Turkey Leads in Jailing Journalists in 2016
Countries are using their own national security laws against journalists who are critical of authorities, says Elana Beiser
KIM BROWN: Welcome to The Real News Network in Baltimore. I’m Kim Brown. There were 259 journalists in jail around the world in 2016. That’s up from 199 in 2015. This is according to the latest report published by the Committee to Protect Journalists. Now, one reason for this spike has to do with the crackdown on the media in Turkey this year as the administration of President Erdogan has become increasingly authoritarian and oppressive towards, not only his own citizenry, but the press, as well.
And joining us to discuss this is Elana Beiser. She is the Editorial Director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. She previously worked as an Editor for the Dow Jones newswires and the Wall Street Journal in New York, London, Brussels, Singapore and Hong Kong. Elana, thank you so much for being here.
ELANA BEISER: Thank you for having me.
KIM BROWN: So, Turkey is out-pacing all other countries in this report titled “2016 Prison Census: 259 Journalists Jailed Worldwide”, with 81 journalists currently in custody. Now, Egypt is a distant second with 25 journalists incarcerated. But most of the journalists detained in 2016 in Turkey were labelled as anti-state. So, describe some of the activities or some of the reporting that the Turkish authorities deemed that was illegal conduct conducted by these reporters and journalists there.
ELANA BEISER: Well, there’s a wide range. In some cases, it’s very blatant that journalists were simply engaging in journalistic activity that any journalist would do every day and then that was being held against them in court. In particular, there is a Kurdish journalist who actually, since our census was conducted, has been released on bail but she still faces anti-state charges. So, she’ll still be going to court, could still face prison time. Her name, which I’m afraid I won’t pronounce correctly, is Zehra Dogan. And she was covering fighting between Kurdish separatists and government security forces and she was basically seen in the street talking to people and talking photos. And the court documents show that that was held against her, that she was accused of engaging with terrorists by having conversations in the street — as any journalist would do.
KIM BROWN: So, tell us, what is the difference between how press freedoms have been handled in Turkey prior to 2016? Because the crackdown presumably came shortly after the failed attempted coup of President Erdogan and we saw this tremendous mass roundup and arrests of, not only journalists, but law makers, as well. So, compare the times for us — how was Turkey more permissible with their press freedoms than they are today?
ELANA BEISER: It’s actually worth noting that the crackdown intensified after the attempted coup in July but it was actually well underway. And there were quite a few journalists arrested in late 2015 and early 2016. And the pace of arrests was actually so quick that CPJ, we had to sort of develop a new vehicle to keep track of them all. Because we didn’t have the capacity to publish each individual one the way we do in most countries. It was such an unprecedented crackdown that we started something called “The Turkey Crackdown Chronicle” and every day we just did a roundup of the number of arrests, the number of arrest warrants, and the number of appearances in court. And we actually started that in March. That was well ahead of the attempted coup.
But after the attempted coup, they really kind of went for it and the government went for the remaining independent media who were still daring to speak critically of the government. And within a two-month period they shut down more than 100 news outlets.
KIM BROWN: I mean, that’s pretty remarkable, but as you said, the sort of containment of these journalists happened before the coup. So, was Turkey better with managing the freedom of the press prior to Erdogan coming into power, so to speak? Or were they always sort of operating in this heavy-handed way? And were journalists afraid or reluctant to do some of their reporting that they pursued because of the government approach to dealing with the press?
ELANA BEISER: Well, that’s a really good question, Kim. Actually, if you look at our data on imprisoned journalists, which goes all the way back to 1990, the number of journalists imprisoned in Turkey has swung wildly over the years. And, actually, more than a decade ago there was something close to today’s numbers. Something like 74 journalists in jail at one point more than a decade ago in Turkey. But more recently, it’s not as though it had been a very free environment for journalists; it was more like the government was using different forms of repression. So, around 2014, what we saw happening was a lot of pressure on the owners of newspapers and broadcasters to keep their own journalists in line, or else they would get fired. And the way the government did that was by pressuring… the media owners in Turkey tend to have a wide range of businesses, not just own news outlets. And so, there was kind of this subtle pressure, like, “Keep your journalists in line and the rest of your businesses will flourish. And if you don’t do that, then your businesses won’t flourish.” And it was more subtle but it was certainly not a freedom of the press environment.
KIM BROWN: Remarkable. Well, the United Nations weighed in on this, as well, at a press conference last month. The Special Rapporteur of the United Nations, David Kaye, had this to say:
DAVID KAY: So, one is the counter terrorism laws, the anti-terrorism law and the decrees under The State of Emergency, are being used to restrict journalism and to detain journalists. And the problem for the journalists is they don’t know exactly what puts them on the side of the line of lawfulness and unlawfulness. So, one of the first recommendations that we make is really a call on the government to release all journalists who are detained in Turkey today.
