By Jordan Warlick, Policy Advisor
and John Engelken, Intern
The number of journalists imprisoned worldwide reached a record high in 2017, with 262 journalists behind bars. For the second consecutive year, the worst offender was Turkey, with 73 journalists imprisoned for their work. These statistics come from the Committee to Protect Journalists, which released its annual “prison census” on December 13, 2017, based on numbers as of December 1, 2017.
Media freedom in Turkey has long been restricted, but press freedoms in the country have declined precipitously since July 2016, when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan imposed a state of emergency following the failed coup attempt against his government. The state of emergency gives the government sweeping authority to apprehend perceived enemies of the state and close and seize the assets of any institution deemed a national security threat.
Using these powers, President Erdoğan has intensified his attacks against forces he deems threatening—journalists among them—to silence critics and monopolize the country’s political narrative. Though confronted with legitimate security concerns and challenges to his rule, Erdoğan has manipulated this political climate to his advantage.
Under the pretext of national security, the Turkish government systematically targets journalists and independent voices by with terrorism-related charges, often drawing circumstantial connections between these individuals and terrorist organizations or the Gülen network – an organization the government claims was responsible for the 2016 coup attempt.
At a November 2017 Helsinki Commission hearing, State Department Deputy Assistant Secretary for Europe and Eurasian Affairs Jonathan Cohen testified that the state of emergency “appears to have been used expansively to target many Turks with no connection to the coup attempt.”
At the same hearing, Nate Schenkkan, Director of Freedom House’s Nations in Transit Project, testified to how the crackdown has targeted independent media. Since the state of emergency came into effect, Schenkkan said, “162 media outlets have been closed, including six news agencies, 48 newspapers, 20 magazines, 31 radio stations, 28 TV stations, and 29 publishing houses.”
A recent spate of trials against journalists illustrates the poor media climate that plagues the country. According to a Reporters Without Borders (RSF) report, during the week of December 4 to December 11, 2017, a total of 68 journalists were due to appear in court in four different trials, a third of whom were already detained. Cumhürrıyet, Turkey’s oldest newspaper, has come under particular attack with journalists like Ahmet Şık, Emre İper, Murat Sabuncu, and Oğuz Güven detained or sentenced under baseless terrorism charges. RSF Turkey representative Erol Önderoğlu has been charged with “terrorist propaganda” along with two co-defendants, and his next court date is set for December 26.
Though Turkey is a NATO ally and critical partner for the U.S. in numerous security and economic fields, its government’s ongoing attacks against free media are of grave concern, and the Helsinki Commission recently has sought to bring further attention to the worrying state of affairs in Turkey.
In October 2017, 10 members of the Commission, including the Commission’s four senior leaders, sent a letter to President Erdogan calling on him to lift the state of emergency in the country. The Commission’s November 2017 hearing highlighted victims of the sweeping arrests since the coup, and in a staff-level briefing on internet freedom that same month, McCain Institute expert Berivan Orucoglu described the sharp decline of freedom on the net in Turkey.
In their October letter to the Turkish President, the Commissioners warned that “[t]he prolonged state of emergency is gravely undermining Turkey’s democratic institutions and the durability of our countries’ longstanding strategic partnership.”
As a participating State of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Turkey commits to preserving the rule of law, democratic institutions, and fundamental freedoms. Senator Thom Tillis, a member of the Commission, affirmed at the Commission’s November hearing that “our partnerships are strongest when they are rooted in shared principles.” In this spirit, the U.S. Helsinki Commission will continue to support U.S. and Turkish efforts aimed at restoring respect for free press, human rights, and democratic institutions in Turkey.
 Statistics from the Committee to Protect Journalists are conservative compared to some other organizations, based on differing methodologies. Platform 24, for example, cites 152 imprisoned in Turkey.