‘Fair’ Elections Impossible in Turkey, Warns Reporters Without Borders

Turkey journalists reporters without borders
Ankara (MEE– RSF’s Erol Onderoglu says 24 June polls cannot be free due to the ‘liquidation’ of the media.
Turkey journalists reporters without borders
Protest for Turkish journalists
Image: The Duran

The “liquidation” of the media in Turkey means it is impossible for “free and fair” elections to be carried out on 24 June, a leading media activist warned on Wednesday.

Erol Onderoglu, head of Reporters Without Borders (RSF) in Turkey, said that a combination of pro-government buyouts of media outlets, the mass arrest of journalists and the cowing of remaining independent media means that there could be no hope of an honest choice in the upcoming parliamentary and presidential votes.

“I’m really surprised that international political organizations expect something like a fair electoral process in Turkey,” he said, speaking to Middle East Eye in London.

“You don’t need to monitor the electoral process in Turkey when you keep in mind that 80 percent of the media landscape is under the control of the government.”

He said that even the reporters with the few independent outlets left could no longer work to hold power to account with most political subjects now “taboo”.

Related: Who is Recep Tayyip Erdogan and What’s at Stake in the Turkish Election?

“We have dozens of prominent colleagues, writers, investigative journalists behind bars. Over the last four months, 62 journalists were convicted with harsh sentences. Public broadcaster TRT and [state-backed news agency] Anadolu Agency are just providing one view of political life,” he said.

‘We have ongoing cases that will be held in October. It is postponed for procedural reasons – but still, we are facing 15 years in prison’

– Erol Onderoglu, Reporters Without Borders

“We are facing the liquidation of the profession.”

Turkey has been branded the world’s “biggest prison” for journalists due to the hundreds of arrests and imprisonments that have taken place in the country in recent years.

Last month, 14 journalists from the secular-nationalist Cumhuriyet newspaper were handed jail sentences, including editor-in-chief Murat Sabuncu, investigative reporter Ahmet Sik and cartoonist Musa Kart.

Related: Turkey Crackdown Continues, Warrants Issued for 35 Journalists

Onderoglu is himself facing a possible jail sentence for a campaign to support the Ozgur Gundem newspaper. He was arrested along with journalist Ahmet Nesin and academic Sebnem Korur Fincanci in June 2016, accused of creating “terrorist propaganda”.

Various political activists, academics, and journalists took part in the campaign, which saw the rotation of staff and the editor-in-chief role keeping the left-wing, pro-Kurdish paper afloat as it faced lawsuits and investigations.

“We have ongoing cases that will be held in October. It is postponed for procedural reasons – but still, we are facing 15 years in prison,” Onderoglu said.

In the run-up to the elections, Turkey is facing a possibly severe financial crisis, with its lira falling to record lows on Wednesday.

Despite the media giving little or no coverage to opposition politicians, polls have suggested that a stomping victory for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) is less certain than ever.

Speaking at a rally in northwestern Bolu province on Tuesday, Muharram Ince, presidential candidate of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), promised to overturn the restrictions on media and information outlets in Turkey if elected, including overturning a ban on Wikipedia, which was imposed in April 2017.

“Citizens’ freedom to criticise the president of Turkey is a must in order to remain creative and productive,” he told the crowd.

‘Terrorists’

Turkey’s restrictions on the free press stretch back for many decades prior to the AKP’s coming to power in 2002.

Discussion of topics such as Kurdish rights, the mass killings of Armenians in World War One, secularism and criticism of modern Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, have all seen journalists imprisoned in the years following the establishment of the republic in 1923.

According to Article 301 of the Turkish constitution, it is “illegal to insult Turkey, the Turkish nation or Turkish government institutions.”

However, since he was first elected president in 2014, Erdogan has used this provision to charge hundreds with insulting the presidency.

Many journalists have also been accused of links to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) or the movement of US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom Turkey blames for the 2016 coup attempt. Both groups are regarded as “terrorist” organizations by the Turkish government.

Related: Turkey Election: Muharrem Ince, The Man Looking to Unseat Erdogan

Last week, during a visit to the UK, Erdogan dismissed concerns from British journalists about their imprisoned colleagues in Turkey, branding them “terrorists”.

“You have to make a distinction between terrorists and journalists,” he said, speaking alongside British Prime Minister Theresa May.

“We are talking about … those who have been caught red-handed bearing weapons, those who have been killing people.”

In a statement, RSF warned that May needed to raise the issue of imprisoned journalists in Turkey, rather than overlooking it in exchange for trade deals.

MEE has previously reported that the UK has sold more than $1bn worth of arms to Turkey since the 2016 coup attempt.

Onderoglu said that a failure to address the plight of journalism in Turkey would lead to similar abuses elsewhere.

“As long as Western governments don’t underline the importance of safeguarding fundamental human rights, I think that these standards will fall in many other European countries as well,” he said.

MEE has contacted the Turkish government for comment.

This post was written by Alex MacDonald and was originally published by Middle East Eye.