Column row sparks debate over Turkey's press censorship

Ankara (AFP) - A columnist for a Turkish newspaper has proved her own point all too well after a piece she wrote criticising Ankara's crackdown on press freedom was rejected by her editor.

Washington-based academic Gonul Tol left her position at the Aksam daily to preserve her "professional ethics" in a case that has sparked fierce debate about censorship in Turkish media.

"The fact that my piece has not been published is actually stating once more what's obvious," Tol told AFP.

Her article focussed on the race-fuelled backlash against a report from Freedom House this month that claimed the country had seen the biggest decline in press freedom in Europe.

The US-based media rights watchdog downgraded Turkey's status from "partly free" to "not free" -- putting the EU hopeful in the same category as Libya, South Sudan, Ukraine and Zambia -- after it put a record number of journalists behind bars.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government fiercely rejected the report, accusing Freedom House of orchestrating a campaign to paint Turkey as an authoritarian regime that muzzles the press.

But what angered Tol -- and Freedom House -- more were the accusations spattered across pro-government media outlets that claimed the downgrade was part of a Jewish conspiracy to smear the majority-Muslim country.

"Let's test the report," Tol wrote in her rejected column, which has since been published in other online media outlets.

"If this piece is published intact without being caught by the editor, the press freedom in Turkey could be better than what's reported by the Freedom House."

- A Jewish conspiracy -

Hasan Karakaya, a columnist for the Islamist Yeni Akit newspaper, accused Freedom House of ranking Israel highly in its reports because its president is Jewish and the organisation is funded by Jerusalem.

"Could you expect a Freedom House ranking of world media to draft a positive report about Turkey while David Cramer, a 'Jew', or James Woolsey, a 'CIA boss', or Donald Rumsfeld, a 'drug baron' are at its helm?" he wrote.

Erdogan ridiculed the organisation's ranking, saying Turkey has less strict media rules than the United States, Israel and Germany.

Tol argued in her piece that the Freedom House report was open to criticism, but rejecting it based on the director's religious beliefs was wrong.

Karin Karlekar, project director of the report, rejected the accusations, arguing that director David Kramer had no influence on the long-standing annual survey.

"His religious affiliation is a private matter that has no bearing on his leadership of the organisation," she told AFP.

"Legal cases and imprisonments have been quite bad (in Turkey) for a number of years. This is the main reason for the downgrade: worsening conditions in 2013 in terms of press freedom."

- A danger to democracy -

Turkey's government, in power since 2002, has come under fire from rights groups for its crackdown on the media.

Freedom House said with at least 40 journalists behind bars as of December 1, 2013, Turkey remained the world's leading jailer of journalists.

Erdogan disputed the report's findings, arguing that only 18 journalists were in prison and none because of their work.

The Turkish strongman has come under heavy criticism from Western politicians and rights groups for launching a wide-ranging crackdown on the Internet that saw Twitter banned for two weeks. The video-sharing site YouTube has also been blocked since the end of March despite two court orders calling for the ban to be lifted.

Last year, the BBC expressed concerns about what it called a campaign launched by Turkish authorities to "intimidate its journalists".

Journalists have also faced public pressure. A correspondent for Germany's Der Spiegel magazine this week was hounded out of Turkey after receiving thousands of death threats over an article.

Karlekar said the rejection of Tol's article "sums up perfectly the concerns we noted in the report".

"The fact that her 'test' failed is a complete validation of our recent report," she said.

But Murat Kelkitlioglu, Aksam's news coordinator, said a newspaper was not the right place for an experiment.

"We tried to talk to our columnist, but we couldn't. We had nothing else to do but not publish the piece.

"We should have solved the issue with dialogue, but she sent the piece to other outlets instead," he told local media.

Tol, who is also director of the Washington-based Middle East Institute's Center for Turkish Studies, said Turkey's increasingly draconian press censorship was endangering its democracy.

"It is not possible to find a peaceful solution to conflicts or let liberal ideas take roots in a society where press is not free, dissenting ideas are silenced or not tolerated," she told AFP.

"It is essential that Turkey gets back on the democratisation track it has embarked on a while ago".