Last week, Turkey sentenced Wall Street Journal reporter Ayla Albayrak to more than two years in prison for doing her job. Fortunately, she was in New York at the time. Albayrak thus avoided joining more than 81 journalists who have been imprisoned in Turkey just since December, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Turkey has the highest number of journalists jailed in a single country since CPJ began to keep records more than three decades ago. After a suspiciously incompetent coup attempt in July 2016, Turkish strongman Recep Tayyip Erdoğan declared war on the very idea of a free media. His campaign against dissent and inconvenient facts has been brutally effective. Despite constitutional guarantees of press freedom, Erdoğan has employed criminal statutes and an overly broad antiterrorism law to clamp down on journalists, jailing reporters and shuttering more than 150 media outlets. Public vilification of journalists, physical intimidation, and economic pressures have all contributed to a drastic winnowing of freedom of expression in Turkey.
Officially, Albayrak was charged with engaging in terrorist propaganda on behalf of the outlawed Kurdish separatist organization the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, known as the PKK. In reality, she did exactly what journalists are supposed to do. Albayrak traveled to Kurdish areas of Turkey and spoke to all sides, including multiple government sources. She then reported on what she saw. Her story from 2015 is extraordinarily fair and evenhanded. It’s exemplary journalism.
What’s clear is that the specifics of the story were not the issue. Erdoğan objects to the very idea that journalists should be able to make unbiased assessments of facts and report them. If he can take out a reporter for an American newspaper, it sends a signal to every journalist that they are not safe and that certain subjects are verboten.
To his credit, the WSJ’s editor Gerard Baker issued a strong statement in reaction to the sentence:
We are appealing this decision and will continue to defend Ayla with everything we have at our disposal. But let me be clear: Ayla was convicted for doing her job as a journalist. This conviction should send shudders through everyone around the world who values a free press. Ayla of course is not alone. The Turkish authorities have imprisoned dozens of journalists in the last two years. No news organization should be intimidated by this sort of repression and we will not be.