Saturday,22 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1287, (17 - 23 March 2016)
Saturday,22 September, 2018
Issue 1287, (17 - 23 March 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Whatever happened to Turkey’s democracy?

With the seizure of Turkey’s bestselling newspaper Zaman, Turkish democracy is falling victim to the success of the Erdogan revolution, writes Alev Yaman

Al-Ahram Weekly

Turkey’s bestselling newspaper Zaman fell under government control in dramatic circumstances late last Friday. International media were filled with images of protesters being drenched with tear gas outside the newspaper’s Istanbul headquarters on Friday night as security services carried out a court order to install government-appointed trustees at the helm of the opposition paper.

The seizure of Zaman was a landmark moment for Turkey. As a media outlet loyal to Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen — an erstwhile ally but now hated enemy of Turkey’s strongman President Recep Tayyip Erdogan — it was one of a small number of papers (and certainly one of the only financially independent ones) still interested in criticising Turkey’s government.

Since a defiant last edition published on Saturday, the paper has been filled with bland, pro-government filler stories that are out of keeping with its former editorial stance. To understand how a stalwart of Turkey’s media landscape came to be so unceremoniously shackled, one must look to Turkey’s recent past and the emergence of a civilian government that has monopolised power to an unprecedented degree in the country’s history.

The extraordinary rise to power of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the early 2000s was predicated on popular discontent with Turkey’s old authoritarian establishment. Erdogan and his party initially attracted a broad coalition of religious conservatives, centre-right voters, pious Kurds and liberals. The party’s reform-driven agenda promised to bring down the institutional discrimination, staunch elitism and anti-democratic practices of the traditional gatekeepers of the republic.

The bastions of this repressive old Turkey lay in the military, judiciary, media and the bureaucracy, with their vociferous support of periodic military coups, headscarf bans, anti-Kurdish legislation and trials to shut down political parties. Erdogan’s success was represented as a dismantling of this old Turkey and its bulwarks within the Turkish establishment. The AKP’s success was meant to be built on the empowerment of Turkey’s marginalised and dispossessed majority.

Few groups came to be more influential in this struggle than the followers of the Pennsylvania-based Islamic cleric Gulen. His highly educated, liberal Muslim followers were promoted to the ranks of Turkey’s judiciary, bureaucracy and security services in the early days of AKP rule.

These Gulenist cadres were on the frontline of a battle being fought within the Turkish state for the country’s heart and soul, between the old Turkey and the new. Their struggle was championed by the Gulenist media: including the newspapers Zaman and Bugun, and the television channels Samanyolu and Kanalturk.

This battle was, at times, played out at the expense of fundamentally important democratic principles. There were constitutional changes that eroded the independence of the judiciary, coup-plot trials against the military that were founded on evidence of questionable veracity, and media company seizures arising from conveniently aimed tax audits. For the first time since the slow decline of the Ottoman Empire, a religious movement wielded enormous influence over the country’s secular affairs, and the media outlets under its control were more vocal than anyone in justifying the means used to overthrow the old order.

At the time, those who spoke out against Erdogan’s revolution and his allies within the Gulen movement were dismissed as supporters of the old status quo, the bourgeois “white Turks” who formed the backbone of the old authoritarian establishment.

Indeed, as the Turkish economy boomed, the country’s disenfranchised groups were granted new rights. As the militarist guardians of the old republic were deposed, restrictions on the headscarf and the Kurdish language were lifted. The door was opened for the Kurdish movement to find a voice in parliament rather than through guerrilla warfare. Peace talks were even opened to end Turkey’s decades-long conflict with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). For many at the time, the ends were very clearly justifying the means.

Fast forward to today and that argument is one that appears to have decreasingly little currency. The new Turkey is not short of marginalised or dispossessed groups. From the Kurds to the Gulenists, from opposition journalists to the secularists, from television presenters to academics, from environmentalists to the Alevis: Turkey is perhaps even more deeply divided along ideological and identity-based lines than it was before the AKP came to power.


MEET THE NEW BOSS: Ultimately, Erdogan’s revolution has become the victim of its own success. The dark forces of Turkey’s repressive state apparatus — the military, judiciary, the bureaucracy and the media — were all conquered in turn. But instead of being defanged and declawed, they have been repurposed for the designs of a government that sees domestic enemies and traitors around every corner. Like so many revolutions in history, Turkey’s overthrow of the old order has led to little but a change of ruling elites.

Nowhere has this been more evident than in Turkey’s beleaguered media landscape. Over the course of the AKP’s time in power, more and more of Turkey’s mainstream media outlets have fallen into the hands of conglomerates and holding companies belonging to business people with close ties to the government, often after a transitional period under state control following asset seizures by the Savings Deposit Insurance Fund of Turkey (TMSF). Many of these new media owners have far more lucrative businesses that rely on government tenders and, as such, have vested interests in keeping the government happy.

For many years, the Dogan Media Group was able to give a platform to dissenting voices in the country, but it too appears to have fallen in line since the November elections, unnerved by the prospect of TMSF interference. As a consequence, Turkey’s print and broadcast media are increasingly becoming monotone in their coverage as the space for dissenting voices constantly shrinks and media pluralism erodes. And for those sections of the media that cannot be controlled via their owners, there’s an array of means of judicial harassment available to zealous Turkish prosecutors.

The plight of the Kurdish and pro-Kurdish media is particularly worrying. A number of pro-Kurdish outlets — including the popular IMC TV — were recently taken off the air, and the majority of Turkey’s imprisoned journalists hail from the pro-Kurdish press. In a country polarised by a bitter domestic conflict, news coverage of the fighting is becoming uniform.

Perhaps one of the great ironies of this whole process is that the same party that promoted the Gulen movement to the corridors of power in Turkey — and used it to bring down the old state apparatus from within — now accuses it of illegally forming a parallel state within a state.

Zaman was seized on the grounds that it was making propaganda for this “parallel state”, described by prosecutors as “the Fethullahist Terrorist Organisation”. Leaving aside the fact that seizing a newspaper on such grounds ostensibly violates Article 30 of Turkey’s constitution, the charge against Zaman raises serious questions about the vulnerability of large segments of Turkish civil society to government repression.

While Gulenist members of the judiciary and security services may well be guilty of resorting to the dark arts in pursuit of their political aims, the extension of state retribution to the religious movement’s media companies is indicative of a government waging total war on a political enemy rather than a proportionate attempt by the courts to weed out wrongdoers within the state.

The timing of the Zaman seizure — amid talks between Turkey and EU leaders over the handling of Europe’s growing refugee crisis — is highly telling. It constitutes a demonstration of the government’s capacity to wield total power at home and hold court at the highest levels of international diplomacy at the same time.

Yet for many Turkey observers, the country seems to be in a more precarious position than ever before. Between the diminishing space for dissent in the media and the AKP’s near-total monopolisation of power, Turkey’s democracy is in a poor state of health. Worryingly, there appears to be little sign of improvement on the horizon.

The writer is an author and human rights activist based in London and Istanbul.

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