Press freedom in pincers of gov’t with arbitrary detentions, complaints

The Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government, led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, dealt a new blow to freedom of the press when it arbitrarily detained two journalists and filed criminal complaints against several others, including Today’s Zaman Editor-in-Chief Bülent Keneş, over the weekend.

Erdoğan filed a complaint against Keneş, Zaman Deputy Editor-in-Chief Mehmet Kamış, Today’s Zaman columnist Emre Uslu, journalist Önder Aytaç and former İstanbul Police Department Intelligence Bureau Chief Ali Fuat Yılmazer on Saturday. Erdoğan’s lawyers said in their petition to the Ankara Public Prosecutor’s Office that they were seeking travel bans for Uslu, Aytaç and Yılmazer and claimed that Keneş and Kamış had humiliated Erdoğan in their tweets.

The lawyers also said Aytaç and Uslu were the “usual suspects” in an ongoing investigation into the online posting of an alleged conversation between some state officials about a possible incursion into Syria.

In addition, the lawyers argued in their petition that Yılmazer had carried out a defamation campaign, slander and false accusations against the prime minister. The former police official recently told the media that former Chief of General Staff retired Gen. İlker Başbuğ had been arrested on the orders of Prime Minister Erdoğan. He also claimed the prime minister had closely followed major criminal cases, including Ergenekon, the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK) and OdaTV, and ordered some suspects to be arrested as well. Erdoğan has denied the claims.

Aytaç, a former official at Turkey’s Police Academy, was detained late Friday over allegations that he might have information about the bugging of a top secret meeting in which high-level officials were heard discussing options regarding Syria. Aytaç was released from custody later on Saturday morning.

In the leaked audio recording, voices believed to be those of Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, Foreign Ministry Undersecretary Feridun Sinirlioğlu, National Intelligence Organization (MİT) head Hakan Fidan and Deputy Chief of General Staff Gen. Yaşar Güler are heard discussing whether or not Turkey should conduct a military incursion into Syria.

Today’s Zaman could not independently verify the authenticity of the audio nor could it determine when and how it was recorded. But news sources said the conversation, which has rocked Turkey’s political landscape, was recorded at Davutoğlu’s office at the Foreign Ministry on March 13.

The state-run Anadolu news agency reported that Aytaç’s comments on the audio recording on a TV program gave the impression that he might have information about who was responsible for the leak.

However, the way the journalist was detained led to questions over the motive behind the detention. Pro-government journalist Cem Küçük claimed lists of “suspects,” including well-known journalists, had already been prepared and mass arrests would be carried out. Regarding the government’s critics and opponents, he said everyone would “reap what they sow.”

Only hours after the posting of the Syria recording online, Prime Minister Erdoğan was quick to attribute the leak to the Hizmet movement, led by Turkish Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen, without any evidence to back his claim. Gülen and the Hizmet movement have denied involvement in the postings of the recording.

Following his release from police custody, Aytaç publicly said he had been asked whether he was a spy and how he had known so much about the content of the leaked recording when discussing it on a television program. “I made my assessment as an academic during that program. They are trying to intimidate people who think like me in this election process,” he said.

Journalist detained for taking photo of PM’s adviser

On Saturday, Today’s Zaman photojournalist Derviş Genç was detained during Prime Minister Erdoğan’s election rally in İstanbul on the grounds that he had taken photographs of Erdoğan’s adviser Mustafa Varank.

Varank reportedly complained to the police that the photojournalist was secretly listening to and recording his conversations, and asked the police to detain Genç. Despite interference by other journalists present at the rally, police officers took Genç to the İstinye Police Department. Genç was made to spend five hours under police custody. He was released after giving a statement to the police.

Citing violations of the right to press freedom, Genç stated he would file a complaint against those who detained him for taking photographs.

Erdoğan had previously accused Genç of collaborating with a “parallel state” to acquire secret documents, including a MİT report.

Meanwhile, Fatih Altaylı, editor-in-chief of the mainstream Habertürk newspaper, said in a column on Saturday that he was stepping down. “With great regret I see that an era of ‘militant journalism’ has started,” he wrote, decrying what he portrayed as an increasingly polarized media landscape in Turkey with a lack of independent voices.

Speaking on a televised program in February, Altaylı said there is tremendous government pressure on the Turkish media, which he views as a threatening pattern that is firmly taking hold in the country at the expense of freedom of the press and democracy.

“There is pressure on all of us. Today, the dignity of journalism is being crushed underfoot. Instructions pour down from somewhere every day. Everybody is afraid [of losing his job],” the editor-in-chief had said. He also said no executive in the media can claim he has not been reprimanded by the government or that they have not faced any government intervention in their publications.

In a separate development, Yasemin Taşkın, the Rome bureau chief of the pro-government Sabah daily, was fired from her position over the weekend allegedly due to an interview conducted by her husband with Gülen for the Italian daily La Repubblica.

Veteran journalist Yavuz Baydar, who was also fired from Sabah in mid-2013 due to his columns related to the Gezi Park protests and media-government relations, announced on his Twitter account on Sunday that Taşkın was “suddenly sacked from her position” at Sabah after her husband’s interview with Gülen was published in the Italian daily.

Journalist associations protest

Several associations representing journalists have raised their voices against the detention of two journalists and the criminal complaints filed by the prime minister against five others. In statements released on Saturday, the associations said the detentions and complaints are a “source of shame” for press freedom and democracy.

Media Ethics Council (MEK) Chairman Halit Esendir denounced the detention of Aytaç, which he said is aimed at intimidating journalists. “The targeting of some journalists, whom we could call opponents [of the government], by others on social media is aimed at intimidating journalists as well. It is not acceptable for some to place themselves in the positions of judges and prosecutors and target journalists,” he noted.

Esendir was referring to a list of “to-be-arrested journalists” that is circulating on social media. The list was promoted by pro-government social media trolls. Twitter users Gizli Arşiv and Wake Up Attack named some journalists and said they would be arrested soon.

Atilla Sertel, the head of the Turkish Journalists Federation (TFF), said people in Turkey should stand up to defend democracy, justice, human rights and freedom. “Democracy and justice should exist for everyone. If those who hold the power in their hands move to destroy others, then this is not called democracy,” he said.

Journalists and Writers Foundation (GYV) Deputy Chairman Erkam Tufan Aytav said a campaign of intimidation is under way against some anti-government journalists in the aftermath of developments following the Dec. 17, 2013 corruption operation. “I don’t think those journalists will be discouraged by this campaign,” he added.

Source : (Today’s Zaman)

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