This past week, the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government shut down a critical news site, censored an article written by a columnist and launched an investigation into another news portal, reports Barış Altıntaş with Today’s Zaman.
True, all this was done by Turkey’s “independent judiciary,” which the AK Party has, to a certain extent, managed to fill with loyalists. Turkey’s increasingly Draconian laws on controlling and censoring the Internet and stifling other media freedoms have been a major source of concern for both domestic and international organizations. The country is known for jailing journalists — it had the highest number of imprisoned journalists until recently, and it is famous for its Twitter and YouTube bans.
International organizations have long been concerned about free speech and press freedoms in Turkey. A delegation from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and the International Press Institute (IPI) were in Turkey last week, talking to both government officials and media representatives. Erdoğan told the delegation during their meeting that he is “increasingly against the Internet.” In a statement released after the meeting, the CPJ-IPI delegation said it welcomed Erdoğan accepting to meet with the organizations.
However, CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova, in a phone interview with Sunday’s Zaman, made it clear that this doesn’t mean that the delegation was impressed by the situation.
She noted: “We remain very prepared and determined to continue defending the rights of our colleagues and press freedoms in this country.” She said most of the journalists the delegation met during its week in Turkey have complained about self-censorship, out of the fear that if they pursue a story, it might not be published if it is against the government’s interest.
She also said journalists should never have to face such a dilemma, or be publicly chastised — as Erdoğan has done to several journalists — for their reports. Ognianova called the situation of journalism in Turkey a “toxic environment” and said “it has to change.”
Reports and criticism from international organizations have been more frequent as Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s “new Turkey,” a rhetoric he has been using extensively to describe, in his populist way, what he thinks is the power finally being given to the people (at least, those who vote for him) through his AK Party.
For others, the New Turkey has so far been a Kafkaesque nightmare:
Public servants have lost their jobs over participating in anti-government protests; journalists working at media organizations that strive to remain in the government’s good graces have been sacked over investigative reports; police officers have been demoted or expelled from the force for exposing alleged government corruption; charities affiliated with the government’s perceived opponents have been shut down, and one bank — affiliated with the Hizmet movement, which President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan says is on a mission to overthrow the government — has had to fight overt attempts by government officials and high-ranking finance bureaucrats to sink it.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a scathing report on the dire state of democracy in Turkey also last week, on Sept. 29. “Turkey under Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government is taking far-reaching steps to weaken the rule of law, control the media and Internet, and clamp down on critics and protesters, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today,” it rightly observed.
The Turkish government’s — or more correctly, its former head’s — authoritarian tendencies have been no secret for a long time, but the HRW in a press release offered a good summary of the situation for those who don’t know:
“The government’s repressive reflexes came to the attention of the world with the crackdown on the Gezi protests in İstanbul and other cities in May-June 2013, involving excessive use of force by the police, including the misuse of teargas. […] In December 2013, a major corruption scandal came to light when police announced arrests and criminal investigations in cases implicating senior government officials and members of their families. The scandal emerged out of a simmering conflict within the political establishment between the AKP [another acronym for the AK Party] and its former ally, the influential Gülen movement, led by the US-based cleric Fethullah Gülen. The government responded by adopting laws that curb judicial independence and weaken the rule of law.
“The government also reassigned judges, prosecutors, and police officers. More recently, it arrested police officers involved in the investigations, closed down two of the investigations, and intensified efforts to silence social media and traditional media reporting on the issues. Three sets of changes in 2014 to Turkey’s already restrictive Internet law, the most recent in September, have increased Internet censorship. A revised law on the National Intelligence Agency [MIT], adopted in April, increased government surveillance powers and unfettered access to data, protects intelligence personnel from investigation, and increases penalties for whistleblowers and journalists who publish leaked intelligence.”
Erdoğan is practically worshipped by his voter base, who call him “the tall man,” and he is never questioned by AK Party deputies and other loyalists of the government in the business world and the media, thanks to a tightly knit network of monetary ties established through a masterful implementation of crony capitalism. Like all relationships based on financial interests, the alliance is not based on solid grounds, and things might change if and when the economy takes a downward turn.
However, the populist and authoritarian politician currently calls all the shots, and if his speech on Oct. 1 at the ceremony to mark the start of the new legislative year is any indicator, things will likely get worse before they get any better. “The exploitation of the freedom of the press and the Internet is not a situation we can watch without reacting,” the president said.
The Turkish president is not unlike a Shakespearean villain, and if history has taught us anything, the trajectory of his rule should be more worrying for him than for his opponents; but for now, he stands strong as an iron-fisted leader who is adored by half of the country’s voters whose approach to rights is defined by the potential for their abuse. He is also possibly fearful of his uncertain future — speaking in a long-term sense here — and that certainly can’t be good for media freedoms.