Neighbors /All the News the Government Finds Fit to Print

For Turkish journalists, losing your job is the best case scenario. Should they fail to toe the government's, or their owner's line, they could end up in jail for life

The e-mail received by the Turkish journalist, R., who worked at one of the most important newspapers in that country, was short and to the point. "Following a discussion held by the editorial board, it has been decided to do without your services. The announcement is effective immediately."

Turkish newspapers, November 8, 2008

R. is a long-time veteran of the paper, but the "problem" with her is her wicked pen; she has published a number of articles sharply attacking the Erdogan government.

The paper's owner - whose name I have chosen to emit to protect the journalist in question - is not a particularly fervent supporter of the Turkish government. He is a secular businessman who, like other newspaper owners in Turkey, also owns other lucrative projects in the country. Recently he has also shown interest in entering the market for nuclear reactors for the production of electricity that Turkey is planning to build.

In order to win a tender of this kind, he was told, it would be best for his newspapers to stop attacking the government, and the name of the journalist was specifically mentioned as someone who could be a stumbling block in this respect. The owner did not hesitate.

This is not a surprising decision and it merely indicates that journalism is a dangerous profession in Turkey. In the best case scenario, you are dismissed from your job and will have difficulty finding work in another newspaper.

"The custom with us is that you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours," a Turkish journalist who recently visited Israel told me. "You can't even criticize the owner of another paper, even if he is harming the country's economy, because you don't know whether perhaps he and the owner of your newspaper have mutual interests. In 2001, when the big bank crisis occurred in Turkey, the public was amazed that the media did not reveal it in time. The truth is that everyone knew but they did not dare to write about it because some of the bank owners are also newspaper owners and some of the newspaper owners need illegitimate loans from the banks. Those who dared to write something were fired."

It is not only the cross-ownership that endangers journalists in Turkey. The prime minister and the chief of staff also have an effect on the threatening attitude toward the media. In February, for example, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called on the citizens of Turkey not to read newspapers published by one of Turkey's largest media and business tycoons, Aydin Dogan, and he called on newspaper owners to immediately dismiss columnists "who spread mendacious information about the government."

Erdogan's ire was aroused by reports that tied his party to the Turkish group Deniz Fereni (Lighthouse ) that was accused by German investigators of illegally funneling funds to Turkish companies and the ruling Justice and Development Party.

Press in prison

The Turkish chief of staff, General Ilker Basbug, last month called journalists at the Taraf newspaper "traitors" and compared them to the journalists who had criticized the country during its war of independence.

Basbug was furious that the paper had described a clash with the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK ), considered a terrorist organization, in which Turkish soldiers were killed, as a military failure. Among other things, the newspaper accused the army of not preparing the soldiers properly and of not taking steps against an ambush and charged that help had arrived only after 12 hours.

However rebukes and dismissals are merely soft weapons; the normal practice is to jail journalists. According to a report by Info-Turk, a Turkish and European human rights watchdog, there are currently 36 journalists in Turkish jails, and during the first three months of this year, 216 journalists were put on trial mainly for violating the anti-terror act or a widereaching clause in the criminal code that forbids "harming the Turkish nation."

This month, the journalist Irfan Aktan was sentenced to a year and three months imprisonment. His crime was quoting a sentence from a publication of the PKK, and he was found guilty by the court of disseminating propaganda of an illegal organization and encouraging violence.

The journalist said in his defense that he wished to show that the plan for reconciliation with the PKK that the government had announced was likely to fail because the PKK had not yet laid down its arms.

"The public has to get to know this aspect as well," his lawyer stated, but the court was not convinced.

The most difficult situation is that of journalists who write for minority newspapers such as those of the Kurds or Armenians. There is no special need to present the case of the Turkish Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, who was murdered in 2007 in a classic case of harassment - especially since there is no proof that the government was behind his assassination. But there are other examples.

The 7th paragraph of the anti-terror act which forbids "praising a crime or criminals" is aimed at Kurdish journalists. It was on the basis of this clause that Wahdat Kurshun, the former editor of the Kurdish newspaper Azadiya Welat was brought to trial. Had he been found guilty of all the clauses in the charge sheet, Kurshun would have been jailed for 525 years, but in the end he got let-off and was sentenced in May to a mere 166.5 years in prison.

Erdogan's voice was not heard in any of these detentions and arrests. Apparently freedom of expression is not on his agenda. "We will not tolerate anyone causing tension in the country or tension in our economy," he clarified to the newspaper owners.

But who will decide what tension is? Who will decide what harming the Turkish nation is? The court is supposed to interpret the law but it too is not free from political interests.