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Turkey: The World’s Largest Jailer of Journalists
Friday, December 22, 2017

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.[1] 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.

[1] 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.

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    Azerbaijan's parliamentary election in November 2015 provided further evidence of the absence of rule of law in Azerbaijan. The majority of opposition candidates were not allowed on the ballot, there was no mechanism for debate on television, election monitors faced intimidation, and Azerbaijan generally failed to abide by minimum standards of elections it has committed itself to in the OSCE. Rule of law means that governmental powers are restricted by certain standards, which includes that citizens are allowed mechanisms to hold government accountable, such as through the media and civil society. These freedoms are greatly restricted in Azerbaijan. This briefing sought to better understand the situation in Azerbaijan through the testimonies of experts, including a particularly moving testimony by Dinara Yunus, the daughter of two imprisoned Azerbaijani human rights defenders. 

  • Helsinki Commission Chair Chris Smith Shines Light on Egregious Rule-of-Law Abuses by Russian Government

    WASHINGTON—At a Congressional hearing today, the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, spotlighted the many recent violations of the rule of law committed by the Russian government. “Forty years after the signing of the Helsinki Final Act, we face a set of challenges with Russia, a founding member of the organization, that mirror the concerns that gave rise to the Helsinki Final Act,” said Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), who called the hearing. “At stake is the hard-won trust between members, now eroded to the point that armed conflict rages in the OSCE region. The question is open whether the principles continue to bind the Russian government with other states in a common understanding of what the rule of law entails.” “Russia’s annexation of Crimea and subsequent intervention in the Donbas region not only clearly violate this commitment, but also every guiding principle of the 1975 Helsinki Final Act.  It appears these are not isolated instances.  In recent years, Russia appears to have violated, undermined, disregarded, or even disavowed fundamental and binding arms control commitments,” Smith continued. “[I also] question Russia’s OSCE commitment to develop free, competitive markets that respect international dispute arbitration mechanisms...[and recent government actions] demonstrate Russia’s readiness to abuse its laws and judicial system to limit individual freedoms both within and beyond its borders.” Witness testimony highlighted case studies corresponding to each of the three dimensions of comprehensive security established by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE): politico-military security; economic and environmental security; and human rights and fundamental freedoms. Tim Osborne, executive director of GML Ltd., the majority owner of the now-liquidated Yukos Oil Company, said, “It is clear that the Russian Federation is not honoring its obligations and commitments under the rule of law or in a manner consistent with the Helsinki process.  Russia’s tendency, more often than not, has been to ignore, delay, obstruct or retaliate when faced with its international law responsibilities…Russia cannot be trusted in international matters and that even when it has signed up to international obligations, it will ignore them if that is what it thinks serves it best.” “Russia had engaged in the uncompensated expropriation of billions of dollars of U.S. investments in Yukos Oil Company,” observed former U.S. Under Secretary of State for Economic, Business and Agricultural Affairs Ambassador Alan Larson. “American investors—who owned about 12 percent of Yukos at the time of the expropriation—have claims worth over $14 billion, and they are entitled to compensation under international law even though they have no option for bringing claims directly against the Russian Federation.” Vladimir Kara-Murza, a well-known Russian activist and the coordinator of the Open Russia Movement, said, “Today, the Kremlin fully controls the national airwaves, which it has turned into transmitters for its propaganda…the last Russian election recognized by the OSCE as conforming to basic democratic standards was held more than 15 years ago.” “There are currently 50 political prisoners in the Russian Federation,” Kara-Murza continued. “These prisoners include opposition activists jailed under the infamous ‘Bolotnaya case’ for protesting against Mr. Putin’s inauguration in May 2012; the brother of anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny; and Alexei Pichugin, the remaining hostage of the Yukos case.” “A clear pattern emerges when one looks at Russia’s implementation of its arms control obligations overall,” observed Stephen Rademaker, former Assistant Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security and Nonproliferation. “Should Moscow conclude such agreements have ceased to serve its interest, it will ignore them, effectively terminate them, violate them while continuing to pay them lip service, or selectively implement them…Russia believes that this is how great powers are entitled to act, and today Moscow insists on acting and being respected as a great power.” Chairman Smith was joined at the hearing by a panel of lawmakers including Commission Co-Chairman Senator Roger Wicker (MS) and Representative Robert Aderholt (AL-04).

