ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkey's main opposition leader accused Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday of cowing local media into self-censorship after a journalist group said dozens of reporters were fired for their coverage of anti-government protests.
The Turkish Journalists Union (TGS) said at least 72 journalists had either been fired, forced to take leave or had resigned in the past six weeks since the start of the unrest, which spread to cities around the country.
The demonstrations, which began as a small effort to save an Istanbul park from redevelopment, quickly mushroomed into an unprecedented show of defiance against the government, emerging as the most serious public challenge to Erdogan's 10-year rule.
The protests have now largely died down although smaller demonstrations have persisted in Istanbul and Ankara.
"Why are you letting the journalists go? Why are you forcing them to take leave? Because they write stories their bosses don't like," said Kemal Kilicdaroglu, head of the CHP party.
"We are now facing a new period where the media is controlled by the government and the police and where most media bosses take orders from political authorities. A period where stories approved by political authorities are published and those that aren't are censored," he said.
Kilicdaroglu was speaking to reporters in Ankara at the launch of a report by his party on imprisoned journalists in Turkey. According to the report, 64 are now in jail.
Turkey has slumped to the bottom of international rankings on press freedom in recent years and has come under increasing criticism over the jailing of reporters, with one media group dubbing it the "world's biggest prison" for journalists.
Erdogan's government says most of the detained media workers are being held for serious crimes, such as membership of an armed terrorist group, that have nothing to do with journalism.
The Turkish leader dismissed last month's protesters as "riff-raff" manipulated by "terrorists" and blamed foreign and local media for inciting the unrest.
Mainstream media outlets, many owned by big conglomerates with links to the prime minister, self-censored their coverage of the protests, stepping up reporting only after Erdogan himself commented on the unusual scenes of chaos, prompting many Turks to turn to social media to follow the events.
(Reporting by Jonathon Burch; Editing by Nick Tattersall and Alistair Lyon)
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