(MENAFN - AFP) A record number of journalists are behind bars in Turkey as the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan wields draconian laws critics say are creating a climate of fear to silence dissenting voices and promote "pro-state" journalism.
Erdogan's Islamist-leaning Justice and Development Party (AKP) is marking a decade in power boasting of political and economic reforms that have changed the face of the predominantly Muslim but staunchly secular nation.
But it is under fire from rights groups about its escalating crackdown on the media, particularly Kurdish journalists.
"The authorities are waging one of the world's biggest anti-press campaigns in recent history. Dozens of writers and editors are in prison, nearly all on terrorism or other anti-state charges. The evidence against them? Their journalism," charged the US-based Committee to Protect Journalists.
Turkey is now the leading jailer of journalists worldwide, according to an October report by the CPJ, imprisoning even more than Iran, Eritrea or China and setting alarm bells ringing about press freedom and free speech in a country aspiring to join the European Union.
"Ankara sees itself as a regional model for democracy and freedom, but its aspirations are deeply compromised by its anti-press practices. Turkey's leaders must demonstrate the political will to dismantle the country's complex system of media repression," the committee said.
It identified 76 journalists imprisoned in Turkey as of August 1, including 61 who were put behind bars purely because of their journalism.
But the government insists no one has been jailed simply because of their profession but because of criminal activities.
Interior Minister Idris Naim Sahin said last year that the "weed" of terrorism was not limited to armed attacks but culture too.
"Terror is a multifaceted phenomenon that includes psychology and art," he said. "Sometimes it is on canvas, sometimes in a poem, in daily articles, or even jokes."
Critics say because of this mindset, many Kurdish journalists end up in courts, charged with links to the banned Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which has been fighting for autonomy in southeastern Turkey since 1984.
Irfan Aktan, a journalist who has been writing about the Kurdish problem since 2001, is one of those who landed in the dock on charges of proliferating "terrorist propaganda" over a 2009 article that included interviews with PKK members.
"I was summoned by an Istanbul prosecutor to testify two weeks after the article was published," Aktan, who works for Express magazine, told AFP. "My journalism activity has been stigmatised as propagandist."
In 2010, an Istanbul court gave him a sentence of 18 months in prison, plus a fine of 16,000 lira (nearly 7,000 euros), suspended on condition he does not commit the same offence within five years.
That move, he says, was to force journalists to apply self-censorship.
"I'll face no legal charges only if I accept to be the state's journalist."
Aktan said he fears his telephone might be tapped.
"I used to call my contacts for interviews but now I am afraid because I don't know if my calls will be used as evidence in the future," he said.
Mainstream media groups and high-profile journalist have also been targeted by the restrictive Turkish laws
In March, investigative journalists Ahmet Sik and Nedim Sener were released pending the outcome of their trial, after spending 375 days in custody for their alleged involvement with a shadowy group dubbed Ergenekon which is accused of trying to overthrow Erdogan's government.
Media tycoon Aydin Dogan, who owns Turkey's largest media conglomerate, the Dogan Group, faced a record 3.9 billion in tax fines in 2009, sparking debate over government pressure on critical mainstream media.
In September, AKP refused to provide accreditation for several newspapers, all of them its vocal critics, to cover a major party congress.
Erdogan defended the move, saying he was "not obliged to invite" all newspapers to the convention.
Critics say the large number of court cases brought by government officials, including Erdogan -- who himself was jailed in 1998 for reciting an Islamic-motivated poem -- have resulted in shallow news coverage.
One of Erdogan's lawyers, Ali Ozkaya, said lawsuits lodged by the prime minister against people who had insulted him in the press have been "quite a deterrent" for others.
"The wording of columnists has noticeably changed especially since 2003," he told the English-language Hurriyet Daily News. "Reporters and columnists do not exceed the dose when levelling criticisms anymore."
But in a letter to the CPJ, Justice Minister Sadullah Ergin said the government had adopted many reforms in the past decade to improve democratic standards and charged that the claims about eroding press freedom were "exaggerated."
He said the majority of jailed journalists had been guilty of serious offences such as "membership of an armed terrorist organisation, kidnapping ... bombing and murder".
Some observers have pointed the finger of blame at the European Union over its failure to revive Ankara's stalled bid to join the 27-nation bloc.
"In slowing down Turkey's accession process, the EU doesn't help the Turkish press and all those who are pressing here for more democratic reforms," said a Western diplomat who requested anonymity.
But not everyone agrees.
"The growing restrictions on the freedom of press is Turkey's embarrassment. The EU cannot be an excuse," Can Baydarol, a specialist on Turkey-EU relations, told AFP.
Turkey needs to look in the mirror "if it is going to export democracy to its neighbourhood."