  • Bipartisan Congressional Delegation Represents US at OSCE Parliamentary Assembly; Also Visits Ukraine, Czech Republic

    Forty years after the signing of the Helsinki Final Act established the precursor to today’s Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), five members of the Helsinki Commission and four other members of Congress traveled to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Annual Session in Helsinki to demonstrate the U.S. commitment to confronting Russian aggression in Ukraine and elsewhere. Led by Commission Co-Chairman Senator Roger F. Wicker (MS), the bicameral, bipartisan delegation organized by the Helsinki Commission included Commission Chairman Representative Chris Smith (NJ- 04); House Commissioners Robert B. Aderholt (AL-04), Steve Cohen (TN-09) and Alan Grayson (FL-09); and Representatives Gwen Moore (WI-04), Michael Fitzpatrick (PA-08), Richard Hudson (NC-08) and Ruben Gallego (AZ-07). Before attending the Annual Session from July 5 to 7, several members of the delegation also visited Ukraine and the Czech Republic. A central concern to the delegation throughout the trip was Russia’s restrictions on democracy at home and aggression in Ukraine, along with Russia’s threat to European security.

  • Foreign Fighters: The Escalating Threat of ISIL in Central Asia

    This hearing focused on ISIL and their wave of violence that has swept brutally through northern Iraq and across Syria- many of those who took part in the offensive were foreign fighters. The hearing looked into the Nations Security Council recent estimation that at least 25,000 foreign terrorist fighters from more than 100 countries have joined ranks with this brutal terrorist organization. The hearing explores key economic and social factors to determine what may be incentivising international fighters to join such a brutal group. Also the Commissioners and witness examined measures in which the U.S. government and OSCE member states can take to contain ISIL, including counteracting radicalization of potential foreign fighters, inhibiting the travel of recruits and volunteers to the Middle East, disrupting financial support to fighters and their families and preventing their return to their home countries.

  • Helsinki Commission Calls for Release of Imprisoned Journalists in OSCE Region

    WASHINGTON—In advance of World Press Freedom Day on May 3, Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), chairman of the Helsinki Commission, issued the following statement:   “On World Press Freedom Day, I pay tribute to the courage and commitment of the many journalists in the OSCE region and beyond who risk their lives on a daily basis to document stories of corruption, conflict, and human rights abuses.   “In several OSCE participating States, governments use increasingly sophisticated tactics to threaten and discourage professional journalism. In the worst cases, journalists are being jailed in failed attempts to stifle political dissent. This is unacceptable behavior for nations committed to the fundamental freedoms and human rights described in the Helsinki Final Act, and I call on all OSCE participating States, particularly Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Uzbekistan, to release those journalists who remain imprisoned.   “Unfortunately, journalists in the OSCE region also face other daily threats to their lives, especially those members of the media who report from conflict zones. More than 200 attacks on journalists have been reported as a result of the Russia-Ukraine conflict alone; some of those brave journalists have paid the ultimate price.   “I am proud that the OSCE continues to lead the way with initiatives focused on journalist safety in the field, ending impunity, and improving media safety online, and I especially commend the work of the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Dunja Mijatovic. However, much remains to be done to advance the safety of journalists in our region and around the world.”   On May 5, Chairman Smith plans to introduce the World Press Freedom Protection Act of 2015 in the U.S. House of Representatives. The legislation would authorize the President to deny entry visas to individuals who have credibly threatened press freedom; restrict some U.S. activities of executives of state-owned media organizations from countries where American journalists are threatened or harassed; and urge the U.S. Government to include press freedoms and Internet freedom as part of international treaty negotiations and trade agreements.

