OP-ED | Turkey Frees Austrian Journalist, But Press Freedom Remains Under Fire

Turkey recently released several journalists, but an end to media persecution is far from guaranteed.

Last Wednesday, a court in Ankara acquitted Austrian journalist Max Zirngast of terrorism-related charges, one year to the day after his initial arrest. Zirngast’s ordeal followed a predictable pattern in Turkey’s wide-ranging crackdown on the press: He was arrested arbitrarily on the basis of his journalistic work and tossed into jail without an indictment (in his case, for over three months). Turkey would later accuse Zirngast, without a shred of evidence, of leading the Ankara operations of a terrorist group that appears not to even exist.

Zirngast’s acquittal occurred on the same day an international press freedom mission led by the Vienna-based International Press Institute (IPI) arrived in Turkey. The good news did not stop there: One day later, Turkey’s Court of Cassation unexpectedly ordered the release of five journalists imprisoned as part of a trial against the secular newspaper Cumhuriyet, and overturned the conviction of IPI Executive Board member and former Cumhuriyet columnist Kadri Gürsel.

Do these decisions herald an easing to Turkey’s persecution of the press? The figures offer strong reasons to be sceptical. According to IPI research, 130 journalists remain behind bars in Turkey. Our meetings in Ankara with top officials revealed a continued refusal to differentiate journalistic work from terrorist activity.

The Turkish justice ministry told IPI that 77 journalists on its list were members of the FETÖ group, which Turkey considers to be a terrorist organization and blames for the 2016 coup attempt, and 24 belonged to the PKK. This rhetoric and the ease with which Turkey has abused anti-terror laws to silence critical journalism is precisely what precipitated the current crisis. Little appears to have changed in this regard.

IPI’s trial monitoring in Turkey has also revealed gross violations of due process as well as unfair trials for journalists in Turkey – something foreign reporters like Zirngast or Germany’s Deniz Yücel know only too well. The lack of judicial independence has compounded the crisis, and our delegation received only vague and insufficient assurances of change.

Max Zirngast was arbitrarily deprived of his freedom and persecuted for his critical views. His release and the lifting of his travel ban is wonderful news for Max and his family and friends. But until Turkey demonstrates a genuine political will to address the conditions that have enabled the media crackdown – vague laws, a politically influenced justice system and a demonization of critical journalists – journalists like Max will continue to risk time inside of a jail cell.

Scott Griffen is Director of Press Freedom Programmes at the International Press Institute (IPI) in Vienna, Austria. He helps to plan and oversee long-term project work and to guide the organization’s overall strategy in defense of press freedom and freedom of expression worldwide. He holds a bachelor’s degree in humanities from Yale University and a master’s degree in global ethics from King’s College London.

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