Diplomatic Pouch / February 5, 2015
By Larry Luxner
Back in 2002, when Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) won a landslide election victory — paving the way for former party leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to become prime minister the following year — Sevgi Akarçeşme was a researcher at Washington’s Center for Strategic & International Studies.
“As a young person who wanted a liberal, democratic Turkey, I thought Erdoğan was taking us in the right direction,” she said. “Finally, we had made a U-turn, and under Erdoğan we were moving toward the European Union, implementing unprecedented reforms and liberalizing slowly. In such a background, I was critical of people who blamed Erdoğan for being an Islamofascist.”
But 10 years later, “with great disappointment, I have to admit they were right,” said the Istanbul-based correspondent for Today’s Zaman, calling the current government in Ankara an “arbitocracy” where reporters are intimidated and opponents of Erdoğan live in a climate of fear.
“I can argue with 100 percent confidence that Erdogan is today the largest media boss in Turkey,” Akarçeşme claimed. “Thanks to his huge propaganda machine, any dissident is labeled a traitor. That’s even more damaging than being put in prison, because even if you’re not in jail, you don’t feel free because you are subject to endless attacks, smear campaigns, lies and slander by pro-government circles in the conventional media.”
On Jan. 27, Akarçeşme was one of four people to condemn the Erdoğan regime during a panel at Washington’s National Press Club. Moderated by John Donnelly —chairman of the club’s Freedom of the Press Committee and senior defense writer at CQ Roll Call — the event came only a month after the arrest of at least 30 people including journalists and senior managers affiliated with media outlets supportive of Erdoğan’s rival, the U.S.-based-Islamic cleric Fethullah Gülen.
In 2014, Reporters Without Borders documented 117 incidents of attacks and threats against journalists in Turkey. For a time in 2013, the Erdoğan government had more journalists imprisoned than any other country on Earth.
“Even though dozens of journalists have since been released from prison, the crackdown is becoming more and more vicious,” said Delphine Halgand, U.S. director for Reporters Without Borders. “For years, we were calling on authorities to reform the system, but now we clearly see the regime has chosen an authoritarian way to deal with the media — especially since last year’s corruption scandals — and targeting media linked to the Gülen movement.”
Halgand said Internet censorship is more pervasive, as authorities attempt to block anti-government websites without court decisions.
“When 18 Turkish citizens were abducted by ISIS, there was a ban on coverage. Seventy journalists were prosecuted for covering a recent corruption scandal,” she said. “Many journalists from different newspapers have been fired, and the government is directly pressuring the media to cover events in a certain way, and engaging in smear campaigns to destroy the reputation of certain journalists.”
Said Akarçeşme: “Everyone in this room is a victim of this authoritarian regime. The targeting of journalists in Turkey has become the rule rather than the exception. I chose the right profession at the worst time.”
Tolga Taniş, Washington correspondent for the daily newspaper Hurriyet, said his government sometimes threatens reporters with punishment if they don’t reveal their sources and often bans them from covering specific stories like the recent hostage crisis.
“The government does not believe in the principles of press freedom,” he complained. “The courts can prohibit your coverage of a specific topic, and society is not promising. If most people believe it’s OK to have Internet censorship, then why should a political party support press freedom?”
Kemal Kirişci, a senior fellow at Washington’s Brookings Institution and an expert on Turkish foreign relations, said what’s going on today is quite different from the 1990s, when journalists, academics and intellectuals would usually get very long jail terms for expressing anti-government sentiments.
“Today, it’s not the jail terms [but rather] a constant sense of harassment and repression — not just toward journalists but often ordinary people,” he said.
One recent victim of this harassment is beauty queen Merve Büyüksaraç, who was questioned by police after she posted a satirical poem on her Instagram account poking fun at Erdoğan. The former Miss Turkey said she had no intention of insulting the president, and no charges were dropped.
Erdoğan himself has defended his government’s efforts to block access to Twitter and YouTube, telling a press freedom conference last October that “I am increasingly against the Internet every day.”
Apparently, the president isn’t the only one. Kirişci said 60 percent of the 16,000 Turks who took part in a recent survey by Hurriyet said they didn’t have a problem with censoring the Internet.
“When you survey Turkish media, there is a lot of critical opinion out there, and some of it is penned in a manner I would find offensive. But the pool of those critics is quickly shrinking as many face harassment or end up being ostracized. Very prominent journalists of high standing have been victims of this ostracization.”
Kirişci added: “On numerous occasions, the current government has set a very high target for Turkey to become the 10th largest economy in the world by 2023, the 100th anniversary of the republic. I can’t help wonder how we’re going to get there if critical thinking is silenced.”