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May 6, 2019 1:16 pm

Smarting From Criticism as World’s ‘Worst Jailer of Journalists,’ Turkish Government Tries to Shift Focus to Israel Over ‘Press Freedom’

avatar by Ben Cohen

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Turkish pro-democracy activists at a rally for press freedom in Istanbul. Photo: Reuters / Osman Orsal.

Smarting from international criticism on World Press Freedom Day over their country’s continuing status as “the worst jailer of journalists in the world,” senior Turkish officials attempted to shift the opprobrium toward Israel over the weekend, as they bitterly accused the Jewish state of violating “press freedom” in its military response to rocket attacks from the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.

A building housing the Anadolu news agency — Turkey’s official mouthpiece — was struck by Israeli jets on Saturday, as the IDF launched targeted strikes upon Gaza in response to hundreds of rocket barrages on Israeli population centers. Though no casualties were incurred during the strike, several of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s cohorts charged that Israel had committed a “war crime” by attacking the “freedom of the press.”

Fahrettin Altun — who serves as the Turkish leader’s communications director — demanded on Twitter that “all governments that claim to defend press freedom, including @USEmbassyTurkey, join us in condemning the Israeli government.”

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu declared that the strike on the Anadolu offices was a “new example of Israel’s unrestrained aggression,” while Vice President Fuat Oktay paid explicit tribute to the state-run agency’s role in “broadcasting the voice of the oppressed Palestinian people to the world.”

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Palestinian officials strongly echoed the Turkish government line, advancing the conspiracy theory that Israel had bombed the agency’s offices in order “to remove witnesses and prepare for the massacres of Israel against Gaza,” said Ibrahim Melhem, a Palestinian spokesman. Despite this claim, as of Monday, Anadolu’s Gaza correspondent, Ali Abo Rezeg, continued to file fresh dispatches from the embattled territory.

Turkey’s invocation of the principle of press freedom in its verbal lashing of Israel came just two days after the country’s Constitutional Court rejected appeals for the release of nine leading journalists currently imprisoned by Erdogan’s regime.

The group — which includes Murat Sabuncu, the former editor-in-chief of top daily Cumhuriyet, Ahmet Şık, a pioneering investigative journalist, and veteran writer Nazli Ilicak, one of the leading female voices in the Turkish media — will continue to be incarcerated after more than three years already spent behind bars, along with nearly 200 other journalists who have also run afoul of Erdogan.

In a statement marking World Press Freedom Day, which fell on May 3, the Stockholm Center for Freedom (SCF) — a Swedish-based human rights NGO focused on Turkey — said that Turkey “remains the worst jailer of journalists in the world.”

The SCF noted that “191 journalists and media workers were in jail [in Turkey] as of May 3, 2019.”

Of those in prison, the group said, “95 are under arrest pending trial and 96 have been convicted and are serving their time.” Additionally, “detention warrants are outstanding for 167 journalists who are living in exile or remain at large in Turkey,” the group added.

“The Erdogan government imprisons MORE journalists than the rest of the world’s governments combined,” the SCF declared.

Other international press freedom organizations similarly excoriated Erdogan’s abuse of the media.

“The rule of law is a fading memory in the ‘New Turkey’ of paramount presidential authority,” noted Reporters Without Borders in its 2019 World Press Freedom Index, which ranked Turkey at a lowly 157 out of 180 countries.

“Censorship of websites and online social media has reached unprecedented levels and the authorities are now trying to bring online video services under control,” the NGO observed.

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