For a long time, it has been possible to overlook Turkey’s human rights failures. After all, the country was making remarkable progress after starting from a very hard place. Now, however, ignoring such failures is no longer possible.

A 53-page report released Oct. 22 by the U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists is the most detailed on Turkish media freedoms to date. It makes for shocking reading. As of Aug. 1, Turkey was holding at least 76 journalists in jail, the report found, while prosecutors were pursuing thousands of cases against other members of the news media.

Put another way, Turkey now has more imprisoned journalists than any other country, by a factor of just less than two. Iran comes second, with 42 incarcerations; Eritrea third, with 28; and China, a communist dictatorship with a population of 1.35 billion, comes fourth at 27.

It’s a lamentable record and in sharp contrast to the modern and tolerant image that Turkey’s leadership has projected over the past decade.

The reason for the new report is especially interesting. The committee had come under fire for reporting lower estimates of the number of jailed journalists than other human rights organizations. Turkey’s government has long maintained that only a handful of the journalists were charged with offenses related to their jobs, and because the CPJ hadn’t read all the indictments, it had erred on the side of caution.

Speech Crimes

Now it has read the indictments and determined that 61 of the reporters and editors in detention are there because of things they wrote or said in the course of their work. In letters accompanying the report, the Turkish government disputes that characterization and asserts that it is striving to balance the need to prevent “the praising of violence and terrorist propaganda, and the need to expand freedom of speech.”

What’s becoming all too clear during the Justice and Development Party’s third term in office is that despite its claims that the government is now liberalizing press laws and continuing the country’s march toward a European-style democracy, the opposite is happening.

First, take a look at the much touted legal reforms: Some sentences under statutes used to prosecute journalists were lowered, and judges were given the ability to drop less serious cases. The accused, however, are to be released only on the condition that for three years they don’t repeat the offense -- in other words, they must not write or say again the things that irritated the authorities. That isn’t a liberalization, it’s a gagging law.

More worrying still is the ruling party’s attempt to amend the Turkish constitution in a draft text published in July, just days after those supposed improvements to media freedom were introduced. Under the draft, Turkish authorities would have a constitutional duty to restrict free speech: “to protect national security, public order, public morals, others’ rights, private and family life; to avert crimes; to ensure independence and impartiality of the judiciary; to prevent warmongering and the propagation of every sort of discrimination, hostility, rancor or hatred.”

Translation: the law could restrict saying pretty much anything. The free speech exceptions for protecting “public morals” and “family life” offer wide scope for repression against those who don’t share the government’s views on what those values should be.

‘Insulting’ Crimes

Many of the cases against journalists are based on laws that criminalize “insulting” a public official -- an extraordinary restriction for the fourth estate in any country. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in particular, has proved easily insulted. He has initiated numerous personal lawsuits against journalists and publicly attacked others.

The vast majority, of cases, however, are based on anti-terrorism laws that are so vaguely written and so broadly and maliciously interpreted, that writing about groups proscribed by the government is prosecuted as though it were in itself an act of terrorism. Almost three-quarters of the journalists in detention in Turkey are ethnic Kurds who had the temerity to write about the Kurdish Workers Party or civilian Kurdish groups that the government sees as supportive of the party.

All of this has come on top of a punitive, multibillion-dollar tax case against the main opposition media group, Dogan Yayin Holding AS, and public threats against newspaper owners, editors and reporters that have left Turkey with a press corps afraid of its own shadows. Columnists, editors and reporters too critical of the government have been fired. Some have been jailed. Most have simply censored themselves.

Turkey’s deteriorating rule of law isn’t restricted to journalists. Thousands of people are being held without trial for years under these anti-terrorism laws. The threadbare and in some cases clearly fabricated evidence on which they’re being charged is often withheld from them and their defense lawyers; they aren’t tried in regular courts, but in tribunals called “special authority courts.”

Turkey’s government is in some ways still struggling to escape the country’s past: The CPJ found that the current Turkish onslaught on journalists has been topped only once worldwide during the 27 years the group has kept records. That was by Turkey itself in 1996, shortly before a nonviolent coup that was engineered by the military -- 78 journalists were jailed. In 1998, Erdogan himself was convicted, and later imprisoned, for reciting a poem that compared minarets to bayonets.

Erdogan and his party were victims then; now they are perpetrators. Instead of fixing the legal system, the government has used it to repress opponents and intimidate the media. The “insult” laws, as well as the special anti-terrorism courts and laws, should be repealed. They are not worthy of a modern democracy, and they shouldn’t be a model for anyone.

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