Turkey has more jailed reporters than China, Eritrea, Iran or Syria, making it “the world's biggest prison for journalists”, a leading media watchdog said on Wednesday.
The report by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) adds to a growing chorus of criticism from Western governments and rights groups of the EU candidate's jailing of journalists, most of whom are kept in pre-trial detention.
Repressive laws, broad and vague legal provisions and a paranoid judiciary were to blame for the high number of arrests, RSF said, and only a complete overhaul of Turkey's anti-terrorism law and other legal articles could change this.
“Turkey is now the world's biggest prison for journalists, a sad paradox for a country that portrays itself as a regional democratic model,” France-based RSF said in a statement.
RSF said a total of 72 media workers were currently in detention, of whom at least 42 journalists and four media assistants were being held because of their work. RSF was still investigating the cases of the remaining detainees.
Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's 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.
First elected a decade ago with an overwhelming majority, Erdogan has presided over a period of unprecedented prosperity, winning him admirers among Western nations keen to portray Turkey as an example in a troubled region.
But that narrative has been increasingly undermined by criticism of the authoritarian style of his rule.
Hundreds of politicians and academics are also in jail on charges of plotting against the government, while more than 300 army officers were convicted this year of conspiring against Erdogan almost a decade ago, and handed long jail terms.
Government stance softening?
There are signs the government is beginning to acknowledge the scale of the problem.
Some journalists have been freed on conditional release in recent months and over the weekend Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc said Ankara had prepared a draft law to address pre-trial detention for journalists and that a “modern” interpretation of legal articles referring to “propaganda” was needed.
“For us the number is not important, we are greatly saddened by even one journalist being jailed for their writings, drawings, journalism activities,” Turkish state news agency Anatolia reported Arinc as saying.
While tallies by rights groups differ slightly, all agree Turkey has the highest number of jailed journalists, more than some of the most autocratic regimes. According to RSF, China has 30 jailed journalists, Eritrea 28, Iran 26 and Syria 21.
Most of those in jail in Turkey were from the Kurdish media, RSF said.
Turkey, along with the United States and European Union, designates the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which launched an insurgency in 1984 and seeks greater autonomy for the country's estimated 15 million ethnic Kurds, a terrorist organization.
More than 40,000 people have been killed in the conflict between Turkey and the PKK over the past three decades.
While criticism of Turkey's poor record on press freedom centers mostly on reporters in jail, journalists still working also complain of government pressure to self-censor.
Erdogan and other senior government officials have publicly berated news outlets by name and criticized them for questioning the government, or instructed them on how to cover an issue.
Journalists have been openly fired or resigned under pressure from their employers because of their views, many from news outlets owned by conglomerates wary of rocking the boat.