Turkey is the biggest jailer of journalists world-wide, according to several media advocacy groups. But when it comes to overall restricting of media freedom, the country's government may be far from the worst offender.
Many reports on the recent unrest in Turkey have cited the country's top ranking in the global jailed-journalists table. That is based on research from nonprofit organizations Reporters Without Borders and the Committee to Protect Journalists. Both groups use the figure, for Turkey and other countries high in the ranking, as lobbying tools for greater journalistic freedom.
However, Turkey ranks far from the bottom in broader indexes of media freedom, such as those produced by Reporters Without Borders and another research-and-advocacy group, Freedom House.
Of the 179 countries ranked by Reporters Without Borders in 2013 for press freedom, 25 placed lower than Turkey. And 72 of the 197 countries ranked by Freedom House were deemed less free for media than Turkey.
A country that has many journalists in jail is a country with many journalists who were producing coverage the government didn't like. "There are cases such as North Korea, which doesn't appear on the CPJ list but has by most measures the most oppressive press-freedom environment in the world," said Jennifer Dunham, senior research analyst at Freedom House in New York. "There are simply no journalists to put in prison."
Joel Simon, executive director of New York-based CPJ, called it "absurd" to conflate a count of journalists in jail with the level of press freedom.
The Turkish government disputes its ranking as the world's top jailer of journalists, saying most of those imprisoned are detained for crimes unrelated to their profession—mostly membership in organizations the government deems to be terrorist. "Just because a person who holds a press card is in jail, that doesn't mean Turkey is censoring journalism," a foreign-ministry official said.
The media-advocacy groups disagree, saying their researchers delve into court documents and interview sources close to the cases to separate jailed people who incidentally are journalists from journalists incarcerated for their work. "They may well believe it," Mr. Simon said of the Turkish government's denial. "But we looked at the evidence."
The complexity of sorting journalist detentions nonetheless is reflected in discrepancies between counts of jailed Turkish journalists. In its latest annual report, Reporters Without Borders said at least 42 of 72 jailed journalists "are being held in connection with their work of gathering and disseminating news and information." CPJ counted 49 last December, and updated that to 48 in April, before the recent unrest.
Another challenge in producing counts is that they are snapshots. A country that frequently jails and quickly releases reporters may not have as many incarcerated at one time as another that imprisons a few journalists for a long period. Yet the first country may be putting more of a scare into reporters with what Mr. Simon calls a "revolving door."
In an essay last year published by Columbia Journalism Review, Justin D. Martin, an assistant professor of journalism at Northwestern University in Qatar, proposed instead a per-capita measure of jailed journalists. If that is applied to CPJ's latest totals, Eritrea ranks as the world's most repressive of the media, and China drops from third to 24th.
Some media advocates opposed per-capita measures, as the jailing of, say, five journalists is likely to have the same chilling effect on their peers in a country whatever its size.
Attempts to solicit comment from representatives of countries high on various lists of media oppression—Eritrea, Syria and China—were unsuccessful.
Both Reporters Without Borders and Freedom House produce broader measures of press freedom, based on a number of factors including jailing and killing of journalists, the legal environment and the degree of pluralism in a country's media. These rankings differ in subtle ways. For example, Reporters Without Borders puts greater emphasis on jailed journalists, which helps explain why Turkey ranks lower for freedom on its list.
"It is as accurate as it can be and a very good lobbying tool," said Heather Blake, U.K. director of Reporters Without Borders, of the group's ranking. "But you can get into a very good debate about the rankings, and whether Mexico is safer [than Turkey] because it's one place higher."
Mr. Simon said CPJ was objective in gathering data but also used the results as an "advocacy tool."
The jail count may trump more-complex indexes as a rhetorical device, "but at the same time can oversimplify the issue," Ms. Dunham said.
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