Friday,26 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1229, (15 -21 January 2015)
Friday,26 April, 2019
Issue 1229, (15 -21 January 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Turkey’s press record

Turkish leaders expressing their shock at attacks on the freedom of the press in Paris seem to have forgotten their own poor record, writes Sayed Abdel-Meguid in Ankara

Al-Ahram Weekly

An about face: this term best describes developments in today’s Turkey, which sees itself as the heir to the former Ottoman Empire.

Turkish television stations, whether state-run or those that have been forced to toe the line with the powers that be in Ankara, have been airing live coverage of the tense and dramatic events in Paris.

Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu thought it insufficient to issue a statement of condemnation of the attacks, and instead flew off to France to take part in the demonstrations against terrorism and in support of freedom of expression.

What brought about this sudden change? Surely Davutoglu has not forgotten that only a few months ago his government, obviously instructed by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, entered into negotiations with Islamist militants in Mosul to secure the release of the Turkish diplomats and family members that were being held hostage?

It must have been an awkward moment for him when, just before he took off from Ankara’s Esenboga Airport on his way to Paris, he was asked about reports that Hayat Boumeddiene, wanted in France in connection with last week’s events, had passed through Istanbul on 2 January.

Boumeddiene, the partner of Amedy Coulibaly, who attacked and took hostages in a kosher supermarket in Paris, left Paris on 2 January, passing through Turkey to Urfa in the south, and then crossed over into Syria on 8 January.

Davutoglu quickly offered the pat statements that Turkish officials make in such circumstances. “Our intelligence agencies are cooperating with all countries that require intelligence information in order to stand up against all types of terrorist groups,” he said.

This statement has surely occasioned some bitter sarcasm among sections of the public on the lookout for gaffes by Ankara’s decision-makers. Not that the pickings are slim. In this case, everyone is aware of mounting Western suspicions, based on reliable international reports, that the Turkish government has been cooperating with Islamic State (IS) elements, or at the very least has been turning a blind eye to the criminal activities of the extremist Islamist groups.

Reports in the Turkish press lend weight to this suspicion. The newspaper Milliyet reported on 26 December that unidentified jihadist organisations were present and operating out of Hatay on the border with Syria.

It cited Ugur Pihava, president of the Circassian Society in Reyhanli, a town in the Hatay province, as saying that “wahabis” in the town were recruiting Circassian fighters from Chechnya and Dagestan via the Internet. He said that the recruits were told they would fight against Russia but instead found themselves in Syria.

Nine days later, the Aydinlik newspaper brought its readers’ attention to the increasing numbers of foreigners in southern and southeastern Anatolian towns and cities. It noted the connection with the intensification of the fighting in the civil war in Syria.

It was also Aydinlik that broke the news on 7 January of Erdogan’s fear that he may have charges brought against him by the International Criminal Court. The newspaper cited anonymous sources as saying that Erdogan had been disturbed by reports that the US and the West in general were considering a solution to the Syrian crisis that would include Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.

Such a development could lead to closer attention on the relationship between the ruling Turkish Freedom and Justice Party (AKP) and IS. As a result, according to sources cited by the newspaper, Erdogan instructed his intelligence chief, Hakan Fidan, to destroy records or documents that might be regarded as proof of the AKP’s cooperation with IS.

Many have been stunned by Turkish commiseration for the slain journalists at the French magazine Charlie Hebdo given the AKP government’s systematic repression of press freedoms in Turkey.

The government’s record of abuses against journalists has long surpassed that of the government that came to power in the military coup in 1980. Turkey under the AKP has become the world’s number-one jailer of journalists.

As the rest of the world kicked off the new year, an anti-terrorist unit in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir arrested a Dutch journalist, Frederike Geerdink, on charges of spreading terrorist propaganda. She had been working in Turkey for nine years, and her arrest took place only hours before the Dutch foreign minister Albert Koenders was due to arrive in Ankara.

It does not take much to spur Turkish security forces into action against the press. The police raided journalist Sedef Kabaş’s home in Istanbul and confiscated her computer and mobile phone on the order of the public prosecutor who took exception to one of the journalist’s tweets.

“We are not afraid of the thieves. They are afraid of us,” Kabaş had tweeted, referring to the corruption scandals that began to break in Turkey on 17 December 2013 and the actions that AKP leaders took to put a lid on them.

Only days before the terrorist attack that targeted the French cartoonists, the New York Times came out with an article lampooning the Turkish president’s allergy against cartoonists. “Turkey’s President Traces a New Internal Threat: The Way He’s Drawn,” the headline read.

Erdogan has personally filed a number of cases against the country’s cartoonists, actions condemned by Alev Yaman, a researcher on Turkey for PEN International, a London-based media organisation.

“The extension of judicial harassment to caricaturists is indicative of the increasing disregard for the right to freedom of expression [in Turkey],” Yaman told the New York Times, adding that Turkey had a long tradition of political satire. “This case not only represents an attack on free speech but also a betrayal of Turkey’s artistic and democratic heritage,” she said.

But Erdogan has not only turned to the courts to silence journalists and cartoonists. He has also had them fired from their jobs for having had the audacity to mock him with their pens.

The New York Times reported an incident in which the police arrested and questioned a protestor for holding up a poster showing a cartoon depicting Erdogan dressed as a cook slicing meat from a large rotating spit of döner kebab. In the image, the rotating spit of meat that Erdogan was slicing away at was labelled “democracy.”

The aim of such tactics is to intimidate the opposition, but many in Turkey refuse to be intimidated. In the wake of the international outcry triggered by the attacks against Charlie Hebdo in Paris, Turkish journalists and intellectuals who declared their solidarity with their French counterparts did not forget to remind the world of the dictatorial bent of the rulers in Ankara.

Among the actions was a march to commemorate the victims of the Charlie Hebdo attacks organised by a group called the June Movement. As they proceeded down Istaklal Street toward Istanbul’s Taksim Square, marchers chanted: “The pen cannot be silenced by the gun.” They also protested against the ruling AKP government, using the slogan “We stand shoulder to shoulder against fascism.”

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