Today was one of those times I would have given anything to be a fly on the wall in the rooms where the two top European diplomats spoke to Turkish officials in Ankara.
While the Dutch journalist Frederike Geerdink was appearing in court charged under Turkish anti-terror laws in the south-east town of Diyarbakir, and the country’s president was accusing several media organisations and journalists for being “accomplices to terror” during an attack in Istanbul last week, European Parliament President Martin Schulz and Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) President Anne Brasseur were visiting the country. A couple of days before their arrival, access to social media sites Facebook, Twitter and YouTube were again banned for a while and Google was threatened with a similar action.
On the eve of their visit, the pro-government daily Yeni Safak published a leaked document said to be the latest version of the National Security Policy. In it, social media such as Twitter were listed as one of the main threats to Turkey’s national security, along with the Kurdish separatist movement the PKK, Islamist extremists ISIS and the so-called parallel state structures in Turkey of the Pennsylvania-based preacher Fethullah Gulen.
High level meetings with the visiting dignitaries must have been somewhat awkward for Martin Schulz told reporters that freedom of expression topped the agenda during his contacts in Turkey. No doubt the PACE President, Anne Brasseur, has also confronted the issue in her meetings with the government, the opposition and the representatives of civil society organisations.
The EU may not have much clout left with the Turkish government but Turkey is still a full member of the Council of Europe (CoE) and as such under obligation to uphold the principles of human rights, the rule of the law and plural democracy.
Only last week, the Council of Europe launched a new Internet platform aimed at protecting journalism. The platform, with its partner organisations – the Association of European Journalists, the European Federation of Journalists, Article 19, the International Federation of Journalists and Reporters Without Borders – will no doubt bring some of these issues to the attention of the CoE institutions.
President Erdogan’s accusation that “the organs of the press being on the side of the terrorists” follows the publication of photographs showing prosecutor Mehmet Selim Kiraz held hostage with a gun held to his head, shortly before he, along with his captors died in a shootout on 31st March.
Coverage of the attack on Istanbul’s main courthouse and the use of images in the media supplied by the militants have raised legitimate concerns among some journalists, including in this blog. However, those were questions of professional ethics, the kind that journalists debate among themselves and their own organisations oversee. President Erdogan claimed that such a behaviour by the media would not be tolerated in “Western countries that are seen as the cradle of democracy, rights and freedoms”. “Courts would shut them down immediately” he said.
William Horsley, media freedom representative of the independent Association of European Journalists, one of the partner organisations of the CoE platform, told me that Mr Erdogan had once again made the mistake of conflating the reporting of a terrorist act with terrorism itself.
“President Erdogan is wrong to say that in western democracies media would be ‘formally banned’ for using images of violence or threats of violence transmitted by terrorists. Has he forgotten the pictures of western and Japanese hostages released by Isis before those people were horribly murdered? Or the video showing the cold-blooded shooting of a police officer in the street just after the massacre of Charlie Hebdo journalists in Paris this January?” Mr Horsley said, adding:
“Yes, media editors have a responsibility to weigh sensitivities, including likely distress to the families of victims of kidnap or murder if those images are widely published. But they must be free to make their own editorial judgement about the public interest in using those images. The essence of press freedom is that the judgement is made by journalists themselves”.
After last week’s yet to be fully explained attack in Istanbul, authorities in Turkey immediately launched legal investigations against the media organisations that used the photographs. As there is already a legal process underway, for the President to step in and accuse some journalists of being complicit in murders “by opening their pages and screens to terrorist propaganda” is not only another serious attack on media freedoms but also political interference in that judicial process.
This post is also available in: Turkish