ISTANBUL -- A leading international human rights watchdog slammed Turkey on Friday for passing new laws that she said would further intimidate independent journalists in a country where freedom of expression is already severely limited and the news media have become “critically stifled.”
Dunja Mijatovic of the Vienna-based Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe singled out a new intelligence law that threatens journalists with up to 10 years in prison “for simply doing their work” on the heels of a law passed earlier this year that banned thousands of websites.
“What I find most alarming is that the direction of the latest developments in Turkey points toward more and more restrictions,” Mijatovic told a conference on the rule of law.
Mijatovic is the representative for free media at the OSCE, a body established in 1975 to encourage dialogue during the Cold War that since 1990 has worked primarily as a research center on a variety of international issues. Fifty-seven governments are members, among them all of NATO, Russia and much of Central Asia.
The independent U.S. watchdog organization Freedom House, which receives much of its funding from U.S. government grants, downgraded Turkey this month in its annual assessment of freedom of the press around the world from “partly free” to “not free,” a changed that raised a furor in the country, and Reporters Without Borders puts Turkey in 154th place in the world for press freedom, behind Russia. Prominent U.S. and German officials have been openly critical of Turkey’s suppression of news media.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan banned Twitter for two weeks during the run-up to local elections in late March and has refused to restore access to YouTube a month after a high court ordered the government to lift the blockade, imposed after surreptitiously recorded audio files of Erdogan were posted on the site. This week, a journalist with an opposition news organization was sentenced to 10 months in prison for sending a tweet critical of Erdogan.
Mijatovic welcomed the fact that Turkey has released many of the journalists it had jailed and now holds 29, down from 95 in 2011. But she warned that unless laws are passed to protect freedom of speech and to decriminalize the defamation of public figures, “these journalists may easily find themselves back in prison if they do not write according to the taste of those in power.”
The main message is very simple, she told McClatchy: “Hands off the media; hands off journalists. No imprisonment should be allowed for anything that journalists write or broadcast.”
Erdogan’s Office of Public Diplomacy didn’t respond to a request for comment on key points of Mijatovic’s statement.
But he’s shown himself extraordinarily thin-skinned over recent criticism of media restrictions. He had a public spat with Germany’s widely respected president, Joachim Gauck, after Gauck, an ordained Lutheran minister, told an audience in Ankara that he found the ban on Twitter “frightening.”
Erdogan dressed him down in public. “I told the German president that we will never tolerate his interference in the internal affairs of our country,” he said. Gauck “probably still thinks he is a priest.”
After Freedom House published its judgment that Turkey’s media were not free, Ahmet Davutoglu, the foreign minister, said, “Our journalists are freer than countries rated ‘partially free’ and ‘free,’ ” and claimed that the rating was part of a “perception operation” against Turkey. Contradicting his own contention about media freedom here, he went on to declare: “We expect our journalists to reject this report.”
The U.S. State Department responded tartly to Davutoglu’s reference to a “perception operation,” implying a foreign-sponsored propaganda campaign to cast the ruling Justice and Democracy party in a bad light.
“What we think would change the way people look at Turkey is if they unblocked YouTube, if they didn’t block Twitter,” spokeswoman Marie Harf said Monday.
Turkey defends its jailing of the journalists, with the Justice Ministry saying that most of those in custody “turn out to be terrorists.” It said most of them were members of illegal extreme political groups or Kurdish organizations and “only six” had official government press cards.
Mijatovic had a response: that the 29 _ mostly ethnic Kurds jailed under vaguely worded counter-terrorism laws _ should also be released.
“One journalist is too many in prison in any country,” she said.