A recent court ruling banning media coverage of an ongoing parliamentary investigation into corruption allegations against four former Turkish cabinet ministers has been met with indignation by local news outlets and has drawn criticism by several international organizations
The 7th Peace Court in Ankara issued the gag order on November 25th at the request of Hakki Koylu, a MP of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), who heads the legislature's commission conducting the inquiry. The purpose of the ban, reportedly, was to "prevent damage to the individual rights" of the four ex-ministers - Zafer Caglayan of economy, Muammer Guler of interior, Egemen Bagis of European affairs and Erdogan Bayraktar of environment - as well as to "protect their reputation".
The gag order is to remain in force until the end of the parliamentary investigation, which is scheduled to close on December 27th.
Court ruling slammed at home
The controversial ruling sparked criticism at home, with numerous media outlets, including opposition daily Cumhuriyet and television station Halk TV, independent Turkish press agency Bianet, the Media Council and Journalists Society of Turkey (TGC) vowing to defy it. The Turkish Journalists' Association called the gag order censorship.
Shortly after the ban was imposed, Turkey's main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) appealed to a higher instance court in Ankara to uplift it. But its appeal was rejected on November 28th, with judges at the 8th Peace Court stating that the ruling "had nothing unlawful," according to a report by Istanbul-based Bianet.
Then, CHP MP Mahmut Tanal challenged the initial order before Turkey's Constitutional Court on December 1st, urging it to lift the ban.
The parliamentary commission was set up about five months after a major corruption scandal erupted in Turkey on December 17th 2013. Dozens of people were arrested by police as part of an inquiry into allegations of illicit money transfers to Iran and of bribery in the awarding of permits for construction projects in Istanbul. The sons of Caglayan and Guler, as well as the head of state-owned bank Halkbank were among those detained in raids in the Turkish megapolis and in Ankara when the scandal broke out.
International media organizations also criticize gag order
The parliamentary commission, dominated by members of the AKP, began questioning the ministers a day after the gag order was issued. Bayraktar was the first to appear before the panel, Reporters Without Borders (RWB) said in a statement , calling for the reversal of the November 25th decision, describing it as "political and totally disproportionate".
"Defamation and violation of the presumption of innocence are already penalized under Turkish law and can be the subject of judicial proceedings if they are thought to have occurred," the statement quoted Johann Bihr, the head of RWB's Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk, as saying. "But banning any reference to this event in advance, even by means of images, constitutes unjustifiable censorship of media coverage. The public debate cannot overlook the fact that four former ministers are suspected of corruption, especially as this case has dominated Turkish politics for the past year."
The Vienna-based International Press Institute (IPI) also criticized the court's ruling, warning about its potential detrimental effect on the principles it was ostensibly meant to advance. "This gag order, which seeks to pull a veil of secrecy over allegations of corruption, a matter of vital public interest, will undermine confidence in the rule of law and cast further shadow over democracy in Turkey," IPI Senior Press Freedom Adviser Steven M. Ellis said. "And by preventing the public from learning about the former ministers' explanations for their alleged actions, it will fuel rumour and breed further cynicism. None of these results serves those accused of wrongdoing or the people of Turkey. We urge those responsible to take immediate steps to end this ban."
The former ministers denied any wrongdoing last year, but quit their posts. Bayraktar claimed at the time that many of the construction projects at the focus of the investigation were approved by then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who then won the August 2014 presidential election in Turkey. Therefore, the former environment minister also thought that "the esteemed prime minister should also resign".
Erdogan has repeatedly insisted, however, that the corruption inquiry was part of a plot against the AKP-led government.
Prime minister backs media ban
Ahmet Davutoglu, who succeeded Erdogan in the Prime minister's post in late August, defended the court order, likening the work of the parliamentary commission to that of the judiciary. "The parliamentary investigation commission works exactly the way the judiciary works," a report by Turkey's Cihan news agency on December 2nd quoted the prime minister as saying. "This commission is no ordinary commission. It is one that executes a judicial act and issues a ruling as a result. Therefore, all the privacy rules that govern the judiciary also apply to this commission."
Davutoglu also noted that neither the government, nor the AKP had anything to do with the ban. "The commission's chairman is a member of our party, but it is inappropriate for us to even talk on the issue because chairmen and members of parliamentary commissions act on behalf of Parliament once they are selected and they are independent in thought during an investigation," the Prime minister said.
Not the only ban in recent years
The ban was the first one to have ever been imposed on a parliamentary inquiry, Turkish media say. Istanbul-based daily Hürriyet noted that more than 150 gag orders have been issued vis-à-vis various investigations of prosecutors in the last four years. The paper's reporter Zeynep Gurcanli drew up a list of ten issues media are banned from covering.
"The corruption probe of December 17th 2013 is the most controversial case for which a media ban has been adopted," the journalist said in a report on November 27th. "The prosecutor of the case was quickly replaced by the authorities and in October, the new prosecutor decided not to continue with proceedings against 53 graft suspects, including former ministers' sons, the former manager of Halkbank and a controversial Iranian-Azeri businessman."
Among the other nine cases was the one, in which ISIL seized Turkey's consulate in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul on June 11th, taking captive 49 Turkish citizens, a day after 31 Turkish truck drivers were abducted by Islamic militants.
Turkey was ranked 154th among the 180 countries surveyed in RWB's 2014 Press Freedom Index.
Questa pubblicazione è stata prodotta con il contributo dell'Unione Europea. La responsabilità sui contenuti di questa pubblicazione è di Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso e non riflette in alcun modo l'opinione dell'Unione Europea. Vai alla pagina del progetto Safety Net for European Journalists. A Transnational Support Network for Media Freedom in Italy and South-east Europe.
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