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MLSA holds annual World Press Freedom Day panel

The Media and Law Studies Association (MLSA) hosted its annual World Press Freedom Day panel in collaboration with the German Consulate General on Monday, May 3.

The panel was moderated by journalist Banu Güven and held online due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The keynote speech was delivered by Die Welt Senior Foreign Policy Editor Daniel-Dylan Böhmer, while Consul General Johannes Regenbrecht and MLSA Co-Director lawyer Veysel Ok made the opening remarks.

Panelists The Economist Turkey correspondent Piotr Zalewski, Duvar English Editor-in-Chief Cansu Çamlıbel and DW Turkey correspondent Julia Hahn discussed the challenges of reporting at a time of struggling democracies.

Consulate General Johannes Regenbrecht started by thanking the audience for joining the panel and reminding the history of World Press Freedom Day, which was proclaimed by the UN General Assembly following a Recommendation adopted at the 26th session of UNESCO’s General Conference in 1991.

“It is more relevant than ever, as the number of authoritarian systems are growing and spaces of civil society are shrinking. The pandemic showed how critical free press is for democracy.” Remarking that Turkey ranks 154th in Journalists Without Borders’ (RSF) freedom index, the Consulate General also stated: “The recent social media law enacted in October 2020, the ongoing trials against journalists in Turkey… We should repeat that journalism is not a crime.” Consulate General added the situation is not specific to Turkey, but that the media faces challenges also in other countries, including Germany and other European Union (EU) member states.

MLSA Co-Director lawyer Veysel Ok, began by thanking everyone for joining the event and introducing himself and MLSA: “I am the Co-Director of MLSA and a lawyer myself. Despite challenging conditions MLSA has been advocating for press freedom. Judicial harassment is on the rise in Turkey and we are trying our best to fight against it. More than 100 journalists face trials, and we follow all trials related to journalism and produce information on the issue. We collected robust data on the violation of the right to a fair trial. We established a platform called Free Web Turkey, to monitor and report on censorship cases against internet publishing.”

Following the brief introduction of MLSA, Ok touched upon some of the most pressing issues related to freedom of press in Turkey: “We are having difficulties finding domestic remedies. After the coup attempt, accelerated attempts occurred against freedom of expression and press. 600 journalists have gone in and out of jail. Kurdish intellectuals, journalists and lawyers had always been a target, however after the coup attempt, the judiciary began targeting a wider group, namely all those in dissent. In fact today, even the right to defend journalists does not exist. On that note, I would like to remark that we are thankful to the Consulate General and Federal Republic of Germany, for their immense support.”

“We felt the repressive policies in Turkey when Deniz Yücel was imprisoned”

Die Welt Senior Foreign Policy Editor Daniel-Dylan Böhmer also began by expressing his regards for Consulate General, and thanking MLSA Co-Director Ok for making this event possible which, “is really becoming a tradition in İstanbul, a very good tradition” because, he added: “We Germans ought to care about open discourse, in Turkey particularly. Because the open discourse between Turkey and Germany is really important for us. Additionally freedom of press in Turkey is important for us as a newspaper, as Die Welt newspaper. Also because we felt the repressive policies in Turkey when our own correspondent Deniz Yücel was imprisoned in 2017.”

“With this case, for once, issues of press freedom moved to centre stage in international politics and the case also showed the key importance of the media in the more general struggle between liberal democracy and authoritarianism. I believe this is an international struggle, and this is what I have in mind when I tell you about the German experience. As the Consulate General has just hinted at; we Germans have no reason to look with arrogance at the situation in Turkey, Germany has fallen two ranks in RSF’s press freedom index. In the international struggle for press freedom, journalists and democrats stand together, both in Germany and Turkey. The struggle in Turkey is far tougher than Germany, I certainly cannot make a comparison. It takes far more courage to be a journalist in Turkey than it takes in Germany. But there are some technical and strategic similarities used in attacking journalists and discrediting them. This is why I think we should exchange our experiences.”

