ANKARA, Turkey – Turkey drew renewed international criticism Friday over its stance on media freedom after a prominent journalist who had criticized the government was fired this week.
The pro-government Sabah newspaper dismissed Yavuz Baydar from his position as ombudsman — or arbiter between the paper and its readers — on Tuesday after he wrote an opinion piece published in The New York Times that accused Turkish media owners of a "shameful" role in curtailing press freedom.
Baydar was the latest in a string of journalists to be fired or forced to resign for their coverage of the recent protests against the 10-year government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. What initially started as an environmental protest turned into a widespread display of anger against what critics say is Erdogan's increasingly authoritarian tenure in office.
Erdogan rejects the charges and has blamed the protests on an international conspiracy that includes the media.
It's not the first time that Turkey has been slammed for its curbs on media freedoms. But the criticism has intensified over the treatment of journalists following the protests. A union representing Turkish journalists says 59 media staff were fired or forced to resign for their coverage of the protests since May 31, when they erupted.
The Paris-based Reporters without Borders has labeled Turkey the world's "biggest prison for journalists" while the country's main opposition party this week reported that as many as 64 journalists are in prison and a further 123 are on trial for journalism-related activities. The government insists the journalists are in prison for terrorism-related charges or for other crimes.
The European Union denounced Baydar's dismissal to another newspaper — Today's Zaman — that employs the journalist, while the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said late Thursday that it was alarmed by the firing of the leading columnist and other journalists for their coverage of the protests.
"Media owners are dismissing their sharpest, most popular journalists to appease the government leaders at the expense of their readers," CPJ's Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova said. "This toxic cycle of government pressure ... is depriving the Turkish public of the intellectual diversity and richness it deserves."
In his New York Times opinion piece on July 19, Baydar criticized Turkish media proprietors and other business interests for bowing to government pressure and "subverting press freedom". In an article published on the Al-Monitor news website, Baydar said he was dismissed on the grounds that he had insulted the Sabah through "various platforms, including the New York Times." Baydar also said two of his articles that were critical of the government's handling of the protests were censored.
In a related development, Erdogan suggested Friday that he would launch a lawsuit against The Times of London for publishing an open letter by a group of actors and filmmakers critical of him. The letter, whose signatories include Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn, slammed the police's use of "untold brutal force" on protesters and accused Erdogan of showing "total disregard" for five people who were killed in the protests.