VIENNA The imprisonment of journalists is having a "chilling effect" on Turkey's media, which exercised self-censorship during this month's anti-government protests, Europe's main rights and democracy watchdog said.
Dunja Mijatovic, representative for media freedom at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), said 67 journalists were behind bars in Turkey - the largest number among the body's 57 member states.
Even though it was a decline compared with the OSCE survey last year, when it said 95 journalists were in prison, Mijatovic made clear the underlying situation facing newspapers and broadcasters had not improved.
"I simply cannot understand how come so many journalists in Turkey are potential terrorists," she told Reuters, referring to the anti-terrorism legislation under which many are held.
Freedom of media and expression in the country is "not only under threat, it is damaged already," Mijatovic said in comments that were cleared for publication on Thursday, when her office presented its latest report on its activities in the OSCE area.
She also painted a generally gloomy picture about the situation elsewhere in a geographical area that stretches from Vancouver in the west to Vladivostok in the east.
"There are no attempts to ease (pressure) on the internet or introduce legislation that can foster free expression. On the contrary," she said. "What I see is that freedom is in danger."
Mijatovic singled out countries including Azerbaijan, Belarus, Russia, central Asian and Balkan states. She also expressed concern about developments in the United States, where phone records of the Associated Press news agency were seized, and Britain, where political parties have agreed a new system to regulate the media.
JOURNALISTS AWAIT TRIAL
In Turkey, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's supporters deny opponents' charges that he promotes a secret Islamist agenda in the constitutionally secular state and also reject accusations that he has crippled media.
But his critics in Turkey point to the fact that major newspapers gave only brief references to the first outbreak of unrest nearly two weeks ago, stepping up coverage only after Erdogan himself commented on the scenes of chaos.
The unrest was ignited by the destruction of a small Istanbul park but soon turned into a broader demonstration against Erdogan, accused of using his huge parliamentary majority to impose authoritarian rule. Riot police this week cleared the Istanbul square at the center of the protest.
Mijatovic said Turkish media in general during the unrest "did not report and were showing the society a completely different picture", and that there was huge self-censorship.
"It is probably the intimidation that built over the years, the chilling effect of knowing that you can end up in prison overnight and be detained or accused," she said.
The government says most of the detained media workers are being held for serious crimes, such as membership of an armed terrorist organization, that have nothing to do with journalism.
But Mijatovic, from Bosnia, said in her report that research showed that Turkish journalists "with critical or differing views continue to face the threat" of imprisonment.
"In addition to those in jail, hundreds of other members of the media are awaiting trial outside of prison," she said.
(Additional reporting by Parisa Hafezi; Editing by Pravin Char)