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Politics and Media

AKP's rise

The Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, AKP) has been ruling Turkey since 2002. AKP, the founders of which include current President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, identifies itself as a “conservative democrat” party. The party has enjoyed parliamentary hegemony since its first electoral success, forming a single majority government in four elections since then. Although it received the highest number of votes, the AKP briefly lost its majority in the parliament for the first time in the general elections on June 7, 2015 and could not form a parliament. In the repeat election on November 1, 2015, the party regained the number of deputies to form a majority parliament.

Over the 19 years since then, Turkey has become a country where nearly half of the population oppose Erdoğan and the ruling party while the other half are on the side of Erdoğan and the AKP. While the AKP initially had the support of liberals, especially during the 2010 Constitution referendum, there has been growing resentment against the party, reaching its peak during the widespread anti-government protests of May 31, 2013, which came to be known as the Gezi resistance. Demands for a free press were central during the 2013 Gezi protests. The demonstrations named as Gezi protests/events started with the police intervening in the sit-in protest in Gezi Park at Istanbul's Taksim Square against the unlawful construction of Artillery Barracks as part of the Taksim Pedestrianization Project. The calls for media freedom were one of the central points of Gezi Park protests. NTV and Habertürk channels faced protests in front of their doors, with protestors shouting, “How much does it cost to get online?” Penguins became symbols of censorship due to the penguin documentary CNN Türk was airing during and instead of the protests.

According to the BİA Media Monitoring Gezi Journal report, from May 27, 2013, when the Gezi Resistance began, to June 30, 2013, at least 105 journalists, six from the international press, were battered, wounded with tear gas and rubber bullets, prevented from doing their job, had their photos deleted and were subjected to curses and insults by police officers and plain-clothes people presumed to be police officers. They detained at least 28 journalists, five from the international press, and arrested three. Two journalists are in prison.

During the Gezi Resistance, one magazine was closed; two writers, one banner and one series were censored; one channel was back from the brink of being closed. 

Due to the censoring and partial attitude of the mainstream media, at least 12 journalists and one program presenter resigned and three journalists were dismissed. At least 15 professional journalism organizations condemned the targeting of journalists by the police and the censorship of the media during the Gezi Resistance.

22 journalists were dismissed during the protests, 37 were forced to resign. State broadcaster TRT launched “Gezi investigations” into its 15 personnel. The police injured 105 journalists in the first month of Gezi, and took 28 into custody. 3 journalists were jailed, 12 journalists resigned because of their outlets' policies.

In 2015, between two elections, the ongoing peace/resolution process between the government and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) ended.

The AKP, which won 49.9 percent of votes at the 2011 elections, came as the first party at the election on June 7, but its votes declined to about 40 percent. In the election on November 1, 2015, the AKP increased its votes by 20 percent compared to the previous election on June 7. In the presidential elections held on June 24, 2018, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was re-elected the President with 52.6 percent of the total votes. 

The local election held on March 31, 2019 was very significant in the recent political history of Turkey in terms of its results indicating the resurgence of opposition to AKP and the AKP’s loss of control of the Metropolitan Municipalities of Ankara and İstanbul. CHP candidate of “Nation’s Alliance” Ekrem İmamoğlu officially won the election in İstanbul amid allegations of voter fraud. As a result of the objections raised by the AKP and the MHP to İstanbul elections, the Supreme Election Council (YSK) ruled that the local elections should be cancelled and repeat elections should be held in İstanbul.

Eventually, the İstanbul Metropolitan Mayoral election rerun was held on June 23, 2019. The CHP's İmamoğlu received 54.21 percent of votes and Binali Yıldırım from the AKP received 44.99 percent. İmamoğlu from the main opposition CHP has been elected the Metropolitan Mayor of İstanbul again.

