Freedom of the Press during Turkey’s Accession to the EU

Caglar Ezikoglu

“The press is free, and shall not be censored. The establishment of a printing house shall not be subject to prior permission or the deposit of a financial guarantee. The state shall take the necessary measures to ensure the freedom of the press and freedom of information.” These sentences came from the Turkish Constitution in Article 28 which was amended on October 17, 2001 in light of the National Programme and political reforms. Since the second half of the twentieth century political reforms related to the freedom of expression have played a critical role in Turkish politics. The freedom of the press and media has become one of the most controversial issues in Turkey especially during its accession process to the EU. While concerns about press freedom in Turkey are not new, the situation has worsened since the 1980s (Christensen, 2010). Most of the newspapers were closed after the 1980 military coup and the following years due to the Kurdish issue, because these newspapers and magazines discussed issues related to the freedom to communicate in Kurdish or published in the Kurdish language (Kirisci, 1999). Many journalists, for example, were arrested due to their non-violent opinions with respect to the Kurdish question. Nevertheless, all Turkish governments except the AKP rejected the claim of human rights violation in terms of media freedom in Turkey. The Turkish government’s response to these developments has either been to deny the persistent problem or to frame it differently, arguing that its actions are a response to insulting Turkish language or acts of terrorism (Committee to Protect Journalists, 2012).

After the Helsinki Council in 1999, Turkey started reform programmes in many areas including the freedom of expression and media. Apart from constitutional changes about the freedom of press in 2001, the Turkish Press Law was amended by the Turkish Assembly in 2004. A majority of press professionals perceived this amendment as an important improvement regarding the regulation of the press. This act, however, could neither protect journalists nor guarantee the freedom of expression in Turkey. According to Thomas Hammerberg’s report (Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe Following),the Act does not include a strong public interest clause for the protection of journalists due to the Constitutional Court decision which invalidated some articles in the Turkish Press Law (Hammarberg, 2011).

After the 2007 election, the Justice and Development Party has, indeed, become more authoritarian in many areas including the media. Most opponents of the government thought that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan looked like a dictator with his aggressive policies, opponent journalists criticizing his actions of repression in their op-ed articles. AKP responded quickly by further pressuring Turkish media agencies including the press which resisted the Erdogan government (Committee to Protect Journalists, 2012).Based on reports and consultations with Turkish and European human rights organisations as well as the Council of Europe and the European Union, two main issues emerged as the main areas of concern in relation to the freedom of press in Turkey: that the imprisonment of journalists and the employees of media sector and the government’s direct interference in media affairs severely affect the freedom of media in Turkey becoming one of the main problematic issues for Turkey’s accession to the EU(Pierini and Mayr, 2013).

Imprisonment of journalists

There has been a growing concern across Turkey and the world due to a large number of criminal proceedings and arrests involving journalists in Turkey. According to the The Platform for Solidarity with Imprisoned Journalists, by the year 2014, 67 press workers (including six newspaper distributors and 61 reporters, editors, correspondents or commentators) are imprisoned. Apparently, these figures were even higher than past years; about a hundred journalists and employees of the media sector were put in jail between 2011 and 2012 (Human Rights Association, 2012). According to the European Federation Journalists, as of today, 59 professional journalists still remain in Turkish prisons with many waiting desperately a fair trial.[1]

These figures could be related to two main cases; the Ergenekon case and KCK case. The trial of the alleged criminal network Ergenekon is an important example to explain these trials. According to the 2011 Turkey Progress Report,the judicial investigation was expanded further and, according to official data, the number of defendants has risen to 238, some of those (53 of them) are under arrest. The investigation into the alleged media involvement continued with the detention of a number of journalists, among whom were prominent supporters of the Ergenekon investigation. In March 2011, copies of an unpublished book written by one of the arrested journalists were confiscated on the orders of a court for being a “document of a terrorist organisation”. Confiscation of an unpublished book as an evidence of crime raised deep concerns about the freedom of the press in Turkey and the legitimacy of this case (European Commission, 2011 Turkey Progress Report).

Another major trial of the imprisonment of journalists is directly related to the Kurdish issue. The majority of journalists were imprisoned in Turkey due to the Kurdish Communities Union (KCK), a Kurdish political umbrella group linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). The Turkish government under Erdogan believes that these trials occurred due to the fight against terrorism (Fulton,2008). Nevertheless the EU has not agreed with this idea. According to the European Commission, the interpretation of journalists, prosecutors and courts differ and is not in line with the European Convention on Human Rights or the case-law of the European Court of Human Rights, (Pierini and Mayr, 2013). In a similar way, according to the EU, these journalists do not have any idea due to the incitement to violence and they only use the expression of non-violent ideas. Nevertheless, most of the independent institutions apart from the EU think that the AKP government used the framework of anti-terrorism to explain these trials. For instance, Emma Sinclair-Webb, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch, said, “In the last three years, the biggest problem has been the misuse of anti-terrorism laws to bring criminal charges against many ordinary people who engage in legitimate and nonvio­lent pro-Kurdish or leftist political activity”.[2] Moreover, some independent agencies reported that journalists acted professionally. For example, a special report by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) points out, “Throughout the Kurdish prosecutions, CPJ found that the government conflated reporting favourable to the PKK or other outlawed Kurdish groups with actual assistance to such organizations. Basic news-gathering activities— receiving tips, assigning stories, conducting interviews, relaying information to colleagues—were depicted by prosecutors as engaging in a terrorist enterprise (Committee to Protect Journalists, 2012).”

To sum up, the freedom of the press is an important step in the process of Turkey’s accession to the European Union due to the Copenhagen Political Criteria. Pierini and Mayr remarked, “Press freedom is one of the key subjects that will delineate the future nature of Turkey, including the country’s domestic cohesiveness and its relationship with the rest of the world. The tenets of press freedom in Turkey are therefore of strategic interest not only to Turkish citizens but also for the European Union. The EU needs a prosperous, stable, and democratic Turkey irrespective of whether it is a member, a strategic ally, or a neighbour.” (Pierini and Mayr 2013, p.21).


Christensen, Miyase (2010) “Notes on the public sphere on a national and post-national axis : Journalism and freedom of expression in Turkey”, Global Media and Communication , 6:2, 177-197.

Committee to Protect Journalists (2012) “Turkey’s Press Freedom Crisis”, United Book Press.

European Commission, “Turkey, 2011 progress report”, available online at: , (Accessed date: 08 July 2013)

Fulton, Lauren (2008) “A Muted Contreversy: Freedom of Speech in Turkey”, Harvard International Review, 26-29,

Human Rights Association in Turkey (InsanHaklarıDernegi), “Human Rights Violations in Turkey in 2012” (2012 YiliInsanHaklarıIhlalleriRaporu), available online: (Accessed date: 02 July 2013).

Kirisci, Kemal (1999) “Turkey and the Mediterranean”, in Stavridis, Stelios, (ed.) The foreign policies of the European Union’s Mediterranean states and applicant countries in the 1990s, Macmillan, pp.250-295.

Pierini, Marc; Mayr, Markus (2013) “Press Freedom in Turkey”, The Carniage Papers.

Report by Thomas Hammarberg Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe (2011) “Freedom of expression and media freedom in Turkey”

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Author biography

Mr Caglar Ezikoglu is currently a PhD student in Politics and International Relations Department, University of Reading.  Ezikoglu holds a BA and an MA in Political Science and Public Administration from Ankara University. He completed his second MA in European Politics at University of Sussex in 2013.

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