ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Press freedom groups condemned the arrests of dozens of journalists across Turkey this week, which rights groups say could make it one of the countries with the most reporters in jail.
France-based Reporters Without Borders said on Tuesday it was “astonished” at the scale and manner of the detentions, which have “no place in a democratic state”, and urged Turkish authorities to explain in detail the reasons for the arrests.
The latest arrests could push the number of reporters in Turkish jails above 100, among the highest in the world, and will fuel accusations Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s government is intolerant of dissent and is trying to tame the media.
Turkey, which has put itself forward as a model for emerging Middle Eastern democracies, says the journalists are in prison for crimes, not for their work.
“Our first reaction is astonishment. The massive aspect of this casts a dark shadow on all journalists in Turkey,” Johann Bihr of Reporters Without Borders told Reuters.
“This is really concerning and has no place in a democratic state. This goes beyond journalism and highlights the lack of reform in the judiciary system. We urge the authorities to explain the details of the grounds for the arrests.”
Turkish police raided the offices of several newspapers and news agencies as well as journalists’ homes in cities across Turkey early on Tuesday. At least 38 people were detained in the raids, some 25 of them in Turkey’s largest city Istanbul.
The government has made no official comment on the arrests but the country’s state news agency, Anatolian, said 38 people, including an unspecified number of journalists, had been detained as part of an operation against the “media and propaganda” wing of the Union of Kurdistan Communities (KCK).
According to a 2009 indictment, the KCK is an organization established by the outlawed Kurdistan Workers party (PKK) in 2005 with the aim of creating its own Kurdish political system.
Turkish media watchdogs, including the Platform for Freedom of Journalists, condemned the arrests and hundreds protested in the centre of Istanbul on Tuesday evening.
“Turkey is trying to put pressure on the free press. 2010 was a dark year for journalists in terms of press freedom. We have seen that 2011 has turned out even worse than 2010,” the Platform for Freedom of Journalists said in a statement.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said it was “alarmed” by the arrests and called on authorities “to immediately disclose the names of those detained along with any charges being filed against them”.
Prior to Tuesday’s arrests there were some 70 journalists in Turkish prisons, a figure some rights groups say is only rivaled by China and Iran. However, Bihr said the exact number of jailed was not known, which was “revealing” in itself.
Most of the jailed journalists in Turkey have been detained under the country’s sweeping anti-terrorism laws which allow people to be detained for years without trial.
“Behind all these cases is the same problem, the anti-terror law. Journalists are not only in jail but they are in jail pending trial. Many of them do not know why they are in jail,” said Bihr.
Speaking on YouTube earlier this month, Turkish President Abdullah Gul said he was “disturbed” by the lengthy detentions and said trials should be accelerated.
But European Union candidate Turkey has long been criticized over media freedom and the head of the Council of Europe’s human rights body said during a visit to Turkey last month Ankara needed to change its attitude to media freedom laws.
Secretary General Thorbjorn Jagland said Turkey had 16,000 cases pending in the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights, of which about 1,000 concerned media freedom, a situation he said had “a chilling effect” on freedom of expression.
Writing by Jonathon Burch; Editing by Andrew Roche