Censorship and Self-Censorship in Turkey

January - November 2019

Censorship in the Media

Melike Polat 

It will not, after all, be wrong to say that a free media was not in the cards in 2019 either. Throughout the year, we saw countless cases of political pressure, censorship, access to online content being blocked, broadcasts of television programs being suspended and members of the media being arrested. The number of journalists still behind bars in Turkey as of the final days of 2019 is 118. No comprehensive data exists as to how many journalists are on trial.

The arrests of actors Metin Akpınar and Müjdat Gezen in the early days of 2019 for “insulting the president” and “inciting people to armed rebellion against the government” over remarks they made during a program on Halk TV made the news for quite a while. The fact that Akpınar and Gezen were arrested at their homes and were later released with a travel ban after President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s remarks declaring that they would “pay the price before the judiciary” for what they said was a telling example of how the judiciary is the most significant “deterrent” against the exercise of freedom of expression.

According to the cases we as the Susma Platform documented, the following methods of censorship/self-censorship and crackdown were most frequently used throughout 2019: Arrests and prosecution of journalists; sanctions in the form of blocking access to online news content, temporary suspension of broadcasting, and administrative fines; programs being pulled off air; firings of journalists; media blackout on people and news deemed “objectionable” and self-censorship in the form of withdrawal of statements by public institutions or of news reports that contradict government policies; censorship of scenes from programs on television channels or online platforms on grounds of sexuality, violence or violation of family values (same-sex relationship).

From the first days of 2019, dozens of journalists had their homes raided, got arrested and even jailed because of their reports. Charges that were used most frequently against journalists were “membership in a terrorist organization,” “spreading propaganda for a terrorist organization,” “insulting the president,” “insulting state officials,” and offences that are commonly referred to as “insulting Turkishness.” Many journalists who shared posts or published reports that were critical of the Operation Peace Spring were arrested in raids on their homes. According to a statement from the Interior Ministry, 186 people were arrested, 24 of whom were then imprisoned pending trial, in relation to the Operation Peace Spring posts or comments. The public broadcasting watchdog RTÜK (Radio and Television Supreme Council) also weighed in, announcing in a statement that broadcasts against the Operation Peace Spring were “silenced” and thanking broadcasters that “contribute to national unity and togetherness.”

And in late 2019, an Istanbul criminal court ruled on a case against against former executives and journalists of the Cumhuriyet newspaper after its previous verdict was overturned by the Supreme Court of Appeals. Journalists and former executives, who were collectively sentenced to tens of years behind bars and some of whom spent well over a year in prison as part of the trial, were convicted again and given the same sentences when the Istanbul 27th High Criminal Court insisted on its previous verdict. The case is now to be taken up by the Supreme Court of Appeals’ General Assembly of Criminal Chambers, whose decision will be final.

Emre İper, who was one of the defendants sentenced to less than five years in prison as part of the case, became the last employee of Cumhuriyet to be released following the entry into force of the Judicial Reform Package.

With the entry into force of the Judicial Reform Package, cases that were previously considered finalized as a result of an appellate court ruling will also be eligible for review by the Supreme Court of Appeals, opening the way for defense lawyers to request the release of their jailed clients pending the Supreme Court decision on the case. Several Kurdish journalists were released after courts accepted such requests.

"2019 was not a bright year for the media. The fact that arrests and detentions of journalists continued unabated even after the entry into force of the Judicial Reform Package, which opened the way for the release of at least some journalists, leads us to conclude that the reform was merely a temporary fix." 

Melike Polat

In 2019, punishing journalists who produced “objectionable” content was not enough: Access to online news reports was blocked while television channels were ordered to temporarily suspend broadcast of news programs and/or pay hefty fines. An overwhelming majority of the censored news reports were those that were critical of members of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) or the government. And the requests to block access to these reports came from ministries, ministers, the president and other AKP politicians themselves. At this point, we should note that access to a report on the Susma Platform’s website on a court decision to block access to news reports on alleged allocation of Treasury land to private Medipol University was also blocked upon a request filed by the Medipol University and the Health Ministry. Our individual application filed with the Constitutional Court against the decision censoring our report is still pending.

Broadcasters including Halk TV, Fox TV, Show TV and Fox Life were among the national television channels that were ordered to suspend broadcast of their programs and/or pay administrative fines.

Broadcasters such as TV5, Erkam Radyo and RS FM were among those that resorted to preemptive self-censorship in order not to be “punished.” By pulling “objectionable” programs off air and firing “objectionable” journalists, these institutions demonstrated that a key aspect of censorship was about how it forced institutions and persons to self-censor. In such cases, media bosses or owners of media outlets self-censored by choosing to fire journalists so as to save their institutions from taking the hit.

One may observe that censorship and self-censorship peaked around the time when the election for mayor of Istanbul was held. To recall a few highlights of this era: Yeni Şafak refused to publish an article by its columnist Özlem Albayrak, which criticized prison sentences given to CHP politician Canan Kaftancıoğlu on the basis of her social media posts -- Albayrak said she resigned from the newspaper over the censorship; a court ordered access to news reports on controversial remarks by Esenler Mayor Tevfik Göksu of the ruling AKP on ethnic roots of Istanbul mayor-elect Ekrem İmamoğlu to be blocked upon Göksu's request; an episode of the CNN Türk’s political talk show Tarafsız Bölge (Neutral Zone) that was attended by İmamoğlu took a commercial break as İmamoğlu started talking about alleged corruption and extravagance at the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality, and the program was then ended ahead of its scheduled time; beIN Sports censored a part of its live broadcast of the Turkish national football league game between Beşiktaş and Medipol Başakşehir, when fans shouted slogans in favor of İmamoğlu; access to online game Mazbata Online, featuring İmamoğlu as its main character, was blocked on Parliament’s wireless Internet network.

Looking at the censorship and self-censorship cases documented in this report, we are faced with the fact that 2019 was not a bright year for the media. The fact that arrests and detentions of journalists continued unabated even after the entry into force of the Judicial Reform Package, which opened the way for the release of at least some journalists, leads us to conclude that the reform was merely a temporary fix. Here is to hope that the sentence added under the judicial reform to Article 7/2 of the Anti-Terror Law, which states that “expressions of thought that fall within bounds of criticism or for reporting purposes cannot be prosecuted,” will be applied to all journalists and the time when journalism ceases to be a “crime” will arrive...