Monday,23 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1265, (8 - 14 October 2015)
Monday,23 July, 2018
Issue 1265, (8 - 14 October 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Turkey’s dying press freedoms

Incapable of tolerating criticism or dissent, Turkey’s Erdogan continues his assault on press freedoms and even public comment, writes Sayed Abdel-Meguid

Al-Ahram Weekly

This writer has spent some 20 years amongst Anatolia’s verdant valleys and towering mountains, observing close up the major developments and crises that have swept this land. For most of this period, Turkish presidents played a wise and balanced role, one that was consistent with the constitutional provisions that explicitly and unambiguously defined their authorities and limits.

This was my experience during the last four years of the Süleyman Demirel era, during the two terms of Ahmet Necdet Sezer and during the presidency of Abdullah Gül. Whenever any of these presidents addressed the opening session of a new parliamentary season, which takes place every year in October, the hall would be totally silent and filled to the brim with deputies and guests.

All would listen quietly and attentively to the presidential address, reflecting the general reverence for that post which is meant to symbolise the whole of the young Turkish republic. Sadly, the scene in parliament last Thursday was entirely different.

It was as though President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was there to address a single faction. The 80 deputies of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (PDP) rose in a bloc and left the chamber the moment Erdogan entered. The leaders of the two other main opposition parties, the Republican People’s Party (RPP) and the National Movement Party (NMP), were also absent.

Moreover, in a precedent that would have been inconceivable until a couple of years ago, a salvo of sarcastic quips and criticisms flew from the first rows toward the podium from which the president, visibly flustered and angry, responded.

Opposition politicians who did not support his war against the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) were like terrorists themselves, he said. Naturally, the opposition was infuriated by the charge and many quarters of the media, the print press in particular, responded with commentaries filled with wit and sarcasm.

There was no small degree of alarm and gloom with regard to what the future holds, especially for Erdogan’s more outspoken critics. They have been warned in no uncertain terms: If you’re not with us, you’re against us.

So now you have to choose. Either you opt for peace and quiet for you and your family, for which perhaps you will receive some favours in return soon, or you get your bones crushed as a lesson that, if unheeded, will be followed by your liquidation.

Ahmet Hakan, a journalist at Hürriyet newspaper and host of the popular television show “Tarafsız Bölge” (Impartial Zone) for CNN Türk, was a recent recipient of just such a lesson.

Shortly after midnight on Wednesday, 30 September, four men followed Hakan from his television studio to his home in Istanbul’s Nisantasi neighbourhood, where they violently assaulted him. He was rushed to hospital with fractured ribs and a broken nose.

The journalist had received several threats prior to this, one from a Justice and Development Party (JDP) deputy and another from the pro-government Star newspaper that vowed to “crush him like an insect” as punishment for his criticisms of the JDP government.

Nevertheless, the government rejected his request for protection, forcing his employers to hire a private guard (who was also attacked in front of Hakan’s home). Oddly, his attackers did not flee the scene. It was if they did not fear the consequences, or that they knew that they had people to protect them.

Only a few hours prior to this incident, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, in New York, insisted that the Turkish press was free and not subjected to harassment of any sort. Perhaps his aides had forgotten to remind him of the attacks against Hürriyet offices and its staff three weeks ago by members of the very party he officially heads.

In fact, Davutoglu’s remarks on the fringes of the UN General Assembly meeting coincide with an intensive assault against the press and its practitioners. Not least of those affected was the Dogan Media Group, the largest media organisation in the country, which was charged with “propagating terrorism” through its outlets.

The same allegation was cited as an excuse to investigate the posters on various Twitter accounts. Moreover, the Güneş newspaper had made it clear that all had been planned in advance.

Well before the prosecution pressed any charges against Aydin Dogan, founder of Dogan Holding, the newspaper, which is considered close to Erdogan and his clique, published a picture showing Dogan in handcuffs.

Meanwhile, 34 journalists are being prosecuted on similar allegations. Among these are Cumhuriyet Editor-in-Chief Can Dündar; Özgür Mumcu, of the same newspaper; Ertuğrul Özkök, who is one of the most important columnists with Hurriyet; as well as journalists from other newspapers, including Taraf and Aydinlik.

But even the “word-of-mouth” press, if we can use the term, has not been spared from the clampdown. According to Sözcü newspaper, 13 people were arrested in the past 13 months on the grounds of “insulting the president”; 236 people are already being prosecuted on this charge.

The newspaper noted that among those arrested are five individuals who are relatives of soldiers or policemen who were killed in clashes with PKK militants in southeast Anatolia. All five are reported to have made remarks during the funerals of the martyred men blaming Erdogan for their deaths, as it was he who plunged the country into an unjustifiable war as part of his scheme to reverse JDP losses in the 7 June general elections.

It is little wonder that Ayse Isil Karakas, vice president of the EU Court of Human Rights, was moved to observe that the law that makes insulting the president a criminal offence has become a tool used to intimidate those who criticise Erdogan.

“Turkey had the image of a country where torture was tolerated; I am happy to say that this image no longer exists. [But] what replaced it? The image of a country where freedom of the press and freedom of speech are not protected, the Internet is blocked and lawsuits are continuously being filed against people for insulting the president. Such practices do not exist in Europe,” she said.

US Secretary of State John Kerry also felt compelled to express his concerns over the harassment of journalists and suppression of press freedoms in Turkey to his Turkish counterpart Feridun Sinirlioglu. He spoke to Sinirlioglu during meetings that accompanied the inaugural ceremonies of the 70th session of the UN General Assembly.

US Ambassador to Ankara John Bass echoed the sentiment during the annual conference of the American-Turkish Council recently held in Washington. The ambassador expressed the hope that Turkish citizens will have the opportunity to cast their votes in free and fair elections on 1 November, the appropriate climate for which requires a free and robust press.

The growing concern abroad is not without cause. The space for the unrestricted word and image has shrunk enormously under JDP rule, to the degree that one has the impression that the free press in Turkey may soon breathe its last.

In the hope of bringing the press back from the brink of death, opposition parliamentary deputies joined hundreds of journalists, writers and civil society representatives in a march ed along Istiklal Street in the heart of Istanbul to protest the government’s campaign of oppression and intimidation against the press.

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