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5 Years After Attempted Coup, Journalists Look At The State Of Free Speech In Turkey

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Journalists in Turkey are still feeling the effects of the crackdown that followed an attempted military coup five years ago today to oust President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The attempt failed, but a massive campaign against Erdogan's perceived enemies followed, and journalists were swept up in the arrests and the purges. NPR's Peter Kenyon has more on how it continues to impact Turkish media.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: For President Erdogan and his supporters, July 15 is a day to recall that night five years ago when ordinary Turks surged into the streets to face off against tanks and armed soldiers and stopped a military coup d'etat in its tracks. Last week Erdogan, heard here through an interpreter, hailed the 250 people who lost their lives that night.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: (Speaking non-English language).

KENYON: On this occasion, he said, I wish God's mercy on our security forces, soldiers, citizens and friends who were martyred on July 15. And Turkish officials say they still need emergency powers, including restrictions on the media, to fight terrorism. But for the nearly 2,500 journalists and media workers who have lost their jobs since the coup attempt according to Amnesty International and the more than 150 media outlets that were shut down, the past five years have been a time of increased government pressure and repression.

Erol Onderoglu is a Turkish French journalist and Turkey's representative for the group Reporters Without Borders. He says it's important for people to understand that the failed coup attempt in 2016 was not the main trigger for the government's efforts to suppress critical journalism. That had been going on for the better part of a decade by then. But the failed coup, says Onderoglu, was used to justify taking the crackdown on dissent to new levels.

EROL ONDEROGLU: The coup attempt has created ground where Turkish government has prioritized emergency measures and a state of emergency to crack down on critical media, critical NGOs, critical political parties, with the aim to weaken the old kind of political opposition.

KENYON: Onderoglu was among those put on trial but acquitted of charges of promoting terrorist propaganda. But he says an appeals court cancelled those acquittals, and he's due back in court in September. Onderoglu believes government interference in judicial matters has deeply affected Turkey.

ONDEROGLU: And poisoned judiciary but also polarized politically all the nation.

KENYON: Another Turkish journalist, Nevsin Mengu, has worked for several Turkish media companies. She'd been anchoring the 6 o'clock news for CNN Turk for several years when she was fired after being targeted by a concerted attack by what she calls pro-government trolls.

NEVSIN MENGU: Yeah. On the mainstream media, you don't actually have journalism in a sense. I think independent journalism is now on - purely on social media, on Twitter, on YouTube, you know?

KENYON: But the government has also been moving to rein in online journalism as well. According to rights groups, thousands of news websites have been blocked. Erol Onderoglu with Reporters Without Borders agrees with Mengu's view that independent journalism in Turkey has shrunk dramatically in favor of staunchly pro-government outlets. But he says that has led to a problem for the government. It can no longer afford to support friendly media the way it once could given Turkey's sagging economy.

ONDEROGLU: Ninety percent of national mainstream media remain under control of the government. But they are more affected by this financial crisis since the government cannot anymore support financially many of these media groups.

KENYON: One big question is whether a fresh crackdown could be in the media's future, especially in the run up to the next presidential election currently set for 2023, when Erdogan is expected to seek another term in office. Journalist Nevsin Mengu considers the question and says few journalists she knows would rule out a new phase to the crackdown.

MENGU: Well, of course. Of course, that's always an option. Yeah, I expect that we would. We could. They could try. Yeah.

KENYON: Mengu says life for some Turkish journalists these days is like constantly navigating a slippery slope, never knowing where the next attack might come from. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.