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Press Freedom

Turkish journalists imprisoned as 'terrorists'

May 3 is International Press Freedom Day. In an interview with DW, Turkish journalist Ragip Duran accuses his country’s government of imprisoning journalists without a sentence.

Deutsche Welle: The Turkish economy has grown considerably over the past few decades. Have the Turkish media and press freedom in the country seen a similarly positive development?

Ragip Duran: It's a completely different picture. According to the Turkish government, we're ranked at 17 on the list of the world's biggest economies. But when it comes to journalists in prison, we're number one! There are more journalists in prison in Turkey than there are in China or in Iran, even though those countries have a far bigger population than us.

What has changed over the past 20 to 30 years?

In the past, our colleagues were killed, newspaper offices were bombed out, the military used repression, there was censorship. Today, journalists are no longer killed. But while in the past we had to go to our colleagues' funerals, we now have to visit them in prison or attend trials in court. There is a lot more censorship, self-censorship and pressure on media outlets and on journalists in comparison to 20 or 30 years ago.

According to your own view what are the structural problems of Turkish media?

Newspapers are neither independent nor free because of the ownership structure. But journalism needs more freedom and independence these days. Today, the government does what the military used to do. In Turkey, you can't speak of independent and free journalism. One core principle of journalism is to portray a different opinion than that of the ruling party. But you just can't do that in Turkey. Journalists are not allowed to oppose. You're considered a good journalist if you praise the government. But if you criticize the government's policy in the name of the public, you're in trouble.

Can you do journalistic work in today's Turkey without fearing criminal prosecution?

Unfortunately, you can't. You're first summoned to the prosecutor, then you'll face the judge, and eventually you end up in prison. The case of our colleagues Ahmet Sik and Nedim Sever is a typical example: The two had done some research on a famous religious community. They wanted to do investigative journalism and write things about the community, which the mass media left unmentioned. All they did was research. But they ended up having to spend months in prison.

I'm not saying that journalists can never be guilty. Of course they also violate laws. But when you look at the case of Mustafa Balbay and Tuncay Özkan, who have been in prison for a long time without ever having been sentenced, you see that that's a violation of legal principles.

The Turkish government calls some journalists terrorists.

The government tends to use this argument on an international level. Politicians say that our colleagues are in prison or are standing trial because of their membership in terrorist organizations. But the majority were arrested because of their journalistic activities. And only few have been sentenced. If you look at the evidence against them you see that no weapons were found, and that they didn't use violence. The journalists are in prison because they wrote news. Some prosecutors interpret the organizational structure of a newspaper as that of a secret organization.

Take the case where editors for example commissioned correspondents to do research. In his final speech, the prosecutor uses that as evidence for the existence of a secret organization. In the trials, our colleagues and their lawyers have repeatedly pointed out that they're only doing journalistic work - and that they were arrested because they represented an opinion that was critical of the government.

Turkish journalist Ragip Duran spent many years working as a correspondent of French daily newspaper Liberation, for the BBC and for news agency AFP. In the late 1990s, he spent seven-and-a-half months in prison - because of an article about the PKK in the pro-Kurdish newspaper Ülkede Gündem. He studied law and also works as a lecturer at Istanbul's Galatasaray University.

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