By: Vanessa Kamberis, Research Associate, HALC
As the international community celebrates World Press Freedom Day, it cannot go without notice that the state of freedom of speech in Turkey is in sharp decline. Since the failed coup attempt this summer, Ankara has engaged in an unprecedented crackdown on dissent. 47,000 people are in prison, over 100,000 public sector employees were summarily dismissed from their posts, and Turkey is now the world’s leading jailer of journalists.
According to a report released by the Council of Europe, 87% of journalists in Turkey feel targeted. 72% percent experience threats from the police, 64% from political groups and 51% admit to self-censorship.
Turkey’s alarming disregard for freedom of speech, a fundamental pillar in any functioning democracy, has drawn attention to President Erdogan’s increasing authoritarianism. The shocking number of journalists languishing in Turkish prisons is met with unanimous condemnation from world leaders, reporters, civic organizations, and NGOs.
The European Union recently warned that Turkey’s EU accession process is dead, citing Erdogan’s crackdown on free speech and dissidents, his ‘Nazi’ jibes at Germany, and a referendum giving him dictatorial powers that lack checks and balances. The European Commission also recently expressed its concerns in its annual report on EU enlargement policy, stating that “there has been a serious backsliding in the past year in the area of freedom of expression.”
NGOs are also hammering Ankara for its behavior, with Amnesty International reporting,
“The severity of the Turkish government’s repression of the media is such that it has been described by some as the ‘death of journalism’.”
Additionally, Johann Bihr, the head of Reporters Without Borders Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk said,
“Turkey’s justice system stops at nothing to keep journalists in detention although they are accused solely in connection with the articles they wrote.”
Optimists and Erdogan supporters claimed that Erdogan’s victory in the Turkish referendum would lead to stability and tone down Ankara’s aggressive behavior. A look at the headlines prove them wrong. Things only seem to be getting worse.
On April 27th, the trial of over 20 journalists resume. They are accused of being directly linked to Gulen and “terrorist organizations.” If found guilty, they could face up to ten years in prison.
Just this week, in yet another attempt to shut down opposition to Erdogan, the Turkish government blocked Wikipedia “over its refusal to delete articles and comments that suggest the country is co-operating with ‘terrorist groups’.”
The world has dedicated a day to highlight honest reporting and freedom of speech. While tomorrow many may forget about World Press Freedom Day, it is our duty to continue to hold regimes, especially NATO allies like Turkey, accountable. Freedom of speech is the cornerstone of democracy, ensuring open debate, criticism, and accountability. Without a healthy and vibrant press, authoritarians like President Erdogan can pursue destabilizing policies that affect not only domestic politics, but their neighbors as well.