ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Metin Yilmaz, editor-in-chief of the Sozcu newspaper, one of the most outspoken critics of the government in the Turkish media, says he is weighing his words more carefully these days.
Framed front pages adorn Sozcu’s office walls in testament to its status as a bastion of opposition to President Tayyip Erdogan and the Islamist-rooted AK Party. Red Turkish flags and pictures of the modern republic’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk celebrate its secularist roots.
But with the seizure or closure in recent months of several newspapers, broadcasters taken off air and a German TV comedian facing a Turkish legal complaint for insulting Erdogan, journalists like Yilmaz say they are having to think twice about the consequences of their work.
“You wonder, ‘will a court case be opened if we say that?',” Yilmaz told Reuters in his office in an Istanbul suburb.
“Unfortunately we have reached the stage where if you write the ‘p’ of president, an investigation and court case is opened against you,” he said, looking over the shoulder of a colleague working on the layout of the paper.
Erdogan rejects such claims. He says journalists are free to criticise him - pointing to headlines that called him a “murderer” or “thief”. Government officials also say no journalists are prosecuted for their work and that some are detained on suspicion of membership of militant groups.
“Neither myself nor my government have ever done anything to stop freedom of expression or freedom of the press,” Erdogan told CNN International on March 31 during a trip to Washington. “On the contrary, the press in Turkey had been very critical of me and my government.”
But he warned if journalists strayed into insults, they would face prosecution in a country where insulting the president is a crime punishable by jail - though neither Erdogan nor the law has defined what constitutes such an insult.
Turkey’s record on press freedom has raised such concern among some European Union politicians that they question whether it is a suitable candidate for membership of the bloc.
Ankara has requested that German authorities prosecute comedian Jan Boehmermann for the crime of “offending foreign states’ organs and representatives” after he recited a sexually crude satirical poem about Erdogan on TV. It comes at a sensitive time for Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has enlisted Erdogan’s help in tackling Europe’s migrant crisis.
Beyond headline-grabbing newspaper closures in Turkey, some journalists, rights groups and Western allies worry that the space to express dissent appears to be shrinking rapidly.
Mainstream outlets such as the Hurriyet newspaper or broadcaster CNN Turk, both owned by the country’s leading media group Dogan, are increasingly pressured to toe the government line in their coverage, government critics say.
Hurriyet said last week it had added Abdulkadir Selvi, a prominent pro-government columnist, to its staff, while the Dogan Group last month closed the liberal leftist news website Radikal for what its editor said were financial reasons.
“The group has taken certain steps to make a compromise with Erdogan ... it has made changes in content,” said Mirgun Cabas, a former CNN Turk presenter critical of the government. His show was terminated for what the company said were financial reasons.
The Dogan Group, Hurriyet and CNN Turk declined to comment on staff changes. Government officials have denied putting pressure on media bosses.
Dogan, whose interests range from media to real estate and energy, was slapped with a 3.8 billion lira ($1.3 billion) tax fine in 2009 while last month an Istanbul prosecutor submitted a case against its founder, Aydin Dogan, on charges of running a fuel-smuggling ring - which he denies.
The government has repeatedly said neither case was politically motivated.
Since Erdogan became president in August 2014, 1,845 court cases have been filed against individuals for insulting him.
“I believe this time will be remembered as a nightmare era,” Baris Ince, editor of the left-wing Birgun newspaper, told Reuters. He was sentenced last month to 21 months in jail for insulting Erdogan in an article about a 2013 investigation by prosecutors into corruption in government.
Erdogan said the investigation, which centered on ministers and business people close to him, was orchestrated by U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen. He said followers of the cleric - who denied the allegations - had infiltrated the police and judiciary and were plotting a coup. The graft investigation was dropped after a year.
“Nobody has done a proper corruption story since ... Has bribery come to an end in Turkey? Obviously not,” said Ince, who has appealed his sentence.
“But journalists don’t believe they can win a court case, so they say, ‘I’ll spare myself the trouble and refrain from writing such stories’, which is extremely troublesome in terms of freedom of speech and press.”
Last month, state administrators seized control of the country’s biggest newspaper, Zaman, which was affiliated with Gulen’s religious group. Two other papers linked with the group, Bugun and Millet, were taken over in October.
The government said authorities were investigating whether the newspapers were involved in illegal funding of Gulen’s group, a charge they deny.
The trial of the editor-in-chief and Ankara bureau chief of Cumhuriyet newspaper - who face life in prison on espionage charges - meanwhile prompted foreign diplomats to turn up at the courthouse two weeks ago in their support.
The paper had published footage it said showed the state intelligence agency helping send weapons to Syria. The government said the trucks involved were carrying aid and that the trial was a matter of national security.
Kurdish media frequently falls foul of the judiciary over its coverage of a Kurdish militant insurgency, and in February the pro-Kurdish IMC channel was pulled off the air over allegations of “spreading terrorist propaganda”.
In the wake of a spate of suicide bombings in Istanbul and Ankara, Erdogan has called for a broadening of anti-terrorism laws which have already been used to detain academics and journalists.
Editing by Nick Tattersall and Pravin Char