Monday,28 May, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1336, (16 - 22 March 2017)
Monday,28 May, 2018
Issue 1336, (16 - 22 March 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Turkey: The journalists’ gulag

Once the Middle East’s flourishing democracy, Turkey under Erdogan is lost in a sea of tyranny and political mayhem

For all free and democratic societies, freedom of expression and the press are deemed sacred rights and it is considered sacrilege that any governmental authority attempts to control or censor these freedoms. Many in the US and Europe are under the impression that countries such as Cuba or North Korea may have the worst records of human rights violations along with the prosecution of journalists on flimsy accusations. The truth is that one of the worst records of human rights violations and the actual very worst in terms of journalist prosecutions is closer to their doors than they think. It is actually taking place in Turkey. Turkey, the neighbouring country to the European Union and the effective NATO member, has become under the tyrannical reign of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan the journalists’ gulag on earth.

Hardly any country outside the communist or Islamist regimes’ sphere imposes harsher or unjust freedom of expression laws as Erdogan’s Turkey does. Similar to its Iranian regime counterparts, the Erdogan regime managed to sway a sizeable segment of the population in its favour by convincing them that their great nation is under peril unless he purges all dissidents that seek to destroy their homeland from within.

ERDOGAN’S PURGE: As a consequence of the July 2016 failed coup d’état, Erdogan decided to purge the nation of any significant opposition and labelled the Gulen Movement, which was ironically once Erdogan’s most powerful supporters, as a terrorist organisation. Scores of journalists, writers, and artists joined judges, officers, clerks and others in jail as a result of the purging policies of the Turkish dictator.

Erdogan utilised the coup as a pretext to finalise his power-mongering campaign by routing and destroying all dissidents to his rule. On 27 July 2016, the Erdogan regime shut down 16 television channels, 23 radio stations, 45 daily newspapers, 15 magazines and 29 publishing houses in an imposed decree under the newly adopted emergency law. Closed outlets include the Gulen-affiliated Cihan News Agency along with Muhabir Haber Ajansi, and SEM Haber Ajans. Also shut down by government decree were Samanyolu TV and the previously leading newspaper Today’s Zaman. The opposition daily newspaper Taraf, which was known to be in close relations with the Gulen Movement, was also not spared the same fate.

Furthermore, in October 2016, Turkish authorities continued their assault on freedom of expression by shutting down another 15 media outlets, including one of the world’s only women’s news agencies, and detained the editor-in-chief of the secularist Turkish newspaper Cumhuriyet, based on flimsy accusations that they committed crimes on behalf of Kurdish militants and a network linked to Erdogan nemesis cleric Fethullah Gulen. With over 100,000 Turkish citizens sacked and suspended from their jobs, there are tens of thousands who were arrested by the Turkish police and await trial in very harsh conditions. Erdogan has demanded the reinstatement of the death penalty in a move that displays his malevolent intentions towards the opposition.

Not content by destroying entire networks of independent and opposition press outlets, the onslaught reached the Internet and social media outlets in an unprecedented move by the standards of tyrannical regimes. In November 2016, Turkish authorities blocked access to social media outlets such as WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Skype and Instagram throughout Turkey. By December 2016 around 1,656 social media users were arrested based on flimsy charges.

THE JOURNALISTS’ GULAG: The case of Ahmed Şık remains one of the most abusive of the tyrannical reign of Erdogan. Şık is a journalist, photographer, writer and investigative reporter who stirred a lot of waves in Turkey in the past decade. The award winning writer has been constantly prosecuted for both his anti-Gulen Movement and anti-Erdogan regime stances. He renders both as dangerous to the Turkish state as well as a cause of chaos and diminishing democracy.

Ahmet Şık, born in Adana in 1970, is the author of several books. His famous book The Imam’s Army, investigating the controversial Gulen Movement, led to his detention for a year in 2011-2012 and the book was banned in Turkey. In a bizarre twist, Şık got arrested for allegedly committing a crime he was personally investigating, and exposed and published in the book, which about the infiltration of the Gulen Movement of Turkish military and other state institutions. Şık remains a staunch press freedom defender and his case is among the few that being followed by the international media.

Şık’s cause has been taken up by the English non-profit organisation PEN, which is calling for his immediate release. On 29 December 2016, Şık was taken into custody once again on charges of creating “propaganda” for “terrorist organisations” in utilising social media to express his opposition to the government. He was held in reference to 11 tweets. According to his lawyers, Şık was denied access to legal advice, held in solitary confinement and not given drinking water for three days.