Almost four months after the election was held, on August 19, the Interior Ministry announced that the HDP's Metropolitan Mayors of Turkey's southeastern provinces of Diyarbakır (Selçuk Mızraklı) and Mardin (Ahmet Türk) and eastern province of Van (Bedia Özgökçe Ertan) were removed from office despite being elected on the grounds that there was an investigation against them.

The dismissal of three mayors from the Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) was regarded as Erdoğan’s move against democratically elected officials and seen as a violation of Turkey's obligations under international and regional human rights law by HRW in August 2019.

Media in a chokehold and targeted media

In Turkey, major media outlets not only do not/cannot report news free from government pressure but also find themselves in the position of “the government's mouthpiece”. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan monitors both international and national media and journalists very closely; can intervene in media outlets' editorial policies; targets media outlets and journalists, by using their names or not. 

According to the “2020 Justice Statistics” of the Ministry of Justice, in 2020, 31,297 investigations were launched against people as per the Article 299 of the Turkish Penal Code (TCK), the article which regulates the offense of “insulting the President”. While 9,166 of these investigations ended in decisions of non-prosecution, 7,790 of them turned into court cases. Since 2014, when Erdoğan was elected the President for the first time, the number of investigations has become 160,169.

According to BİA Media Monitoring Report published in January 2021, from August 2014, when Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was elected President, to January 1, 2021, at least 63 journalists (including Ali Ergin Demirhan, Onur Emre Yağan and Faruk Arhan) were given prison sentences, deferred prison sentences and judicial fines for “insulting the President” as per the Article 299 of the Turkish Penal Code (TCK).

In 2019, at least 61 journalists were given prison sentences, deferred prison sentences or judicial fines in the lawsuits filed as per the Article no. 299. Only in 2019, at least seven journalists were sentenced to 3 years, 2 months and 26 days in prison and judicial fines of 35 thousand Turkish Lira (TRY) in total. Four journalists were also acquitted in the same period. Journalists such as Ozan Kaplanoğlu from Contemporary Journalists' Association (ÇGD) Bursa Branch and Yavuz Selim Demirağ from daily Yeniçağ even served some time in prison in prosecutions over their statements and opinions about Erdoğan. 

Those who are fighting for media freedom and freedom of expression are opposing the government for not only the court cases filed against journalists and for the jailed journalists, but also for trying and turning the media pro-government.

On July 5, 2019, the Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research (SETA), which has allegedly received significant financing from a group having close connections with the government, published a report entitled “International Media Outlets’ Extensions in Turkey”. The SETA report listed the professional backgrounds and social media posts of journalists working at international media organisations. The report accused these organizations of “carrying out a perception work”. Citing social media posts and retweets of the journalists, the SETA report was seen as “blacklisting” and “targeting” by journalism associations in Turkey.

Coup attempt and the "State of Emergency"

Between July 2016 and July 2018, Turkey had been governed by a state of emergency which was declared five days after the failed coup attempt on July 15, 2016, for which the AKP holds the Gülenist Organization to account, although having shared the power with the same organization between 2002-2013. Turkey has suspended the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), as part of the Convention’s 15th Article. The execution of this Article is still being discussed, in terms of fundamental human rights, especially media freedom and freedom of speech.

On July 19, 2018, the government ended the state of emergency after having extended it for seven three-month periods, with the declaration of 32 statutory decrees in total for two years.

With statutory decrees, 53 newspapers, 37 radio, 34 TVs, 20 magazines, 6 news agencies and 29 printing houses have been shut down and at least 2,500 journalists have become unemployed.

According to an updated State of Emergency report of the Human Rights Joint Platform (IHOP), 134,327 civil servants were definitely dismissed from their positions and public service. Only 3,981 of them (2.9 percent of total) have been reinstated in their positions.

7,508 people in total, 6,081 academics and 1,427 administrative personnel, were fired from universities. Only 185 were sent back to work.

12 Members of the Parliament from the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), including the party's co-chairs, were jailed. The party's co-mayors have been dismissed or imprisoned.

