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How many journalists are behind bars in Turkey?

Speaking to BBC’s Hardtalk on 17 December 2018, Prof. Gulnur Aybet, a senior advisor to the President of Turkey, Mr. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, refuted Stephen Sackur’s question about Turkey being the worst jailer of journalists in the world, on the grounds that she has checked the numbers given by various organisations, including Amnesty International, and that the numbers were contradictory.

Aybet’s claim that these people, who are listed as imprisoned journalists are only registered as such because they have checked the box on their prison admission form that says ‘journalist’. That comment is of course, nonsense.

None of these organisations have access to those documents. Aybet claimed that the numbers of journalists included in the lists of the international organisations were people who had been arrested for domestic crimes they committed back in the 1990s.

According to Aybet, there were no journalists in Turkish jails, “convicted for what they have written or for what they have done as journalists.”

On 14 July 2017, President Erdogan hosted Zeinab Badawi in Istanbul for a special edition of HardTalk and answered a similar question by claiming that, “Just two actual journalists are in jail right now.” Unfortunately, Badawi did not ask who those two journalists were. Erdogan had different explanations than his advisor, Prof. Aybet. He claimed that those jailed journalists were affiliated with terrorist organisations or had been involved in robberies.

Aybet went on to claim that, “They have employee ID cards, they don’t have official press cards and that they claim to be journalists. The figure of 170 [jailed journalists] you mentioned, is a lie.”

I am a journalist who wouldn’t count as one for either Erdogan or his advisor Aybet, who is an alumnus from Southampton, King’s College and Nottingham universities. Not involved in any kind of criminal activities, I am left with being said to be affiliated with terrorist organisations as a pretext for discrediting my professionalism as a journalist.

Yet after 26 years as a journalist, I cannot help but wonder, why a few international organisations cannot agree on the number of journalists jailed in one country?

Five lists, five different numbers

None of the two institutions mentioned in the HardTalk episode – Amnesty International and Index on Censorship – issue lists of imprisoned journalists in Turkey, and the four universally recognised lists show different figures.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has the smallest number: 33 journalists including an Austrian citizen. Turkey ranks third, after China and Iran, on their list of worst jailers of journalists. With the release of Murat Aksoy and the Austrian citizen journalist Max Zirngast, this number has now dropped to 31.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has 68 journalists on its list, which was last updated on 1 December, 2018. As it has not been updated since, Murat Aksoy, Ece Sevim Öztürk, Seda Taşkın and Reyhan Çapan are still included in the list despite having been released.

The European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) has 162 journalists on its list and the Media and Law Studies Association (MLSA) has 155 names on a list published on 7 October, 2018.

Finally, the Stockholm Centre for Freedom (SCF) has 242 names on its list, which was last updated on 17 December, 2018 and includes additional information on the status of the imprisoned journalists.

According to all these lists, apart from RSF’s list, Turkey ranks as the worst jailer of journalists in the world. However, the difference between being the worst jailer, with 68 imprisoned journalists, or with 242, is significant and calls for an explanation.

Although the status of imprisonment can vary from being investigated, interrogated, detained, arrested pending trial, released pending trial, convicted pending appeal, convicted and released pending appeal, released on probation and under house arrest, it does not explain the different figures.

While the terminology can lead to confusion in the reports, all five institutions mean the same thing when they say imprisoned: any journalist detained, arrested or jailed-after-conviction are meant to be on those lists. The difference is not in the definition of what ‘imprisonment’ means, but in what ‘an imprisoned journalist’ stands for.

Imprisoned journalist vs journalist imprisoned due to journalistic activity

Both RSF and CPJ have published their definition of an imprisoned journalist. CPJ underlines that, in its annual prison census, it includes only those journalists, “who it has confirmed have been imprisoned in relation to their work.” CPJ uses the same definition for its list of killed journalists; listing only journalists killed because of their journalistic work.

The same is true for RSF, which, apparently has a stricter definition of who is a journalist and what counts as journalistic work. It is important to underline that neither organisation claims that their lists are exhaustive. This clearly makes the lists of RSF and CPJ the lists of journalists imprisoned in Turkey whose reasons for imprisonment can be confirmed by the two organisations as being because of their journalistic works.

These two lists then, present the list of imprisoned journalists with a methodology precisely requested by President Erdogan of Turkey and his advisor. These lists primarily represent, not the record of freedom of expression in Turkey, but the restrictions to information about ongoing detentions and arrests of journalists or a failure of the organisations in attaining that information, even if it is in the public sphere.

