In December 2013, journalist Mahir Zeynalov tweeted about government corruption in Turkey. After that, he was a marked man labeled as a terrorist.
For nearly two months, Zeynalov hid. On Feb. 7, 2014, he could safely go to Istanbul Ataturk Airport, where officials fined and deported him, issuing a standing ban against his return.
“They came hard down on me, so I had to leave,” said Zeynalov, working in exile in Washington, D.C.
At least he left on their own terms, he said, unlike dozens of journalists in Turkey jailed for doing their jobs, according to new analysis from the Committee to Protect Journalists.
The committee reported 259 journalists are imprisoned worldwide, the highest total since the journalism advocacy group first tracked these numbers in 1990, said Elana Beiser, the study’s lead author. Roughly three-quarters face anti-state charges, such as terrorism or producing propaganda, and of all imprisoned reporters, 81 of them are in Turkey.
Counting jailed journalists can be tricky. Governments that imprison them aren’t always forthcoming, and loved ones may be too scared to speak publicly.
To compile their data, committee researchers spend six weeks canvassing countries, talking to local press freedom groups, checking news reports and vetting every case to ensure a link between a journalist’s work and his or her time behind bars, Beiser said. Then, on Dec. 1, researchers conduct a final count that serves as a snapshot the organization then reports.
These methods may produce more conservative estimates compared to other groups, Beiser said. For example, the Platform 24 initiative currently reports 149 media workers are detained in Turkey.
When politicians and government officials imprison journalists, reporters often censor themselves or are outright censored. That chills coverage and conversation, and the public may not even realize what’s happening, said Vanessa Tucker, vice president for analysis at Freedom House, which advocates for stronger democracies around the globe.
“Media has always been easy place to target either to boost your own support or tamp down on criticism,” she said.
That seems to be the case in Turkey. Despite a coup attempt in July, populist President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is widely loved nationwide, Zeynalov said. The country’s media crackdown continues, leaving journalists in jail, and hundreds of media outlets closed. Most of those that remain are government-backed, Zeynalov said.
“It’s a dictatorship in the making,” he said.
Zeynalov criticized Erdoğan’s economic policies and he pointed to increased instability in Istanbul, where in recent days a bombing killed 44 people. Zeynalov said he expects Turks will “start to express their discontent.”
“They will realize there are no journalists or media outlets who remain who can highlight these cases,” he said.