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World

Turkey's Journalists Work Under Threat Of Jail

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Turkey is one of the countries that regularly is near the top of the list of countries who jail members of the press. That's according to the Committee To Protect Journalists. And even when Turkish journalists are not in jail, they're not really free. Reporter Durrie Bouscaren met one who was trying to work even as he faces the prospect of ending up back in prison.

DURRIE BOUSCAREN, BYLINE: In 2016, about six months after a failed military coup in Turkey left hundreds dead, an anti-terrorism force nearly broke down Tunca Ogreten's door.

TUNCA OGRETEN: Here, I just opened the door. He wanted me to lay down. I just laid down here.

BOUSCAREN: They zip-tied his hands, searched the apartment. Ogreten, an investigative journalist in Istanbul, had published a story that accused the country's energy minister of shady financial dealings. That official happened to be the son-in-law of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. And in Turkey, insulting the president is considered a crime.

OGRETEN: I know that it would cause a problem to me because they control the country. They control the justice system. They control everything.

BOUSCAREN: He was accused of helping a far-left terrorist group through his coverage. If found guilty, he could face 19 1/2 years in prison.

OGRETEN: I said, OK. OK, Tunca. You are 38 years old, and that makes 58. You're not going to get out. You will die here. But after 10 minutes, I told myself, come on. This is ridiculous. There is no any evidence that I am related with any organization.

BOUSCAREN: This is what happens when journalists get too close to issues of wrongdoing by government figures in Turkey, says Erol Onderoglu, a representative for the Paris-based press freedom group Reporters Without Borders. He often gets called in to help.

EROL ONDEROGLU: I usually spend two or three days a week at the courthouse.

BOUSCAREN: Reporters Without Borders recently counted 36 journalists currently behind bars in Turkey. Others put the number much higher. Many people who have been released are still facing lengthy court proceedings. Onderoglu is facing charges, too, after participating in a solidarity campaign for jailed Kurdish journalists. This is not just a problem for these individuals, Onderoglu says. Today, most of the media is owned by companies with close ties to the government. He says that means the news often doesn't reflect what's actually happening.

ONDEROGLU: Turkish people deserve better in terms of media coverage. It is not normal. And it is - it's clearly shows an illegitimate interference.

BOUSCAREN: Turkish officials defend these arrests. Harun Armagan, a senior official with the ruling AK Party, claims that many of the jailed journalists have worked without government accreditation, are linked to dangerous groups or incite terrorism through their writing. No Western democracy would allow that, he says. But Turkish journalists say the laws are being used to silence the government's critics.

Ogreten spent almost a year in jail and was released in 2017. He believes pressure on Turkey from the European Court of Human Rights helped free him and others while their cases continue. But he can't leave the country. And every few months, he must appear for another hearing.

OGRETEN: So I keep working. And I don't know anything else to do.

BOUSCAREN: Today, he's a freelancer for a German public broadcaster. He says jobs are scarce for journalists who are critical of the government. And many are still paying back fines related to their court cases.

OGRETEN: For example, they earn really small amount of money. And maybe half of it goes to state because of the fine.

BOUSCAREN: Ogreten knows it's a risk to continue to work. But he isn't willing to stop.

OGRETEN: If I do that, every day, I will tell myself, OK. You're a chicken. And journalism is this, you know? You have to be journalist in difficult times.

BOUSCAREN: Because when the truth is scarce, he says, journalism is even more important. For NPR News, I'm very Durrie Bouscaren in Istanbul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.