  • Rep. Smith Chairs Helsinki Commission Hearing on Armenian Genocide

    WASHINGTON—At a hearing convened today by the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, Chairman Chris Smith (NJ-04) and other lawmakers examined denialism of the Armenian Genocide by the Government of Turkey and the decades-long effort to seek accountability.  “The Armenian genocide is the only genocide of the 20th century in which a nation that was decimated by genocide has been subject to the ongoing outrage of a massive campaign of genocide denial, openly sustained by state authority,” said Smith, who called today’s hearing and chaired Congress’s first-ever hearing on the Armenian Genocide in 2000. “Sadly, the Turkish government has driven this campaign of denial, and has done so over a course of decades.” Smith continued, “I must respond to President Obama. On Tuesday his aides met with Armenian leaders and made it clear that once again he will not recognize the Armenian genocide. This is in direct contradiction to the promises he made before becoming president—and in order to become president.  “While a candidate, in 2008 the President made passionate statements in support of genocide recognition… these are beautiful words which echo hollowly today,” Smith said. “The president’s abandonment of this commitment is unconscionable and cynical. With Germany and the EU lining up to do the right thing, our government needs to do likewise. Sadly, after the President’s powerful promise, he is following, not leading – or rather, we are not even following.” Witnesses testifying at the hearing focused on the sustained campaign of the Turkish government to deny the Armenian genocide and its impact on Armenian-Turkish relations and foreign policy in the region. “Turkey’s denialism of its past and making it an essential part of its foreign policy is not simply a moral abomination; it represents a threat to democracy, stability and security, not only in Turkey but in the region too,” testified Dr. Taner Akçam, a Turkish scholar who holds the chair in Armenian Genocide Studies at Clark University. “The refusal [of the U.S.] to recognize past injustices is fundamentally undemocratic and contributes to the destabilization of Turkey and the region. How can the United States, which prides itself on its exceptionalism in supporting liberal values and human rights at home and across the world, justify a position at odds with its own democratic values?” “Far too often, over the past several decades, under Turkey's arm-twisting here in Washington, DC, official discussions of the Armenian Genocide were framed in denialist terms, on the basis of Ankara's artificially contrived ‘debate’ about whether there was an Armenian Genocide,” said Kenneth Hachikian, chairman of the Armenian National Committee of America. “Turkey's denial of truth and justice for the Armenian Genocide remains the central issue between Turks and Armenians, the one that must be openly acknowledged, honestly discussed, and fairly resolved for there to be real, sustained progress in relations between these two nations.”  “How did denial start and how did it last as long as it has?  The answer is simple—successive Turkish governments have used the issue to instill fear, promote racism, distract their population from the truth, and avoid progress,” said Van Krikorian, co-chairman of the board of trustees of the Armenian Assembly of America. “Having re-written their own history, they are now afraid to tell the truth as they will lose votes and risk power. Tragically, this pattern has found accomplices, as Turkish leaders have openly threatened countries which do not deny the Armenian Genocide.  Those who bend to bullying continue to be bullied. Those who do not, show honor and backbone.” Additional witnesses who testified at the hearing, “A Century of Denial: Armenian Genocide and the Ongoing Quest for Justice,” included Dr. Elizabeth H. Prodromou, visiting associate professor of conflict resolution at Tufts University’s Fletcher School, and Mrs. Karine Shnorhokian, representative of the Genocide Education Project.

  • A Century of Denial: The Armenian Genocide and the Ongoing Quest for Justice

    At this hearing, Chairman Chris Smith and other lawmakers examined denialism of the Armenian Genocide by the Government of Turkey and the decades-long effort to seek accountability. The hearing also provided an opportunity to assess potential countercurrents in Turkish society that could move the Government of Turkey toward recognition, and explore what the United States and other countries can do to help bring about recognition and eventually, reconciliation. Witnesses testifying at the hearing focused on the sustained campaign of the Turkish government to deny the Armenian genocide and its impact on Armenian-Turkish relations and foreign policy in the region. Turkey’s denialism of its past and making it an essential part of its foreign policy was identified as a threat to democracy, stability, and security in the entire region.

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