Last two years of journalism in Turkey

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) lists Turkey as 153rd in 2021, 154th in 2020 and 157th out of 180 countries in its 2019 World Press Freedom Index. 

BİA Media Monitoring Report published in January 2021 shows that, in 2020, 23 journalists were sentenced to 103 years, 3 days in prison in total as per the related articles of the Turkish Penal Code (TCK) on charges of “insult”, “membership of an organization”, “aiding the organization as non-members” and “espionage” and as per the related article of the Anti-Terror Law (TMK) on “propagandizing for a terrorist organization” as well as on charges as per the National Intelligence Organization (MİT) Law and the Military Penal Code. In 2019, at least 33 journalists and media workers were sentenced to 63 years, 11 months in prison in total (15 years, 5 months deferred) as part of journalism or political cases and as per the TMK.

According to BİA Media Monitoring Report 2020, at least 48 journalists were taken into custody, six journalists were forced to depose in 2020. While 17 journalists were detained in Pazarkule, Edirne on the grounds that they reported on the refugees who were allowed by Turkey to cross into Europe in early 2020, 12 press workers were taken into custody while covering the first novel coronavirus (Covid-19) cases in the country.

In the last five years, 430 journalists in total were detained while doing their job. While 201 journalists were detained in 2016, when the military coup attempt took place, 85 journalists were detained in 2017, 47 journalists in 2018 and 49 journalists were detained in 2019.

AKP has been receiving intense criticism due to the number of jailed journalists for the last five years. International and national journalism organizations, the European Union (EU), European Parliament, the Council of Europe, Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the United Nations (UN) have been criticizing the government for jailing journalists and violations of media freedom and freedom of speech. The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has convicted Turkey for long detentions of journalists many times.

As part of the solidarity started to bring attention to the pressure faced by Özgür Gündem daily, 56 “guest editor-in-chiefs” worked with the daily between May 3 and August 7, 2016. The daily was shut down by decrees declared under the state of emergency; however, out of the 56 guest editors, 50 faced investigations. 36 of these investigations turned into court cases and the editors are on trial based on claims of “terror propaganda”.

Investigations have been launched against 50 of the 56 Editors-in-Chief on Watch who have participated in the solidarity campaign with Özgür Gündem. In 11 of these cases, the court has ordered not to prosecute and in 38 cases, a lawsuit has been brought. A total of 188 months, 15 days of imprisonment and a fine of 67 thousand TRY were imposed. In these cases, 4 people were acquitted. In this case, Murat Çelikkan, the Co-Director of Hafıza Merkezi (Truth Justice and Memory Center), was sentenced to 1 year, 6 months in prison. After being imprisoned for 68 days, he was released on probation. Journalist Ayşe Düzkan was also sentenced to 18 months in prison and she was released in July 2019. 

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) Representative to Turkey and BİA Media Monitoring Reporter Erol Önderoğlu, writer Ahmet Nesin and Human Rights Foundation of Turkey (TİHV-HRFT) Chair Prof. Dr. Şebnem Korur-Fincancı participated in the "Editors-in-Chief on Watch" campaign launched in solidarity with Özgür Gündem newspaper, which was closed by the Statutory Decree no. 675; then a lawsuit was filed against them for "propagandizing for a terrorist organization." They had 10-days pre-trial detention, then they were released. In July 2019, they were all acquitted by the court. Yet, the court of appeals overturned their acquittals and ruled for their retrial. As of October 2021, the retrial began and the next hearing will be held in February 2022.

In 2016, the indictment of 19 people from the Cumhuriyet newspaper, including executives, writers and other employees, was approved in 2017 for “aiding a terrorist organization as a non-member.” In 2018, the decision of the case was announced. According to the decision announced in April 2018, 15 people were sentenced to 81 years, 45 days of imprisonment in total while three were acquitted. Can Dündar and İlhan Tanır's files were separated. Journalists Akın Atalay, Orhan Erinç, Kadri Gürsel, Güray Öz, Musa Kart, Aydın Engin, Hikmet Çetinkaya, Ahmet Şık, Kemal Güngör, Hakan Kara, Önder Çelik, Ahmet Kemal Aydoğdu, Emre İper, Bülent Utku were convicted and judicial control was granted.

