Mon, Jan 01, 2018 - Page 7 News List

Journalists came under further threat from governments last year

By Vanessa Gera  /  AP, WARSAW

A Turkish journalist faces a possible life sentences on charges he sent “subliminal messages” on television encouraging the July 15, 2016, Turkish coup attempt.

In Hungary, oligarchs loyal to the prime minister have gained control of much of the media after the leading independent newspaper was shut down and in Poland, a reporter is being threatened with a military trial for writing a book critical of Polish Minister of Defense Antoni Macierewicz.

These are trying and dangerous times for the media in countries that until recently had begun embracing democratic norms of free expression. News organizations are under attack in dramatic ways, as elected governments turn public outlets into their mouthpieces and try to silence critical voices.

Freedom House president Michael Abramowitz said that whether governments imprison journalists or flood the public sphere with misinformation, their goal is the same: “to ensure that negative coverage about the regime is marginalized and positive coverage dominates, especially for the plurality of citizens whose support you need to continue to rule.”

In undermining free expression, some of these governments have portrayed the press not as a pillar of a democratic society, but as a threat to it.

It is an issue of growing interest in the US, where US President Donald Trump condemns unfavorable coverage as “fake news” and brands journalists “enemies of the people.”

Lata Nott, executive director of the First Amendment Center at the Newseum Institute in Washington, said the threat in the US is not that press protections under the US Constitution’s First Amendment will be directly overturned, but that the administration’s continued attacks could sow so much distrust that attempts to undermine the media will become accepted.

She cited Trump’s suggestion earlier this year that the government could challenge the National Broadcasting Co’s broadcast license, after he was angered by a national security story.

“I think some of what Trump says is just bluster,” Nott said. “But there are some times where it becomes a tangible threat, and that’s what I worry about.”

In theory, Turkey, Hungary and Poland also guarantee freedom of speech and of the press. The principles were enshrined in the Polish and Hungarian constitutions following the collapse of communism in 1989, and in Turkey’s constitution decades earlier.

Despite those protections, many reporters in Turkey were jailed amid a crackdown following a military coup in 1980. In the 1990s, as Turkish forces clashed with Kurdish fighters, the government barred the media from criticizing its actions or producing stories deemed sympathetic to the Kurds. State security forces also killed several reporters covering the conflict.

Some progress came in the early 2000s, when Turkey embraced reforms in the hope of joining the EU, but matters deteriorated dramatically under Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The attempted coup in 2016 intensified repression of journalists, as part of a broader purge by Erdogan that has targeted tens of thousands of people. More than 150 media organizations have been closed down.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) Turkey representative Erol Onderoglu said that 122 reporters, writers and other media professionals are behind bars, many held in pretrial detention for more than a year.

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