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Turkish government cracking down on media critics, groups say

By Gul Tuysuz and Ivan Watson
updated 11:37 AM EDT, Wed July 24, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • A broad government crackdown is targeting the Turkish press, critics say
  • "All the independent voices are now being silenced," a fired newspaper ombudsman says
  • He lays the blame squarely at the feet of Turkey's president
  • The government says all the arrested journalists are guilty of murder, terrorism or other crimes

Istanbul (CNN) -- A pro-government newspaper in Turkey fired its ombudsman this week. The dismissal came as a prominent journalists' union and the main opposition party warned of a broad government crackdown against the Turkish press.

"All the independent voices are now being silenced," said Yavuz Baydar in an interview with CNN, a day after he said management of the newspaper Sabah fired him.

When contacted by CNN, staff and representatives of the public relations department at Sabah declined to comment on the allegation.

Baydar is a former president and current board member of the International Organization of News Ombudsmen. He spent eight and a half years holding the position of ombudsman at Sabah. The ombudsman is supposed to be an independent critic at the publication who reflects the criticisms and concerns of the readers.

However, Baydar said editors at the paper had cut two of his columns in the past two months, after he tried to criticize the newspaper's coverage of anti-government protests that erupted in Istanbul and spread across Turkey at the end of May.

The unrest exploded on May 31, after Turkish riot police used water cannons and tear gas to attack a peaceful sit-in established in opposition to government plans to replace Istanbul's Gezi Park with a shopping mall.

Some demonstrators began fighting back, erecting barricades and attacking security forces with stones, bottles and slingshots.

The mass civil disobedience and rioting quickly spread to other cities and towns across the country.

Thousands of people have been wounded in clashes. At least one police officer and five demonstrators have died in the unrest.

By mid-June, police had largely succeeded in quelling the protests. In recent weeks, dozens of demonstrators have been detained by anti-terror police

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly claimed that the protests in Turkey are part of a much larger conspiracy aimed at overthrowing his democratically elected government.

Last week, Baydar published an op-ed in the New York Times accusing media owners in Turkey of hurting democracy by limiting objective news coverage.

His former newspaper, Sabah, was sold at auction in 2008 to the sole bidder, a company whose chief executive officer is a son-in-law of the prime minister.

Speaking to CNN on Wednesday, Baydar laid the blame squarely at the feet of Erdogan, whose party first won parliamentary elections in 2002.

"We are talking about a single person here, attempting to micromanage the media sector and also imposing measures to take control of the privately owned media," Baydar said.

His claims of censorship came after the Turkish Journalist Union announced on Monday that 59 media workers had been either fired or forced to quit their jobs since the Gezi Park protests.

"Our colleagues have worked hard and paid the price by losing their jobs as they worked to ensure people got the news," said the union's Gokhan Durmus in a news conference Monday. "Some magazines were shut down, some lost their TV shows, some felt the censorship over their columns or articles."

The next day, the main secular opposition party, the Republican People's Party or CHP, published a report declaring Turkey the "world's biggest prison for journalists."

According to the report, using figures from 2012, "71 media professionals and four media workers were in prison in Turkey." The report argued more journalists have been imprisoned than during a military coup in 1980, when more than half a million Turks were locked up by a military junta.

The Turkish government has repeatedly denied accusations that journalists are arrested because of their articles, columns and televised reports. Senior Turkish government officials instead argue that the dozens of media workers behind bars have been detained for crimes not linked to journalism, such as murder and terrorism.

In recent years, press freedom groups such as Paris-based Reporters Without Borders and the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists have sounded the alarm about the deterioration of freedom of the press in Turkey.

Reporters Without Borders ranked Turkey 148th out of 179 countries -- below Russia and the Democratic Republic of Congo -- on its press freedoms' index for 2011-2012.

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