Washington, D.C. — The issues of press freedom and freedom of expression—each essential to the preservation of democratic principles—have faced resistance in Turkey as the country continues to shape a “Turkish model” of democratic development. A comprehensive analysis released today by the Center for American Progress details the current state of press freedom in Turkey and provides recommendations to expand freedom of expression in an effort to secure Turkey’s future as a thriving democracy. The issue brief also explores the history of Turkish political journalism, as well as the United States’ strategic interest in promoting free and vibrant political discourse in Turkey.
Among its many findings, the brief outlines how political tension between the Turkish government, the political opposition, and Kurdish separatists have led to censorship, arrest, threats, and outright violence against reporters and minority voices; as of the end of 2012, Turkey had imprisoned 49 journalists for their reporting, more than any other country in the world. In a country where both political culture and journalism are intensely personal, reporters and editors expressing dissenting or critical views also face professional repercussions from media proprietors concerned about the potential backlash from government officials or tax authorities. Large tax fines leveled at critical media outlets, high-profile dismissals of journalists, lawsuits filed by the prime minister himself, and public condemnations of individual reporters by government officials have had a chilling effect on political criticism.
According to the report, freedom of the press and expression in Turkey can be protected through judicial and constitutional reforms, and represents a critical step in order to entrench Turkey’s status as a confident democracy.
“The legitimacy of elected governments is tied to the free exchange of opinions, ideas, and criticism,” said Michael Werz, Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. “The issue of press freedom is at the core of Turkey’s development of a modern democracy.”
Other threats to press freedom and freedom of expression in Turkey include:
- Media ownership: Through the consolidation of major media holdings, large conglomerates afraid of jeopardizing diverse business interests yield enough power to pressure reporters, editors, and owners to refrain from engaging in forms of political criticism.
- Subtle censorship: By making examples of dissenting journalists and editors (through prosecution, fines, or public criticism by the prime minister or various other officials), journalists and editors decide not to explore sensitive issues for fear of retribution.
- Ill-defined Media Law: Under current law, the Turkish government can prosecute and fine media outlets and reporters based on loosely constructed offenses linked to national security, decency standards, and libel.
- Other systematic concerns: The Turkish government is also responsible for the leasing of broadcasting frequencies and issuance of journalist credentials, giving the state full authority to deny opposition media.
In order to protect the democratic nature of the “Turkish model,” the country must revamp its current constitution—which was written under military rule—and adopt constitutional measures that prioritize the protection of minority rights, including their right to free expression. Additionally, the United States must also act by conveying to its partner that press freedom is a non-negotiable component of any modern democracy, and crucial to the two countries’ shared strategic project.
Although the report outlines notable progress in Turkey achieved in the past six months, it emphasizes that fundamental reforms—including reforms to Turkey’s constitution and political culture—are still needed. By fully embracing the democratic principles of press freedom and freedom of expression, Turkey and the United States can continue to build upon their strategic partnership to ensure fundamental human rights, secure democratic governance, and foster economic growth.
Read the full report: “Freedom of the Press and Expression in Turkey” by Max Hoffman and Michael Werz
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