“What we are fighting for is the trust and attention of our readers”

“What will be key for the success of our cause is the quality of our work, and through that is how we become credible. This is not only an obligation but also an opportunity, the seemingly sudden increase in demand for quality journalism after the pandemic is a demonstration of this opportunity. Thus, readers do know the difference between propaganda and truth. As we are fighting against important political figures, we have to keep in mind that what we are fighting for is the trust and attention of our readers.”

The panel’s moderator, journalist Banu Güven took the floor to introduce all speakers and touched upon a very recent development in Turkey, namely the Security General Directorate issuing a circular to ban audio and visual recording law enforcement officers on duty. “This is a huge step taken against free speech, especially in a country where there are so many violations of basic rights.”

After the introductions, Güven highlighted the existence of change in the media landscape on a global level, and asked Piotr Zalewski, The Economist’s Turkey correspondent, whether it is possible to draw parallels between Turkey and Eastern and Central Europe. Zalewski said, “In places like Poland, although the situation is quite terrible, it’s not as bad as the situation in Turkey. No journalists are in jail and there’s ample room to criticize the government, especially in private media. There are, though, dozens or perhaps more journalists who cannot return home. The government began putting pressure on private media, and there’s a draft law in Poland to limit advertising in private media, but this has been shelved for the time being.”

“Poland seeks to ‘re-Polonize’ the media and make foreign outlets yerli and milli”

Zalewski also touched upon another similarity: “There is this approach of ‘re-Polonizing the media,’ namely the transfer of media outlets owned by foreign companies to Polish hands in order to make these news outlets more ‘yerli and milli’ in Turkish terms.”

Remarking the non-coverage of Turkey’s second biggest opposition party in parliament, HDP, the panelist stated: “HDP has never appeared on national media because they’re subject to a blanket censorship. This creates a shadow play, because many journalists can either criticize the central bank or how the government has dealt with COVID-19 pandemic, but in the end they refrain from criticizing the man who’s running the show, and that is President Erdoğan.”

“Berat Albayrak’s resignation was one of the biggest stories in 2020, news channels sat on it”

“When Berat Albayrak, finance minister, Erdoğan’s son-in-law and arguably second most powerful man in Turkey, resigned suddenly it was one of the biggest stories in 2020 and what happens is all Turkish news channels sit on it for more than 24 hours and wait for the administration to shape a narrative.”

On the issue of being a foreign journalist in Turkey, Zalewski said he will start by stating the obvious: “The problems foreign journalists are remarkably petty compared to problems faced by our Turkish or Kurdish colleagues, or any journalist who is reporting from the South East region.”

“Our freedom is rarely at stake and neither is our livelihood. This doesn’t apply to Turkish journalists. The accreditation system for foreign journalists has been something of a headache but over the past year or two it has been working better than it did before.”

“Presidential Palace has a decisive say on interview requests made to public institutions”

On that note, the panelist also shared his own experience regarding the new constitutional set-up, namely the concentration of power at the Presidential Palace: “I’ve applied for interviews to a number of institutions over the past years and the answers I receive are increasingly negative. I think there’s a general assumption that the presidential palace has a decisive say on these interview requests.”

Following Zalewski, Deutsche Welle Turkey correspondent Julia Hahn took the floor and continued from where he left off: “Me being a foreign correspondent in Turkey was a dream come true, because there has always been a huge interest from Germany and other European countries in what’s happening in Turkey. Having said that, working here as a correspondent is everything but easy. For everyone on my team including local journalists, cameramen, producers… Although I am in no way comparing my very own situation with the situation of fellow Turkish colleagues.”

“Accreditation is a means of access, protecting you from having unpleasant encounters”

“I applied for my press accreditation when my dear colleague Deniz Yücel was imprisoned in Turkey. This was the biggest crisis between Berlin and Ankara and I had to wait for nine months without any explanation. I finally got my accreditation in October 2017. Two of my german colleagues were denied accreditation and seeing them go to the airport with their suitcases was a shocking experience.”

