TURKEY: ‘All critical voices are repressed under the pretext of combating disinformation’

FatihPolatIn the run-up to Turkey’s general election, CIVICUS speaks with Fatih Polat, editor-in-chief of Evrensel, about the state of press freedoms and the Turkish government’s attacks on critical media.

Founded in 1995, Evrensel is an independent daily newspaper. In August 2022, the Turkish Press Advertisement Agency permanently banned all public announcements and advertisements with Evrensel despite the Turkish Constitutional Court’s decision that advertisement bans on Evrensel and other newspapers violated freedom of expression and press freedom.

What are the conditions for the exercise of journalism in Turkey?

In Turkey state representatives routinely refuse to answer journalists’ questions. In any developed western democracy, this would be a serious matter and would be considered an obstruction of journalistic work. But in Turkey, this is no longer seen as a problem. For a very long time, the government has routinely imposed a variety of obstacles both on the critical Turkish press and on our foreign colleagues covering Turkey for international press organisations.

Ever since the Justice and Development Party (AKP) gained power 21 years ago, independent media have been in trouble. The government pressures critical media both financially and politically. It seeks to financially asphyxiate them by blocking the flow of official announcements and advertisements and imposing fines for alleged infractions concerning news, commentaries or television programmes. Political pressures range from lawsuits filed against individual journalists and newspaper managers to the detention, arrest and use of torture against journalists.

Critical television channels can also be subjected to temporary screen blackouts. Online media, which have developed significantly over the past 20 years, experience pressures ranging from court-ordered removal of content to lawsuits. Even cartoonists are subjected to punishment and arrest. Moreover, journalists are frequently exposed to police violence and detained while following the news on the streets.

On top of this, if the government is uncomfortable with the publication of a newspaper, a state official calls the agency that distributes advertisements and makes veiled threats to stop the flow of private advertisements. In contrast, newspapers and TV channels supporting the government receive serious financial aid from the state.

How has Evrensel been specifically targeted?

Evrensel is a 28-year-old, well-established newspaper that stays afloat thanks to readers’ contributions and advertisements placed by municipalities run by the opposition. On 22 August 2022, the Turkish Press Advertisement Agency, whose budget comes from tax money, banned Evrensel from receiving any public announcements and advertisements. This tactic is aimed at making a newspaper financially unviable. In response we filed a lawsuit, which is currently underway.

The new press law, which was recently introduced by the government under the pretext of ‘combating disinformation’, has led to a new period of repression of anyone who expresses a critical stance towards the regime. Lawsuits are filed against us for news and articles published in our print newspaper and on our website. Our website is frequently subjected to access-blocking orders.

Are journalists from certain groups particularly vulnerable?

The Kurdish media are under particularly strong attack. There is an ongoing conflict between the state and various Kurdish insurgent groups who demand either separation from Turkey or greater autonomy within Turkey. The government has increased pressure on Kurdish media, and on all Kurdish actors, after putting an end to negotiations. For example, Kurdish journalists have been arrested alongside legislators and politicians of the pro-minority People’s Democratic Party (HDP), including the HDP’s co-presidents Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdağ, and mayors have been replaced by trustees. In April and early May alone, 34 Kurdish journalists and press workers have been arrested.

How has the repression of press freedoms affected the popularity of the ruling regime?

Your question reminds me of another important element of repression. In Turkey, insulting the president is punishable with prison sentences of up to six years. I am among the many journalists who have been tried for insulting the president; I was acquitted in 2019. This has been applied not only against journalists but also against social media users.

But for a significant segment of AKP voters, media censorship or corruption allegations against the president are not that important. Only bad economic performance can result in the erosion of their support.

On 14 May Turkey will hold a critical general election, both for president and parliament. The unity of the opposition has brought hope for a change. Right now, the prospect of a time when we will be able to breathe a little more freely again seems within reach.

What kinds of domestic or international support do Turkish independent media and journalists currently receive, and what would help?

There are several domestic journalists’ organisations in Turkey. For example, I am a member of the Journalists’ Union of Turkey and the Journalists’ Association of Turkey, the largest press unions in the country. In the last 15 to 20 years, various international journalists’ organisations have also provided important support, standing in solidarity with the independent press and journalists from Turkey, spreading awareness and advocating for our rights. It is very valuable for us that they follow the many cases of repression of critical media and include them in their countries’ political agenda.

Civic space in Turkey is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.

Get in touch with Evrensel through its website or its Facebook page, and follow @EvrenselDaily and @fpolat69 on Twitter.