Australian journalist Peter Greste who was jailed for more than a year in Egypt and Abdulhamid Biliciand, editor-in-chief of the highly popular Turkish newspaper Zaman, now living in exile, addressed the issue of press freedom, on ‘International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists’ marked on Monday 2 November 2020, facilitated by ABC Radio’s Andrew West and hosted by Mehmet Saral, President of Advocates For Dignity.

In the past decade, a significant number of journalists worldwide have endured harassment, intimidation, torture, arbitrary arrests and detention. According to the United Nations, approximately 1,200 journalists have been killed for reporting the news and bringing information to the public. Thus, 2 November has come to be known as the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists – to bring light to the global conviction rate for violent crimes against journalists and media workers. 

On this significant day, and in recognition of the many journalists that have suffered at the hands of oppressive regimes for performing their duty as society’s watchdogs, Advocates for Dignity held it’s fourth live Webinar; ‘Why the end of Press Freedom equals the end of Democracy: Stories of Egypt and Turkey’. 

Mehmet Saral, President of Advocates For Dignity

The webinar was opened by President of Advocates for Dignity, Mr Mehmet Saral, who stated that disintegration of press freedom inevitably presents dangers to the proper functioning of law and judicial systems. Professor Peter Greste, the UNESCO Chair in Journalism and Communication at the University of Queensland, and Mr Abdulhamid Bilici, former editor-in-chief of Zaman Newspaper in Turkey, were the webinar’s special guests. 

Andrew West, ABC Radio Host

ABC Radio Host, Andrew West, who facilitated the program, described both speakers as being incredibly brave for standing against the might of governments, which is becoming increasingly difficult to do. He stated, “To do what Abdulhamid and Peter have done against authoritarian governments is an enormously impressive thing.”

Former BBC journalist Professor Greste, became most famous while working for Al Jazeerah – the role which resulted in his imprisonment in Egypt for over 400 days. Greste began working in Egypt at the end of 2013, following the Egyptian revolution of 2011. At this time, widespread protests between rival political supporters were taking place and the Egyptian government had begun accusing the Muslim Brotherhood of being involved in acts of terrorism. 

Professor Peter Greste

Greste’s journalistic duties, which involved giving the Muslim Brotherhood a platform to express their political opinion, led to the Egyptian government accusing him and his colleagues of being advocates for a terrorist organisation. They were arrested, interrogated, charged and formally convicted of terrorism offences and imprisoned for over 400 days. 

Greste described this as a part of the ‘Sisification of Egypt’ – the phenomenon by which any opponent of Sisi’s rule is arrested or imprisoned, and news organisations which present such views are shut down. “We are seeing this in many countries, the way in which national security has been used as an excuse to come after uncomfortable journalism,” he said. 

“Being held in detention was a teachable moment for other journalists. They were using us as a very clear message, that it doesn’t matter whether you are a foreigner or a local, if you give a platform to the Brotherhood’s ideas, then you are going to be targeted,” he continued. 

Asked by Zia Ahmad, Editor-in-Chief of AMUST to comment on former Australian PM, Kevin Rudd’s petition for a Royal Commission into the influence of Murdoch Media empire on Australian democracy, Peter Greste replied that indeed the high concentration of media in Australia is of great concern and needs to be addressed.

Abdulhamid Bilici

Similarly, Abdulhamid Bilici was forced to leave Turkey, the country of his birth, into exile in the United States after the Erdogan government overtook the Zaman newspaper on 5 March 2016.

Zaman was the largest newspaper in Turkey, which aimed to support the rise of democratic values in the country. It was affiliated with the Gulen movement by way of being established by individuals who had a relationship with the movement, but it did not champion the movement, nor was it used as a propaganda tool.

Bilici detailed the events of 5 March 2015, terming it ‘the last day of Zaman’s struggle against the Erdogan government.’ In the years prior, the newspaper reported on the Erdogan government in a positive light, as did many international media organisations, because Turkey was becoming a rising model of Muslim democracy during those years. 

Bilici said, “2011-2012 was Turkey’s turning point into a one man regime which put Zaman into a difficult situation, as Erdogan did not like us being critical of his authoritarian policies and revealing the corruption that extended to his family members and fellow ministers.” 

“We triggered Erdogan’s anger. This started by revoking our reporter’s press cards in Ankara, followed by calls to boycott our paper, cancelling advertisements, opening court cases against our reporters and columnists, and threatening to shut us down. If we accepted, I would not be in exile today and my reporters would not be in jail today,” he continued. 

“On 5 March 2016, Erdogan appointed trustees to the board of Zaman. They arrived via police force while we protested. They occupied the newspaper and kicked us out. They fired me as the last editor and within 24 hours made the newspaper a propaganda machine, a mouthpiece for the government.

Two weeks after the attempted coup in Turkey in 2016, Bilici’s home was raided, as was the home of 54 other Zaman reporters and columnists – most of whom were arrested. Bilici stated that this story was not specific to Zaman. The Erdogan government had silenced other critical media outlets, news agencies & TV channels before Zaman in 2015. 

There are currently more than 140 journalists imprisoned in Turkey, from various backgrounds, news agencies and networks. This is one of the highest figures of imprisoned journalists in the world. 

“When the oppression against media began in 2013, we recognised that this was the beginning of oppression against all government opposition. We asked lawyers, people in the judiciary and business men to unite with us and defend democracy, because we couldn’t do it alone”, Biliici said. 

Unfortunately Turkish society was not able to come together to defend democracy and Erdogan destroyed political voices in the media, one by one. In the last 5 years, with the destruction of free media, and the creation of mouthpiece media for the government, he now controls 95% of Turkish media.”