There are several explanations other than the failure of these organisations. For example, one is the delayed indictments of arrested journalists. Having no declaration of reason of arrest available, neither RSF nor CPJ can affirm whether or not the journalist in question has in fact been arrested due to his or her journalistic work. Neither one of these two lists have Yeni Yaşam journalist Tuğba Bulut arrested on 22 December 2018 in their list for example.

Another is the different criteria used by the different organisations to decide who counts as a journalist. SCF’s list includes all media workers, including, Tahsin Kürklü, the driver of former editor-in-chief of Zaman, a now closed Turkish daily newspaper, Ekrem Dumanlı.

SCF and MSLA are also more inclusive of design, marketing and advertising departments of media organisations, hence, Yakup Şimşek, former head of marketing and advertisement of Zaman Daily is on both lists, whereas he is missing on the RSF and CPJ lists.

Academics or lawyers who also contribute to newspapers as columnists and analysts are included in some lists but not all. They also lack consistency regarding freelance contributors: Gültekin Avci, a former prosecutor who wrote columns in Bugün daily, appears on both RSF and CPJ lists, but Prof. Sedat Laçiner, who had a longer journalistic career than Avcı, but was also the president of Çanakkale University, appears only on SCF’s list.

But failure is also a factor. There is no excuse for RSF to not have Zaman columnist Ali Ünal’s name on the list. Omitting Faruk Akkan’s name is also a grave failure. Akkan served as the Moscow representative of Cihan News Agency for almost ten years and was promoted to become the General Director of Cihan News Agency only very recently when the Turkish government took over the control of the two media organs.

Omitting Mehmet Baransu and Fevzi Yazici from the list is also an unacceptable failure as neither of them is being accused for anything other than their journalistic activities. All four names mentioned here appear on CPJ’s better and more detailed list, which is still incomplete. Interestingly, a list prepared by Erol Önderoğlu, the Turkey representative of RSF, on the first day of 2019 includes all these four names also. Önderoğlu’s list included 123 journalists.

Lists lack information on other kinds of sufferings of journalists

The organisations in question list incarcerated and killed journalists. But authoritarian regimes have developed smarter strategies to silence journalists, other than killing or arresting them. A journalist who is not arrested but busied by tens of court cases is not free to do his or her work. A journalist who is released on probation knows that calumniation of a similar crime will revive the previous jail sentence, hence keeps away from any journalistic activity.

This is torture, a form of civil death. A journalist released pending appeal is in no way free. Mehmet Altan is released from jail and yet is helplessly waiting for the approval of his life term by the Court of Appeals, which, by the way, is either giving summary approval decisions, or sitting on the cases, so as to delay consummation of domestic remedies and deter applications to the European Court of Human Rights.

Release under judicial control, where the defendant has to be personally ready at a police station on a dedicated day of the week and give a signature until the case is over, and cannot leave the country, is subject to cancellation of passports, cancellation of press cards and the freezing of assets are among other forms of persecution tactics that the Turkish regime is enforcing. The SCF list gives partial information about post-arrest situations of the journalists. Bianet’s BİA Medya Gözlem quarterly reports might be the best source of information on various types of persecutions Turkish journalists are subjected to.


Obviously, all the international organisations involved are trying to exert pressure on the Turkish government for the release and acquittal of the detained and arrested journalists. But it is equally obvious that the contradictions between their lists are being usurped by the Turkish regime as evidence of inconsistency and a lack of credibility. This has to be stopped.

Given the high turnover of journalists in Turkish prisons, the task to prepare and on an almost daily basis update a list that would make all stakeholders satisfied, would be a gigantic one. If an organisation should volunteer for the task, it has to answer these three basic questions first:

  1. Given the ongoing trend of convergence among the journalistic and non-journalistic departments of the media sector, why on earth do we have to make a distinction between a media worker and a professional journalist? And if we will, where do we need to stop?
  2. Is it a legitimate task for international media organisations to decide which accusation refers to a journalistic work, and which to terrorist propaganda, particularly when these accusations are made by apparently authoritarian regimes?
  3. Is the freedom of expression of a journalist less worthy of defending when the journalist jailed or silenced by other mechanisms belongs to a conviction that does not conform with our Western liberal democratic values?

Neither one of the failures, inabilities or unwillingness of the international organisations to come up with a unified, agreed-upon list of incarcerated journalists legitimise what the Turkish government is doing. RSF’s 33 is no less grave than CPJ’s 68 or SCF’s 242 when these numbers are used to mark Turkey’s freedom of expression: Turkey is not a free country… Full stop!

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