For those who follow Turkey closely, that Freedom House moved the country from "Partly Free" into the "Not Free" category in its annual Freedom of the Press report was not particularly surprising. Still, the report provides an interesting look into just how Turkey's record on press freedom has become so tarnished (despite the government's insistence that it's doing better on this issue than some countries that aren't on the "Not Free" list).
To get a better sense of the report, the methodology behind it and just what the Turkey has done to earn its new ranking, I reached out to Karin Karlekar, the Freedom of the Press index's project director. Our resulting email interview is below:
In your report, Turkey had the biggest drop in press freedom in Europe and one of the largest globally. Why was that?
During 2013, systematic political pressure from the executive branch led to scores of journalists to be fired for critical reporting of the government. For example, during the Gezi Park protests in Istanbul in May 2013, several media outlets were slow to cover protests and those outlets which did endeavor to cover the protests were subjected to government pressure to fire journalists and editors. Dozens were fired or forced to resign due to sympathetic coverage of the protestors. On several other occasions during the year, high-profile journalists were forced from their positions for covering sensitive topics such as official corruption or talks between the government and the [outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)]. Prime Minister Erdoğan publically confirmed that he had interfered personally with editorial content on at least once occasion. Journalists were physically harassed while covering the Gezi protests as well. In addition, with 40 journalists behind bars on December 1, 2013, Turkey was the world’s leading jailer of journalists, who are often prosecuted under restrictive provisions in the criminal code and the Anti-Terrorism Act. In addition, censorship of online content is a continuing concern.
Based on your research, what are the most troubling aspects of Turkey’s decline in press freedom?
A troubling aspect of Turkey’s decline is the increasingly close ties we’ve seen between the government and many media owners in recent years, which has led to self-censorship and politically-motivated firings. This was highlighted in the now famous incident in June 2013 when CNN International offered 24 hour coverage of widespread protests in Turkey while the local CNN affiliate, CNNTurk, was airing a nature show on penguins.
When you compare Turkey to other countries that moved into the “not free” category, what similarities do you see?
Countries in the Not Free category tend to exert a great deal of influence on the editorial content of news outlets, prevent or impede coverage of politically sensitive issues, and impose onerous legal restrictions on the press resulting in criminal charges against journalists. Similar to countries that also moved to Not Free this year, such as Ukraine, we saw restrictions and targeting of reporters who attempted to cover breaking news and protest movements and attempts to control editorial content.
Could you explain Freedom House’s methodology in layman’s terms?
We aim to examine the entire enabling environment for media freedom, which includes the ability of journalists and news outlets to report freely and without fear of repercussions, as well as the ability of people in each country to receive diverse news and information. Our examination of the level of press freedom comprises 23 methodology questions and 132 indicators divided into three broad categories: the legal environment, the political environment, and the economic environment. Freer countries receive a lower number of points while less free environments receive a higher number of points. A country’s final score (from 0 to 100) is based on the total of the scores allotted for each question: A score of 0 to 30 places a country in the Free category, 31 to 60 in the Partly Free category, and 61 to 100 in the Not Free press group. Turkey, with its score of 62, means it is now in the Not Free press group.
Turkey’s Foreign Minister said Turkey is “freer” than some of the countries in your report’s “partially free” category and called on Turkish journalists to “reject” your report. How would you respond to his words?
Taken as a whole, Turkey is less free than countries in the Partly Free group. However, examining the scores of the specific categories – the legal environment, the political environment, and the economic environment – says a lot about where Turkey needs to improve. Turkey’s economic environment received a score of 13, which is relatively good when compared to the political environment’s score of 26 and the legal environment’s score of 23. It is in this sense only that Turkey’s economic environment for journalists (which includes the structure of media ownership; transparency and concentration of ownership; the costs of establishing media as well as any impediments to news production and distribution, and others) may be superior to the economic environment of some Partly Free countries. However, it is worth keeping in mind that all three categories worsened in Turkey in 2013. In terms of issues such as the number of jailings of journalists, Turkey was the worst in the world on this issue in 2013. The level of internet censorship is also quite bad for a democratic country.