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A new trend of physically attacking journalists has been emerging in Turkey. The country has already incarcerated of at least 146 members of the media, who are in prison serving sentences or are in pre-trial detention. A number of recent assaults not only illustrate this trend, but suggest approval for it on the part of Turkish authorities.
The first victim of this type of violence was Yavuz Selim Demirağ, a columnist for the Yeni Çağ daily, who was attacked in front of his house in Ankara on May 10 by a group of assailants with baseball bats.
Turkey’s Journalists’ Association (TGC) immediately issued a statement calling for the perpetrators to be brought to justice, and laying blame for the attack on the atmosphere created by the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
“The constant targeting of newspapers and journalists by politicians having difficulty embracing freedom of the press, thought and expression plays a major role in such attacks,” the TGC statement read.
As if to vindicate the statement, the six suspects arrested and taken into custody for the assault on Demirağ were shortly released on the grounds that “Demirağ had not been at risk of death.”
According to Faik Öztrak — a spokesperson for the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) — the suspects’ swift release was a clear indication that they were being protected by Turkish authorities.
On May 15, five days after the attack on Demirağ, İdris Özyol — a columnist for Akdeniz’de Yeni Yüzyıl — was beaten outside the newspaper’s office in Antalya. One of the attackers reportedly served as Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) chairman Talu Bilgili‘s driver. According to Turkey’s Contemporary Journalists’ Association (ÇGD) Bilgili, a close ally of Erdoğan’s, had previously threatened Özyol.
The day after the attack on Özyol, the International Press Institute (IPI), along with 20 other international organizations working on behalf of freedom of expression, sent a joint letter to Erdoğan. It read, in part:
“[W]e would like to request Your Excellency to condemn these attacks in the strongest possible terms and call for the police and justice system to ensure that the perpetrators of these attacks are brought to justice.
“As Turkey is preparing for a much-contested re-run of Istanbul’s mayoral elections, the coming weeks will represent an important test for the country’s democracy, already greatly challenged by the imprisonment of journalists across the country and the restrictions imposed on the country’s news media, which greatly limit journalists’ ability to report freely on issues of public interest. We sincerely hope that, in the coming weeks ahead of the June 23 elections, journalists across the country will be able to disseminate news and information without fear of retaliation. The fairness and credibility of the upcoming elections will greatly depend on voters’ ability to access diverse sources of news and so take an informed decision when casting their ballots. Attacks like those against Demirağ and Özyol, if left unpunished, will have a serious chilling effect on the country’s journalists and further strengthen a climate of fear, which seriously hinders Turkey’s credibility as a democracy…”
On May 21, less than a week after that letter was sent, Ergin Çevik, the editor-in chief of the Güney Haberci news site, was badly beaten in Antalya by three assailants. Those detained in relation with the attack were released on probation.
On May 26, Sabahattin Önkibar, a columnist for the Odatv news site, was beaten while on his way home from work. Önkibar filed a complaint, yet the four suspects who were detained by police were subsequently released.
“As the despicable assault against you has also shown, these incidents targeting the lives of our colleagues doing critical journalism occur in a systematic and pre-planned manner. The methods of assaulters make the impression that they are directed from the same source.
“It is clear that these unacceptable attacks aim to disregard people’s right to obtain information and to frighten, threaten and intimidate those engaging in critical journalism. Although the ones targeting journalists whose duty is to obtain the news and publish them for the public good have to be penalized, those criminals are being released, which is causing an outrage among the press community and the public.
“Our media that has been brought to the point of suffocating due to censorship is subjected to systematic attacks by groups directed from similar sources, which cannot be accepted in any democratic state of law.
“These attacks have targeted journalists, but they also aim to punish people who want to learn the truth.”
The repression of journalists has become routine in Turkey. According to the 2018 Media Monitoring Report by the Bianet News Agency:
“In the last two years, 7 journalists were sentenced to five life sentences and 45 years in prison in total for ‘attempting coup’ and ‘targeting the security of the state’; 64 journalists were sentenced to 480 years and 2 months in prison in total for ‘managing a terrorist organization’, ‘being a member of a terrorist organization’ and ‘aiding a terrorist organization’; 52 journalists were sentenced to prison for 122 years, 6 months and 3 days according to the Anti-Terror Law.
“123 journalists were behind bars due to professional and political activities. 47 journalists were taken into custody, 19 reporters and one media organization were assaulted, 20 journalists, reporters and columnists were convicted of ‘insulting the President’ because of their news stories and criticism. At least 2,950 news stories on the internet were blocked upon the rulings of the Penal Courts of Peace.”
Journalists also face the risk of losing their jobs if the government does not approve of their reporting. According to Bianet, since 2016, hundreds of journalists have been “fired, forced to resign or left unemployed after the programs they prepare, or host were canceled.”
Uzay Bulut, a Turkish journalist, is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at Gatestone Institute.