Noting that they also try to have their Turkish colleagues accredited as well, in order to improve their working conditions, Hahn added that these requests remain unanswered: “It’s not a crime to work without a press card in Turkey, but the card is a means of access. It gives you access to many events and protects you from having rather unpleasant encounters with the police.”

“For us TV journalists, the situation is rather different than print journalists or writers. Because we’re very visible outside. I usually am with a cameraman and we’re very recognizable as foreign journalists and this causes unpleasant encounters with the police. I have seen several police stations in Turkey from the inside, as we were briefly detained several times. We were also stopped from live broadcasting, in my opinion this is an immense violation of press freedom.”

“As long as there are people willing to speak up we can continue doing our job”

Hahn said that in order for journalists to practice their profession, they need to be able to talk to people: “This has become more difficult because people see you as a threat. I don’t know the number of times I’ve heard the word ajan (agent) in some neighborhoods in İstanbul or on the Syrian border. I truly understand that. But I’m hopeful because there are still a lot of people in Turkey who speak up, and as long as there are people who are willing to speak up, we can continue to do our job.”

Duvar English Editor-in-Chief Cansu Çamlıbel was next to speak at the panel and began her speech by stating that she has been a journalist in Turkey, mostly in mainstream media outlets, first at NTV and then in Hürriyet, and that one and a half years ago, she started working in alternative media: “I have been a journalist for 23 years and I have the right to a permanent press card, which is not being given to me. Hopefully I have many years ahead of me, before retirement. However right now, as I am not issued an official press card, I cannot get vaccinated.”

“Issue of censorship cannot be resolved without solving the problem of media ownership”

Stating that the law does not consider digital media outlets as media, Çamlıbel said: “Our social security and insurance cannot be ensured under the press law. I’m not only talking about ‘opposition’ media, this applies for mainstream as well.” Noting that she rejects the former adjective, “because there can be no opposition media but only independent and free media,” Çamlıbel said they are indeed independent, but not free.

“The thing is, foreign perspective on Turkish journalism entails this focus on imprisonment, journalists in jail, and there still are colleagues behind bars of course. And one should note that those who are still in Turkish jails are mostly Kurdish journalists. But the bigger issue is censorship, self-censorship and media ownership.” In that light Çamlıbel argued: “If the problem of media ownership is not solved, then you cannot solve the censorship issue.

Çamlıbel underscored the fact that Turkish press wasn’t great before AKP came to power, and clarified the issue as such: “There has always been censorship, even my thesis dissertation was about the self-censorship paradigm in Turkish media. Back then, there was no AKP media. Hence, we should not think about this as a problem caused only by AKP and Mr. Erdoğan’s policies. Economic power, such as tax fines were used to transform the media ownership.”

“Two months prior to the referendum, my interview with Orhan Pamuk censored”

Asserting how she witnessed censorship first hand during those years, Çamlıbel said: “I’ve been in rooms where I saw the exertion of power from above. My interviews were censored, and I don’t have  a problem saying it because it made international news. My interview with Orhan Pamuk was not published and it was not even owned by the Demirören family then. In the interview Pamuk, two months before the executive presidency referendum, was basically saying he would vote no.”

“The worst censorship case occurred when I was the Washington correspondent,” Çamlıbel explained. “I had left for DC in 2017, when Trump was elected. I witnessed the worst crisis between the US and Turkey; YPG crisis, the Raqqa operation, S400s, Pastor Brunson, Erdoğan and his bodyguards creating a scene in the US, etc.”

“My column on Trump and Erdoğan negotiations were taken down after trending on Twitter”

“I also witnessed Hürriyet being taken over by Demirören, and I knew that my time at DC was going to be over. The first major censorship came after I wrote a lengthy and detailed article on the negotiations between Trump and Erdoğan on Pastor Brunson, and for Erdoğan; it came to the Halkbank case.”

Çamlıbel told the audience that her column was taken down by the managers after being online for 2-3 hours: “It became a trending topic that night on Twitter. Everybody sat in the article and took screenshots and then everyone started asking where the article is.”

Lastly, Çamlıbel noted that alternative media will continue to struggle however added that she feels that their readers are not showing that much of appreciation for their hard work.