Last month I found myself waiting outside a Turkish courtroom in Istanbul’s Çağlayan Justice Palace.
I was hoping to see the ongoing trial of two former employees of the closed TV station TV10, camera operator Kemal Demir and staff member Kemal Karagöz.
After an hour or so of waiting, I was denied access by the judge who had decided that foreign observers, including the press, were not to be admitted that day.
This felt like another arbitrary decision in a country where arbitrary decisions affecting the lives of journalists have become the norm.
I was in Turkey as part of an international press freedom mission. We were there to voice concern with the authorities and diplomatic missions about the continued crackdown facing journalists.
Turkey has more journalists behind bars than any other country in the world. The authorities seem to equate journalism with terrorism: everyone has the right to express themselves, but, in their eyes, legitimate journalism is a threat to security.
But in fact, there is a systematic and deliberate attack on the press.
When journalists are arrested, the judicial system is unpredictable. Journalists described the risk of imprisonment like a revolving door – or a game of roulette. Anyone can be jailed at any time.
In April, the European Commission cited a number of fair trial concerns including lack of judicial independence, the dismissal or rotation of judges, the misuse of anti-terror legislation, and inconsistent court decisions. Some journalists are held without trial for months.
Once in prison, only family and lawyers can visit journalists. With very few exceptions, diplomats and international organisations cannot.
Because of this, continued solidarity from EU officials towards Turkish journalists is critical.
The mission examined a judicial reform strategy, announced by the government in May. It seems mostly like a smokescreen to divert attention from the real issues.
‘Release the reporters’
If the Turkish authorities want to improve the rule of law: why not release journalists and revise anti-terror legislation? As one journalist said: “Don’t release the package; just release the people”.
Overall conditions for journalists are worsening.
Authorities are looking to enforce license fees on anyone who publishes online – a silencing technique for small and foreign websites unable to put up the funds. Online freedoms are at risk: even Wikipedia is blocked.
The endless threat of having press cards denied puts foreign and local journalists’ livelihoods and careers in the balance.
“It is like circles of hell…when you escape one, you arrive in another” one journalist said.
The military incursion into Syria is now the focus of EU institutions.
Last week, the European Parliament voted in favour of a resolution calling for an immediate ban on arms exports to Turkey, targeted sanctions and a review of European Investment Bank projects because of Turkey’s action in Syria.
Ensuring that Turkish journalists can report on Syria is hugely important. EU institutions must continue the pressure on improving the domestic situation in Turkey where relations have, for some time, been in an impasse.
The possibility of Turkey ever meeting the requirements for EU accession seems so distant as to be non-existent.
Erdogan’s espousal of anti-western rhetoric means EU member states seem to concentrate on maintaining some channel of dialogue, especially in light of Turkey’s support of curbing migration and assisting counter-terrorism operations. Geopolitical realities complicate Brussels’ leverage.
EU institutions should continue to send a strong message to Turkish journalists: you are not alone.
We are your ally and will not allow you to be forgotten. We know your work helps defend European values. Diplomatic support of journalists, including trial monitoring, is vital.
In such a climate of fear and self-censorship, journalists on the ground should be reassured of this message. Until such a space opens up, Turkish people cannot access the information they should.