National Press Club

Press Freedom panel on Turkey explores government control, acceptance of censorship

January 28, 2015 | By Lorna Aldrich | lorna2@verizon.net

John Donnelly (left), chair of the NPC’s Freedom of the Press Committee, moderates a panel examining the crackdown of press freedom in Turkey at the National Press Club on Jan. 27, 2015.  Also participating on the panel are Kemal Kirisci, Turkish Industry and Business Association’s senior fellow at the  Brookings Institution; Delphine Halgand, U.S. director for Reporters Without Borders; Tolga Tanis, Washington Correspondent for Hurriyet; and Sevgi Akarcesme, columnist for Zaman Daily.

John Donnelly (left), chair of the NPC’s Freedom of the Press Committee, moderates a panel examining the crackdown of press freedom in Turkey at the National Press Club on Jan. 27, 2015. Also participating on the panel are Kemal Kirisci, Turkish Industry and Business Association’s senior fellow at the Brookings Institution; Delphine Halgand, U.S. director for Reporters Without Borders; Tolga Tanis, Washington Correspondent for Hurriyet; and Sevgi Akarcesme, columnist for Zaman Daily.

Photo/Image: Noel St. John

The administration of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and underlying attitudes of Turkish society are the sources of journalists’ restrictions, harassment and arrests in Turkey, panelists at an NPC's Freedom of the Press Committee event said Jan. 27 at the National Press Club.

Sevgi Akarcesme, columnist for Zaman Daily, a Turkish paper, called Turkey an “arbitrocacy,” under the Erdogan regime.

Kemal Kirisci, Turkish Industry and Business Association’s senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, cited a poll of 16,000 Turks that found 60 percent agreed that the media could be censored and 61 percent agreed that the Internet could be censored. Kirisci said Turkey has cycled between restriction and liberal democracy over several decades. Of the current situation, he said, “I feel deeply, deeply concerned.”

Acknowledging that most who were held in jail last year have been freed, Kirisci said, “Today there is a constant sense of harassment and repression not just for journalists but for ordinary people as well.”

“I am free but there are limits,” said Tolga Tanis, Washington correspondent for Hurriyet, also a Turkish newspaper.

Turkish journalists do not define freedom in the same way that American journalists do, said Tanis. Comparing the situation in Turkey to that in the United States, where journalists refused to reveal sources and kept their jobs, he said that Turkish journalists could lose their jobs in such a situation and they cannot cover specific issues.

Akarcesme said she left Turkey 10 years ago thinking those who criticized Erdogan were wrong, but now says they were right. She warned against reducing the situation to one of jailed journalists, because “we have been witnessing intimidation, harassment and smear campaigns.”

"I experience harassment every single day,” Akarcesme said, referring to insults she has received on Twitter. “I don’t know what will happen when I go back."

Erdogan is the “largest media boss in Turkey today,” Akarcesme said, because he has granted government favors to industrialists who control the media, enabling him to dictate coverage and put some stories off limits.

Responding to a question about what the United States could do, Delphine Halgand, U.S. director for Reporters Without Borders, cited international pressure that played a role in the release of journalists, although there are still legal issues unresolved. She said it is harder to depict the complexity of the situation in Turkey now, but “I hope international pressure can still play a role.”

“We defend the right of news organizations to determine what's in poor taste or insulting," said John Donnelly, chairman of the NPC's Freedom of the Press Committee. "When the government is allowed to make those decisions for newspapers, it is easier for it to repress all kinds of expression.”