On February 19, 2019, the İstanbul Regional Court of Justice, 3rd Penal Chamber (the court of appeal) upheld the verdict in the Cumhuriyet newspaper’s case. Those who were sentenced to prison for less than five years were Kadri Gürsel, Güray Öz, Musa Kart, Mustafa Kemal Güngör, Emre İper, Önder Çelik, Bülent Utku, Hakan Kara. On April 25, 2019, Musa Kart, Emre İper, Önder Çelik, Mustafa Kemal Güngör, Hakan Kara and Güray Öz were imprisoned for the execution of their sentences. 

After the Court of Cassation ruled that the execution of the prison sentences of former daily Cumhuriyet workers Musa Kart, Güray Öz, M. Kemal Güngör, Hakan Kara and Önder Çelik should be suspended and they should be released from prison, the journalists were released from Kandıra Prison in İzmit on September 12. After the Judicial Reform Package was published in the Official Gazette and has entered into effect, the court has ruled for the release of Emre İper, the former financial affairs officer of daily Cumhuriyet and the last arrested defendant of the Cumhuriyet case.

On November 10, 2020, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) ruled that Turkey violated Article 5/1 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) on the right to liberty and security and Article 10 on freedom of expression and should pay compensation to the applicants. Murat Sabuncu, the newspaper's editor-in-chief at the time, Akın Atalay, Musa Kart, Önder Çelik, Mustafa Kemal Güngör, Hakan Karasinir, Güray Tekin Öz and Bülent Utku will be paid 16,000 Euro each, according to the decision.

Issue of press card 

On July 10, 2018 the Prime Ministry's Directorate General of Press and Information, which was authorized to issue yellow press cards, was closed and its duties and authorities were handed over to the Presidency’s Directorate of Communications.

As of September 31, 2020, of the 15 thousand 148 press card holders, only 25 percent were women journalists while 75 percent of press card holders were men.

The new Press Cards Regulation published in December 2018 changed accreditation criteria, making state press cards harder to obtain and making it easier to cancel them. The Article 6 of the new regulation, which determines the necessary conditions for journalists to be granted a yellow press card, states that a journalist should not have any conviction on “terror-related charges”.

In December 2018, International Press Institute (IPI) Head of Advocacy Ravi R. Prasad emphasized that the new regulation on press cards indicates another sign of the excessive use of state power to muzzle journalists and silence critical media. 

On April 2, 2021, with the ruling of the Council of State, the Presidential Communications Directorate’s decisions to revoke press cards and permanent press cards and its refusal to renew or grant press cards are now devoid of a legal basis. On April 5, the Press and Publication Department of the Presidential Communications Directorate answered the questions and announced that in the process of transition from the yellow press cards to turquoise press cards, 10,486 applications had been made to renew the press cards. According to the Directorate's answer, the press cards of 1,371 journalists were not renewed despite their applications. The Communications Directorate has indicated that 220 applications are still in evaluation while 1,238 press cards have been cancelled in the last 2 years, namely from December 14, 2018 to December 31, 2020.

However, the Council of State did not fulfill its decision. In June 2021, The Contemporary Journalists' Association (ÇGD) and DİSK Basın-İş filed a lawsuit seeking to stop and cancel the re-execution.

Media ownership key to business 

In 2013, telephone conversations allegedly between media owners, media executives and government officials were leaked. These leaks pointed to a high degree of government/state intervention in the media. According to critical media academics, tenders and various "support" are given to business groups that do not criticize the government.

The Saving Deposit Insurance Fund (TMSF), which manages the banking system of Turkey, has played a major role in changing the large companies within the media sector, by transferring the companies it held to pro-AKP business people.

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