The Turkish government has a long tumultuous relationship with the press. As opposition media organizations come and go and journalists increasingly face legal challenges, it’s time to go back to the basics, and look at some of the challenges in the rules and regulations that exist to protect and punish members of the press.
So, who does the Turkish government even consider a journalist? This is not a question of professional standards, but rather, political ones. For starters, press credential requirements are not set by journalism organizations or unions, and they are not defined by established press laws and regulations, but rather by the regime itself.
This is the reason for Turkish authorities looking so confident when they are asked about imprisoned journalists. Because the authorities have the power to decide who is a journalist and who is not, based on the government’s list of press credential cardholders. However, it is more complex than that, because said authorities are not even following their own rules.
Thousands of journalists in Turkey do not hold a press card, but there are no statistics saying exactly how many. Some journalists do not even apply for a press card. For instance, I was a press cardholder for years, but did not apply to renew it after 2015. I felt like it was not worth the trouble since I was being targeted and labelled an ‘opposition journalist.’
Many others have had their press cards cancelled over the last few years. As a result, some journalists protest the mechanism entirely by going without. Hasan Cemal is one example of a journalist who does not have a press card.
However, a press card is required for reporters working in the field, covering protests, courtroom cases, or working outdoors during lockdown. Recently, it has even become required for admission into to official institutions.
Previously, the Directorate General of Press and Information under the Office of the Prime Minister issued yellow press cards. Meaning, it was always the government who had the final say. However, through a 2018 decree, this system was shut down and handed over to the Presidential Communications and Press Directorate, which became the new authority in press regulation. With a single amendment, the old yellow press cards became useless.
There are certain criteria one must meet in order to hold a press card, but the application is extremely vague. That is why our western counterparts don’t fully understand the arbitrariness, partiality, and complexity involved in the process.
Let me give a few examples of how the regime uses press cards as a reward and punishment mechanism for journalists.
- Around 95 percent of the media is under the control and/or owned by President Erdoğan’s affiliates. Individuals from these organizations have no trouble obtaining press cards. Meanwhile, more critical outlets, like Evrensel daily, have difficulties in renewing their cards. In February 2020, 600+ press cards were revoked without explanation. After several journalism organization protests, some had their cards reinstated, but one cannot know who will be ‘out’ when the next list is released. This conjures for me images of the reality television show ‘The Apprentice,’ but with a more covert agenda.
- Aydın Engin has been a veteran journalist for 51 years and a permanent press cardholder for 25 years. He applied for a “new” card but he was under review for two years. Eventually, it was not renewed by the Directorate General of Press and Information. Engin recently filed a lawsuit
- Journalist Ayşegül Doğan, a well-known news anchor and program coordinator for IMC TV, was convicted regarding her journalistic activities, and was sentenced to 6 years and 3 months in jail. (IMC TV was shut down through a 2016 decree, but the reason was never announced) The judge in her case ruled that she is does not qualify as a journalist, based on information from the Directorate General of Press and Information.
- Similarly, four Kurdish reporters who covered a story about torture in the city of Van were jailed two months ago. The reason, which the judge gave, was that they were not journalists because they “did not hold a press card.” Other reasons stated for their arrest were “reporting on social issues against the state” and doing so “intensely, diversely, and continuously.”
The local courts’ recent decisions on journalists point to a greater danger: Journalists are still accused and tried on the bases of terror related crimes, not press or constitutional law. In journalists’ defence cases, they typically refer to their journalistic endeavours, but the courts reject these claims on the grounds that they do not hold press credentials. This means that thousands of other journalists are susceptible to a similar fate.
As international journalism advocates have vastly different criteria to decide who is or isn’t a journalist. I wonder how they will interpret these cases.