Wednesday,22 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1279, (21 - 27 January 2016)
Wednesday,22 August, 2018
Issue 1279, (21 - 27 January 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Erdogan doubles down on critics

Turkey’s clampdown on media freedom is widening to include academics and even callers to talk shows, writes Sayed Abdel-Meguid

Al-Ahram Weekly

There is no grey area in the Erdogan state, and the signs are that there will not be one, at least for the foreseeable future. You are either for or against — there is no middle ground. And the antithetical nodes of this bipolarity are headed with alarming speed towards a collision.

It is a situation that has never been seen before in the Turkish republic, established on the ruins of the Ottoman Empire in the 1920s. And this at a time that the country is no longer secular but semi-Islamicised, according to the annual report of Kadir Has University in Istanbul.

A brief glance at the Turkish media (print and broadcast) proves this. Every morning newsstands are filled with dozens of publications and dozens of news and political commentary programmes are broadcast on the radio, television and satellite networks. The great majority of these are staunchly in favour of the Erdogan status quo.

They faithfully report his every word, echo his wise beliefs and embellish them with democratic-sounding expressions that supposedly reflect the type of government with which Turkey is blessed. Naturally, this cheerful chorus is not the product of freedom of expression. All of these media have fallen into the grip of the ruling party and its imperious founder. They have no choice.

The ruling party, of course, is the Justice and Development Party (AKP). As for its inspired founder, that would be Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has eclipsed all other cofounders — most notably, former president Abdullah Gül and former deputy prime minister Bülent Arınç, who has landed himself in the doghouse for being critical — since 1 November 2015, leaving Erdogan squarely centre stage without rivals nudging his sides.

The media — or the “media pool” in the current political jargon — that is controlled by the AKP/Erdogan presents a glowing image of Turkey at present and its future under its glorious leader. Look at the splendid mega-projects, the splendid new airports, the new roads, the new bridges, and specifically the third bridge spanning the Bosphorus, which is rushing to meet its inaugural deadline this spring.

Also, according to this media, the minimum wage has been increased to YTL1,300 (just over $420) per month. Thus, life for the average Turk — despite the rising prices of goods and services — is rosy, or would be were it not for the plague of terrorism. Look, the Anatolian economy is on the rebound! The 2015 growth rate will reach 3.5 per cent and by 2016 it will be four per cent, and in 2017 it will be four per cent, so Minister of Finance Mehmet Şimşek says.

Such are the facts and figures, even if correct on the surface, that are spouted by AKP officials and the members of the government’s “media pool” day and night in an attempt to cover up the seething frustration, despair and anger among the general public because of the strains and hardships of day-to-day life. While the opposition media does cover such problems, their means are limited and dwindling due to mounting clampdowns on the press and freedom of opinion and expression.

The recent suicide bombing in Istanbul exposed the soft underbelly of the Erdogan state. One would presume that the famous Sultan Ahmet Square, s home to the Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sophia, the Museum of Antiquities and other major monuments and tourist sites, which teems with tourists and near to hundreds of hotels and restaurants, would enjoy the best possible security measures. Apparently not.

A terrorist managed to enter the square and blow himself up. He, of course, went directly to Hell, but he left behind him the remains of innocent people whose only fault was to be in the wrong place and end up victims of security negligence. The incident brought a tragic end to a tourist season that is unlikely to recover before at least a year.

Some commentators believe that Turkey is on the brink of a deluge. This is the opinion of the noted academic and Middle East and international relations specialist Sedat Laçiner. He remarked that disasters are pouring down on a government that not only refuses to listen to its academics, artists and intellectuals, but scorns them, sneers at them and throws them into jail.

Developments last week supplied additional evidence to substantiate precisely this point. The mere publication of a declaration criticising the war in the southeast and calling for peace occasioned a police raid on the town of Koca Eli, home to the university of that name, and the arrest of 12 professors who had signed the declaration.

The criticism naturally infuriated Erdogan who called the declaration “treachery”. The round of arrests in the town, 60 kilometres outside of Istanbul, is only the beginning. Directives have been issued to open investigations into the more than 1,000 academics from 89 universities who also signed the declaration.

Professor Laçiner predicts that difficult times lie ahead for Turkey in all fields, from the economy to politics. The storm clouds have begun to gather “directly over our heads”, he says, pointing to Turkey’s deteriorating relations with the rest of the world and Russia above all, to the failure of Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s strategy of responding to the activities of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), the backfiring of policy in Syria and the feebleness of the same in Iraq.

On top of these problems, mutual distrust and hatred are growing between diverse segments of the population due to the polarisation that has been fuelled by those in power, especially in the wake of the 7 June elections in which the AKP lost its parliamentary majority. The problems are accumulating at a dangerous pace, he warns, but there are no warning systems and there is no balance in government.

Worse, it appears that the people do not care what is happening in their country, which makes one wish one were blind, Laçiner said, so as not to have to see the future that is bearing down on Turkey.

Another commentator who fears the worst is Nazli Ilicak, former MP and erstwhile colleague of Erdogan in the Fazilet (Virtue) Party, founded by Necmettin Erbakan before Erdogan turned against his former associates. Ilicak depicts a horrifying portrait of what is happening in the southeast, where conditions of life in many towns and cities have grown intolerable.

They are scenes of total destruction, she writes. No distinction is made between terrorist and civilian. She also cites observers who say it is impossible to generate a climate conducive to stability, confidence and peace on top of the bloodshed and tears, because cumulative pains and clashes only generate disputes, rather than cooperation.

A more recent casualty of the clampdowns on the media in Turkey is the famous talk show host Beyazıt Öztürk. He was called in for questioning by the Public Prosecution after an episode of the “Beyaz Show”, aired on the Kanal D television network.

During the broadcast, a woman called in to vent her frustration. She claimed that the media is not accurately portraying conditions in the historic town of Sur, in the predominantly Kurdish district of Diyarbakir. The woman, Öztürk and the show’s producer are now being investigated for disseminating terrorist propaganda, inciting strife and encouraging division of the country.

Evidently, the host had been told to hang up on the caller. Instead of doing that, he expressed his sympathy for the woman, who complained of the conditions of life in her town, which has become home to the forces of death and destruction.

“We have been trying to get people to hear about what is happening as much as we can. What you said has taught us a lesson. We will continue to do more. I hope your wishes for peace come true as soon as possible,” Öztürk told the caller and then asked guests in the TV studio to applaud her.


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