KIM BROWN: And that was the UN Special Rapporteur making that call… that appeal to Turkey directly. So, Elana what are your thoughts about what the United Nations’ position is about all the journalists who are being held in Turkey to be released? Is that a very likely thing that could happen?
ELANA BEISER: Well, it doesn’t look likely in the interim, but we certainly echo that call. I mean, journalists do not belong in jail for doing journalistic work. And we just stress that, you know, the people who suffer from this kind of repression are not limited to the journalists in jail. Now, obviously, their individual cases are very important. These journalists are not being held in great conditions and, you know, they do not deserve to be in jail. But it’s important to note that when so many journalists are jailed, the journalists who are not in jail may censor their own reporting. They may even leave the profession. They may flea into exile. And, as a result, it is the public that loses because they just don’t have sources of information. So, we certainly call for Turkey to release all of the journalists in prison.
KIM BROWN: So, looking at a wider view of the report that your organization published, Egypt has the second most incarcerated journalists at 25. And we know that Egypt–
ELANA BEISER: Sorry to interrupt. Egypt actually has the third most. China has the second.
KIM BROWN: That’s right. China has the second most. So, when we look at these different countries who have journalists — either one, or three or 25 or 60 plus, or in the case of Turkey, over 80 — what are the commonalities between these types of governments in how they handle press or lack of freedom of press? Is there a common style of government? Are they sort of lumped geographically in similar areas? What are some of the common grounds that these nations who have journalists locked up, what do they share?
ELANA BEISER: Well, one thing that they share is that they abuse their own national security laws. So, this could definitely be said of Turkey, of China, and of Egypt — the top three jailors like you mentioned. All of them are using their own laws to enforce national security and misapplying them to journalists who are critical of authorities, or who even want to tell the viewpoint of the opposition or of — you know, in Turkey where the government has long been in conflict with the Kurdish groups, you know, some of these media outlets are in the Kurdish language, or they have a pro-Kurdish viewpoint. And they are, therefore, the journalists who work for those outlets, are targeted with being members of the Kurdish terrorist organizations. When, in fact, they might just be trying to give a voice to all different sides of the conflict. And you’ll find that actually of the 259 journalists that are on our prison census worldwide, nearly three-quarters of them are charged with some kind of anti-state law and some kind of anti-state crime. And in Turkey, it’s every single one.
KIM BROWN: Indeed. And Elana, a lot of people here in the US have shown tremendous amount of concern and alarm at the tone and the attitude of President-elect Donald Trump towards the press. Now, as you wisely pointed out before the interview began, there are no American journalists in jail right now in the United States for doing their job. But many worry that we could be on a slippery slope with Donald Trump having no qualms whatsoever about taking to his own personal Twitter feed and attacking individuals. And we saw this happen throughout his campaign with, I’m thinking of NBC News journalist, Katy Tur specifically being pointed out by Donald Trump at a campaign rally — she was subsequently harassed, had death threats, threats to rape her, all of these types of things. Now, it didn’t come from him specifically, but he was definitely gas-lighting a lot of this.
So what does your organization or what do you have to say about how the United States’ press is going to approach covering someone like Donald Trump who has a tremendous adversarial approach or relationship with the media? And then, he’s about to be in the White House, so there’s no telling exactly what his plans are in terms of dealing with the press. What are your thoughts about that?
ELANA BEISER: Well, it’s certainly concerning, Kim, and CPJ and other press freedom groups, including those who work exclusively in the United States are keeping a very close eye. We’re definitely prepared to document and speak out against any type of mistreatment of journalists. And it is very worrying. It’s like you say, even if a lot of the harassment hasn’t come directly from Trump, but has been sort of green-lighted by him, this is something that creates a very fraught environment where, you know, we have seen in other countries where if leaders, you know, start disparaging the media, then people feel like that is open season on journalists and it really can hurt — in addition to individuals — it can really hurt the, you know, environment for reporting. People become shy and they do not want to, you know, do their reporting as aggressively. And again, it can be the public that suffers.
Having said all that, I do want to stress that you know, we’re talking about 259 journalists around the world who are locked up and, you know, it’s a very different situation. We, in the United States, still enjoy the protection of the First Amendment. We have a very free environment here and we have to acknowledge that that is the case and we can’t compare ourselves to a place like Turkey or, indeed, any of the other countries on our prison census. But, at the same time, we must be vigilant.
KIM BROWN: We’ve been speaking with Elana Beiser. She is the Editorial Director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. She previously worked as an editor for the Dow Jones newswires and the Wall Street Journal. And you should check out their latest report. It’s “2016 Prison Census: 259 Journalists Jailed Worldwide”. Elana, we appreciate your time. Thank you so much.
ELANA BEISER: Thank you.
KIM BROWN: And thanks for watching The Real News Network.