DENIZ YUCEL: Another case of journalist prosecutions is the German-Turkish 43-year-old reporter Deniz Yucel, of the prominent German newspaper Die Welt (The World) in Turkey. Yucel was arrested in Turkey upon receiving data from a hacker who hacked the e-mails of Berat Albayrak, Turkey’s energy minister and son-in-law of Erdogan, exposing his connection with the terrorist Islamic State oil smuggling from Syria into Turkey, which Erdogan categorically denied repeatedly. These e-mails may serve as the “smoking gun” evidence that ties Erdogan with the Islamic State group. The accusations against Yucel of espionage and propagating for terrorist organisations appear to be Erdogan’s attempt to cover up the scandal exposed by Yucel. The latter is still in prison and his incarceration has created the worst diplomatic row between Turkey and Germany in decades. Erdogan publicly labelled Yucel a “terrorist not a journalist” and claims he told the German chancellor that. However, Angela Merkel is adamant not to let this matter pass peacefully and will keep pressuring Ankara for his immediate release.

ZEHRA DOGAN: Zehra Dogan, a journalist and painter, has been sentenced to two years and 10 months for drawing a painting that depicts the destruction of the Turkish city of Nusaybin by government forces. This is the same massacre committed by Erdogan’s regime that was reported by the UN Human Rights Office on 10 March 2017, detailing allegations of massive destruction, killings and numerous other serious human rights violations committed between July 2015 and December 2016 in southeast Turkey, during government military operations that have affected more than 30 towns and neighbourhoods. These operations have resulted in the displacement of between 355,000 and half a million people, mostly of Kurdish origin. This report describes the extent of the destruction in the town of Nusaybin, in Mardin Province, where 1,786 buildings appear to have been destroyed or damaged. When Dogan illustrated these human atrocities that the Turkish regime was attempting to cover up, she was arrested and imprisoned. Dogan’s story is one of many heart-wrenching attacks on Turkish journalism while the world simply watches in silence.

ERDOGAN’S FINAL POWER GRAB: With new constitutional authorities for the president to be voted on, with the result always certain, Erdogan will amass absolute power only rivalled by single party regimes such as China, North Korea and Soviet-era East Europe. Erdogan’s thirst for power has turned Turkey into a police state and a journalists’ gulag where laws are formulated and interpreted according to the whims of pro-regime judges.

For nearly two decades European Union leaders have been entertaining Erdogan’s eccentricity, treating the Turkish tyrant as a spoiled child while keeping Turkey as an ally to curb Russian expansion. Now his madness is reaching them personally and German Chancellor Merkel among others is being openly bashed by Erdogan in public speeches that label her and Germans as Nazis whenever the German state doesn’t bow to his insane wishes. Turkey’s economy is mainly reliant on European investment, tourism and exports to EU countries, yet Erdogan is displaying disdain towards the very EU that his regime was so desperate to join. The Turkish people remain victims of Erdogan’s Stalinist policies with more arrests and flimsy accusations pointed towards all dissidents indiscriminately.

Ironically, NATO, which was formed to curb Soviet expansion in Europe, still regards Erdogan’s Turkey as a key ally despite the Turkish tyrant becoming a replica of Soviet-era European leaders such as former East Germany’s Erich Honecker and Romania’s Nicolae Ceaușescu. Day after day, Erdogan is becoming more of a liability than a friend or an ally. He has been manipulating the Syrian civil war refugee crisis, which he helped exacerbate, to extort billions of dollars from the EU.

Moreover, under the leadership of Erdogan, Turkey became a hub for terrorist leaders from groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, the Egyptian Islamic Jihad and recently Islamic State fighters who receive safe passage to other countries in the Middle East through Turkish soil. Reports and even footage from Turkey testify to the inhuman treatment of prisoners and arrested suspects. The accused, meanwhile, are subject to sham trials befitting of Soviet-era Russian gulags and not a modern democratic NATO member state.

All Turkish journalists who oppose the Islamist regime of Erdogan are under threat of prosecution on flimsy and frail charges that are usually fabricated or based on twisted interpretations of the law by the pro-Erdogan law enforcement apparatus. Any phrase or statement by a journalist or writer that is deemed anti-regime is met with immediate arrest and prison sentences as part of the draconian measures taken by the extremely paranoid regime.

It is depressing that world leaders still treat Erdogan as an elected official while he is literally getting away with murder, torture and even mass killings. Erdogan’s reign of terror is continuing with little signs of light at the end of the tunnel. Around 191 journalists are behind bars and that number is growing every day with fresh convictions.

The more unfortunate is that most Turkish opposition figures and parties are still under the delusion that Turkey is a democracy with some of them are even colluding with Erdogan in his witch-hunt against dissidents. It is becoming a truth that an actual terrorist can enjoy more freedoms in today’s Turkey than a journalist, writer or an artist who faces Erdogan’s ire. The great nation of Turkey, the once flourishing democracy in the Middle East, is now lost in a sea of tyranny and political mayhem.

The writer is a political analyst, writer and author of Egypt’s Arab Spring and Winding Road for Democracy.

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