Peace With Militants Won’t End Press Freedom Issues In Turkey, Expert Says

A top European expert on Turkey said that any peace deal between the Turkish government and Kurdish militants won’t do much to end the deteriorating situation of press freedom in the country.

Various human rights groups have criticized the Turkish government’s crackdown on journalists in recent years. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) issued a report last October condemning Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and his government for its campaign of muzzling and jailing journalists, saying that “Turkey’s press freedom situation has reached a crisis point.”

According to the report, Turkey has in recent years jailed more journalists than China and Iran. Seventy percent of those journalists in Turkish jails, however, are Kurds charged with aiding the Kurdistan Workers Party’s (PKK) insurgent campaign against the Turkish state (many others are in prison on charges related to the so-called “Ergenekon” case, a supposed plot by secularists to overthrow Erdogan’s Islamist-leaning government). CPJ says that the definition of terrorism in Turkey’s anti-terror laws “is overly broad and vague, allowing zealous prosecutors and judges to imprison journalists sympathetic to the Kurdish cause as though they were members of a terror group.”

A Turkish newspaper reported this week that the PKK will announce next month that its fighters will disarm and withdraw from Turkish soil in a confidence building measure aimed at ending the 28-year-old conflict. But with a PKK peace deal potentially on the horizon, Carnegie Europe scholar Marc Pierini, former EU ambassador and head of delegation to Turkey from 2006 to 2011, told ThinkProgress that despite the Kurdish issue playing a primary roll in Turkey’s troubles with press freedom, peace with PKK will not mean that the issue will go away.

“The majority of the arithmetic of the issue goes away in terms of freeing jailed journalists,” he said. “But that’s not all. The key underlying factors to the deteriorating situation of press freedom in Turkey are, one, the Kurdish issue, two, media ownership, and three, I would say the political culture around journalists.”

“Because the political culture [in Turkey] is so vivid,” said Pierini, who participated in a Center for American Progress event on Tuesday examining President Obama’s relations with Turkey during his second term, journalists and government officials “go after people instead of discussing issues. That has to change.”

Large corporations own many of Turkey’s major media outlets which, according to Pierini’s own report on press freedom in Turkey released this month, undermines media independence. “With the major media outlets belonging to such conglomerates, they become part of economic calculations that also include vested interests in sectors such as construction, energy, finance, distribution, and tourism,” Pierini says in his report, adding, “A media sector that is defined by corporations’ drive to maximize profits in other sectors is bound to face major difficulties in fulfilling its essential role of checking and balancing the government.”

Critics also say Erdogan himself is responsible for lack of press freedom in Turkey. “Erdogan has publicly deprecated journalists, urged media outlets to discipline or fire critical staff members, and filed numerous high-profile defamation lawsuit,” the CPJ says. “His government pursued a tax evasion case against the nation’s largest media company that was widely seen as politically motivated and that led to the weakening of the company.”

Pierini also told ThinkProgress that greater press freedoms are in Turkey’s financial interests, noting that banks survey a country’s political environment for potential investors. “Who would want to invest in the automotive industry or the aerospace industry, $100 million in Turkey, and be committed for the next 10 or 20 years if at least for even their own employees, everything goes wrong?”

Noting that Turkey is an American and European strategic partner and military ally, Pierini stressed that it should continue to be anchored to the West. “There is a vested interest from the U.S. and the EU in having a more democratic and more modern Turkey,” he said, adding: “That goes through fixing the press freedom issues. Otherwise you would end up very quickly in a very ambiguous situation. … Because it’s an ally you would ignore press freedom? That’s unsustainable in our democracies, U.S. and EU. It just cannot work.”