A journalist with hope is a common contradiction in these strange days. When I set forth to share my thoughts on what the new year may offer us, I was overwhelmed by the thickening siege on our profession worldwide.
Asked by Index on Censorship on how I feel about 2017, here are my thoughts:
Having recently witnessed President Tayyip Erdoğan praising Donald Trump for putting a CNN reporter in his place, what keeps swirling in my mind is the age-old Turkish saying that goes, in a rough translation: “Snow falls over the mountains that you trust.”
It means disappointment is piling up and there is nowhere you can turn to.
That’s the taste Trump, elected as the leader of the “free world”, leaves when he redefines the professional standards we have grown up with, taken for granted and sought to establish in less free environments.
That leaves journalists, particularly those in Turkey, deeply stunned and more helpless than ever. Wishing for better times is a fragile exercise, a distant daydream, a hopeless task. What makes one think in those terms is the sheer horror of what we have been subjected to may only be a harbinger of what comes next, in a higher level of oppression.
The year we left behind marks an ordeal most of us would prefer to forget. Yet it is impossible. In every possible aspect, 2016 was annus horribilis for what we in the bold and independent flanks of Turkish journalism stand for. The year will go down in history as a midwife of a series of lethal blows to people’s right to have access to truth and diverse opinion.
It became a period of severe punishment with the constitution suspended and the rights of the Fourth Estate eviscerated. The introduction of the state of emergency, which was enthusiastically championed by Erdoğan, only accelerated the strangulation of the free word.
We entered the new year with a yet another announcement that the authorities had launched a massive legal inquiry and arrested over 62,000 people for “clandestine activity” on social media — such as critical tweeting — of which 17,000 were already indicted. This news came as Bekir Bozdağ, minister of justice, proudly declared that 25 new prisons are now being built, a 22% increase in capacity.
Journalism is a profession in agony. Frankly, none of us in this now dreaded exercise of informing the public can see any way out. The odds are that Erdoğan is only inches away from securing a fully empowered executive presidential rule, equipped with impunity and it is fair to assess that the state of emergency will continue as long as his party deems necessary. One can only pray — as a colleague told me over the phone recently — that the AKP shows mercy to release jailed journalists, who were all jailed for doing their job. Under such circumstances, it is an arduous task to report about daily events; forget about plunging into daring investigations of official corruption in the public interest.
Which leaves me with one hope for 2017: we won’t be able to give up. Turkey’s independent journalists will continue to do what they know best. But it will have to be mainly online from editorial bases outside the country. This will be a very tough battle for our integrity and a long-term one. We will have to keep our spirits intact. But we need the consistent, courageous backing of our colleagues in the West.
“The West is largely silent. And Erdoğan is triumphalist. ‘Now that the demagogue Trump is about to become the world’s most powerful man, the authoritarians believe history is on their side’,” wrote Owen Jones in The Guardian, adding:
“Turkey is a warning: democracy is precious but fragile. It underlines how rights and freedoms are often won at great cost and sacrifice but can be stripped away by regimes exploiting national crises. The danger is that Turkey won’t be an exception, but a template of how to rid countries of democracy. That is reason enough to stand by Turkey. Who knows which country could be next?”
‘Widespread purges have seen thousands dismissed from their jobs due to loosely evidenced accusations of supporting the group the government holds responsible for last year’s failed coup attempt. They have been left without employment or financial support – suicides have followed. Turkey’s newest accolade is that it’s the world’s largest imprisoner of journalists…
Erdoğan and Trump have publicly supported each other’s stance on the media in the past. Anyone who has spent time in Turkey will recognise Trump’s denouncement of negative coverage in outlets such as the New York Times as “fake news”. They will be familiar with headlines such as the one that appeared in far-right outlet Brietbart (whose founding member Steve Bannon is Trump’s chief strategist), used in relation to the protests in the US on Saturday – “Terror-tied group Cair causes chaos, promoting protests and lawsuits as Trump protects nation”. This is pure Erdoğan territory – denouncing opposition by associating it with terror while glorifying the strong leader.
Turkey is the home of “alternative facts”.
A country that makes the media the enemy is a country where people are too easily manipulated by those in power. Journalists in Turkey, unless they work for organisations that toe the official government line on events, constantly wobble on a tightrope between reporting what’s going on and not reporting enough to get arrested. Even foreign journalists self-censor, double-check for unintended “insults” that could land them in trouble. They flinch when the doorbell rings unexpectedly, and wonder every time they go abroad whether they will be allowed back in the country.
We need to stand up against the vilification of the free press in the US now before it goes too far. Erdoğan is no longer good for Turkey, just like Trump is no good for America. They are changing the identities of their countries. The irony that a possible Turkish accession to the EU was used as one of the key motivations for Brexit is likely to be a common theme throughout our moves towards leaving the EU. While turning away from these sorts of leaders can lead to isolation and further extremes, do we really have to be quite literally holding hands with them?’