ISTANBUL: Free speech advocates expressed their concerns on Thursday over a widening state crackdown on press freedom in Turkey after the arrests of three high-profile journalists on accusations of “spreading false information”.
Tolga Sardan and Dincer Gokce were separately detained and charged on Wednesday, Turkish media reported. They were detained under the so-called “disinformation law” that was adopted last year, under which journalists and social media users face up to three years in prison if convicted.
A court jailed Sardan, 55, after the Istanbul chief prosecutor’s office opened an investigation into his reporting on the judicial system and the Turkish National Intelligence Agency (MIT), according to the news portal T24 where he works.
The government’s Center for Combating Disinformation, run by the presidency’s Directorate of Communications, said an article by Sardan contained disinformation and was based on a nonexistent MIT report.
An Istanbul court banned access to Sardan’s article on the T24 news portal on Thursday.
“We are journalists. We do journalism. That’s all,” Sardan told reporters on Wednesday before being sent to the Sincan prison in Ankara.
Gokce, a reporter at opposition channel Halk TV, was released under judicial control measures on Wednesday afternoon, Halk TV said.
The measures include reading two books on “limitations of press freedom,” Gokce said during a live broadcast on Halk TV on Thursday.
Cengiz Erdinc, a columnist for the kisadalga.net news portal, was detained on Thursday on the instructions of the Ankara chief prosecutor’s office for “spreading false information” in the western province of Balikesir, state-run Anadolu Agency said.
“Pressure on media continues,” kisadalga.net said in a report on Erdinc’s detention.
The disinformation law partly targets those who spread what authorities decree to be false information online about Turkey’s security to “create fear and disturb public order”, which Ankara says is needed to protect the public.
Free speech advocates and opposition politicians say it censors dissent and a free press.
Left-wing daily BirGun said on Thursday that the Ankara chief prosecutor’s office had also launched a probe into it under the disinformation law, based upon a complaint by an owner of a construction company.
Three journalists from BirGun were summoned to testify for “spreading false information” and “slander and insult” over two separate stories published earlier this year, the daily said.
The Ankara chief prosecutor’s office has not issued any statement on the alleged probe.
Turkey’s main opposition party leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu said on social media platform X that the detention of the three journalists was “hostility toward free media”.
“This hostility is useless. You cannot hide the rot in the economy, the judiciary and therefore the state institutions,” he said.
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) representative Erol Onderoglu told Reuters that jailing Sardan sends a message to all journalists in Turkey not to report on public authorities.
More than 20 journalists, mostly local reporters, are being targeted by the “spreading false information” article added to the Turkish penal code last year, Onderoglu said.
RSF ranked Turkey 165th out of 180 countries in its 2023 World Press Freedom Index.
On Thursday, journalist associations demonstrated in Ankara to protest Sardan’s detention and demanded his release.
“The press is being tried to be silenced with censorship practices… (W)e will continue to speak out against corruption despite pressures and threats,” said a joint statement by eight journalism associations.
Sinan Aygul, a reporter in the eastern province of Bitlis, was the first journalist to be detained under the disinformation law, last December, after he had written on Twitter about the alleged sexual abuse of a 14-year-old girl.
Ozgur Ogret, Turkey representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists, said the disinformation law is “an alternative method for authorities to repress journalism when the usual methods by using the anti-terrorism law is not applicable”.