Turkey releases journalists amidst growing international concern

By bne IntelliNews March 14, 2012

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Four Turkish journalists were released on bail on the evening of March 12, including high-profile investigative reporters Ahmet Sik and Nedim Sener. Yet, according to some reports, up to 118 of their colleagues remain behind bars in Turkey. The case has brought questions about the country's commitment to democracy and freedom of speech onto the international stage.

Sik and Sener spent 375 days in pre-trial detention under anti-terrorism laws, accused of conspiracy to overthrow the government as members of Ergenekon, an alleged ultra-nationalist organisation. A court released them on bail on legal technicalities, surprising campaigners for their release. The pair - well known for their criticism of the ruling AK party - face a trial in June. The case has recently provoked criticism of Turkey's treatment of the press from the West.

There is no consensus on the exact number of journalists behind bars in the country. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently cited the latest annual report of the Committee to Protect Journalists, which said there were only eight, but the NGO has said it is investigating scores of other cases, and is expected to amend the count to more than 90. The highest estimates come in at 122.

The confusion stems firstly from the fact that the government contends that most of those imprisoned were not arrested because of their journalist activities. At the same time, the likes of cameramen and producers are amongst others detained, according to human rights organisations, perhaps leaving room for bureaucratic sleight of hand.

Should the higher estimates be correct, Turkey would hold the world record for jailing journalists, easily beating Iran, which has 42 locked up, and China, where 27 are currently detained. The majority of Turkey's jailed hacks are Kurdish and accused of spreading propaganda for the Kurdish Worker's Party (PKK), which the government has been fighting for 30 years.

There is a feeling in Turkey that all media is partisan, and any journalist is creating propaganda for a political view, as supposed to reporting facts. Meanwhile, many describe the arrests as the growing pains of a developing country in which democracy is a new value. Yet the sheer number of journalists reported to be under detention suggests that the authorities prefer the old ways of silencing opposition.

"Around 100 journalists are currently [serving time] in prison, but freedom of expression is not merely a problem for journalists in this country," Sik told local media upon his release. "There are currently about 600 university students [behind bars] and over 6,000 under arrest in the KCK (Kurdistan Communities Union) trials [...] We are going to keep waging this struggle."

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