News, told Al Jazeera. “Defamation suits and encouraging character assassinations on social media, are tools that sometimes serve the government’s interests even more efficiently.”
Last year, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan launched a lawsuit against cartoonist Musa Kart for caricaturing him. Kart was ultimately acquitted. The president also called the Economist’s Turkey correspondent, Amberin Zaman, a “shameless militant woman disguised under the name of a journalist” during an election rally last year – a comment that sparked international outrage.
Turkey’s Ministry of Justice did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment on the issue of press freedom in the country.
Meanwhile, Ibrahim Altay, ombudsman at the newspaper Sabah, warned that political activists may falsely claim to be journalists.
“Some NGOs claim that more than 10 Turkish journalists are in prison, but the government sources always deny that, and argue that they are in fact activists who have been jailed for crimes such as violence or fraud. In Turkey, it’s difficult to draw a line between activism and journalism [and] it’s almost impossible to find independent journalists or media,” Altay told Al Jazeera. “We have pro- and anti-government media, and everybody takes a side.”
Understanding Turkey’s constantly changing media landscape is tricky, since newspapers and TV stations are typically owned by enigmatic holding companies whose multi-sector business interests often require a submissive attitude towards the government.
Even the Dogan Media Group, which owns newspapers deemed to be anti-government, allowed its news channel CNN Türk to broadcast a documentary about penguins during a brutal police crackdown on Gezi Park protesters two years ago.
“The government’s pressure on TV stations is more direct and intense than on newspapers. For Erdogan, it’s all about winning or losing votes. He knows that 80 percent of Turks watch TV every day,” a senior editor at Dogan Media told Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity.
As Turkey’s climate for public debate deteriorates, foreign journalists who cover taboo subjects also risk being harassed by Turkish police.
In a bizarre episode last year, CNN’s Ivan Watson was forcefully escorted away by police while reporting live from Taksim Square at the first anniversary of the Gezi Park protests after police suggested his press accreditation, issued by the Turkish prime ministry, could have been “counterfeited”.
YouTube and Twitter were also banned for two months in Turkey last year in the wake of a corruption scandal that implicated the families of Erdogan and several ministers. The move was perceived as a serious blow to press freedom in Turkey.
Ready-made news stories fed to editors by media bosses, denouncing individual journalists, denial of accreditation and fines are typical strategies to silence Turkish journalists.
And this past January, Dutch freelance journalist Frederike Geerdink, who lives in southeastern Turkey and has written extensively on the Kurdish issue, was detained by Turkish security forces on charges of spreading “terrorist propaganda”. She faces up to five years in prison if found guilty. The same day she was arrested, according to a report by the Reuters news agency, Erdogan declared: “Nowhere in Europe or in other countries is there media as free as the press in Turkey.”
In ankle-deep snow in Arnavutkoy, seven kilometres up the European side of the Bosphoros, Huffington Post blogger Alparslan Akkus said there are other methods the state uses to silence reporters.
“Ready-made news stories fed to editors by media bosses, denouncing individual journalists, denial of accreditation and fines are typical strategies to silence Turkish journalists,” Akkus said. “A fine is more effective than prison. If you’re jailed you become a public figure, but if you’re fined who cares?”
Akkus said he had been personally targeted in this manner, noting that the Banks Association of Turkey, a professional organisation with the status of a public institution, filed a 250,000 lira ($100,000) lawsuit against him for a 2014 news story he wrote about a draft law that would make bank managers “exempt from penalties over illegal loans”. The story was published in the newspaper Bugun.
Ahmet Abakay, who chairs the Progressive Journalists Association, told Al Jazeera that during AKP rule, more than 2,500 lawsuits have been filed against Turkish journalists, which means some have been sued multiple times. Al Jazeera could not independently verify this figure.
“These lawsuits are not only threats to the journalists who are sued, but [are] a tool to intimidate all Turkish journalists,” Abakay said.
Oral, who writes a regular column for Cumhurriyet, said despite the tense atmosphere, she will continue to cross red lines in her work.
“In military times, I learned how to write between the lines. Now, because there is no logic to what you may or may not write, I don’t care at all,” she said. “Maybe because I’ve reached this age, I’m not afraid. Of course I get upset when I receive threatening emails, but I’m not afraid.”