Turkey has been hailed as a beacon of democracy in a troubled region. Many cite it as an example for post-revolutionary countries of the Arab Spring, as it is held up as a successful fusion of liberalism and Islam.
But a report by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) published on Tuesday sheds a different light on the country’s record of liberalism. With 49 journalists in prison, CPJ calls Turkey “the world’s worst jailer,” and it sits at the top of a list that includes Iran, China and Eritrea.
“There is no independent media left,” says Nuray Mert, one of the country’s most prolific journalists and columnists. Like her, many journalists in the country complain that an atmosphere of intimidation and self-censorship has reigned since Prime Minister Reccep Tayyip Erdogan began consolidating his power. Mert used to write for Turkey’s biggest papers and was a regular guest on political talk shows. This changed when Erdogan singled her out during a public speech for her criticism of government policies.
“I wrote a column saying that we have to take the Kurds seriously and not treat them as subjects, that we have to grant them collective rights,” says Mert of the 15 million Kurds in Turkey whom the government has denied cultural and political freedoms for decades.
In a speech after her column ran, Erdogan more or less accused Mert of treason. Her editors understood the message, and she was fired. “Later I got a call not to show up on TV anymore either.” She started receiving a flood of hate mail and threats. “I was afraid that someone from the ultra-right nationalists would attack me.”
Still, Mert was never arrested, unlike dozens of other journalists who were charged with “helping terrorist organizations.” Just reporting on the outlawed Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK), passing on contact details or assigning stories on the organization is enough to be labeled a terrorist by the Turkish government.
Erdogan’s officials and the courts use draconian anti-terror legislation written after the military coup in the early 1980s. The cases are handled by “special-authority courts,” which can hold suspects in custody for years without trial. Detainees can have their access to their lawyers and files restricted and are often prohibited from communicating with anyone outside their detention centers.
In the past, these courts have practically erased the presumption of innocence.
“There is a new term for journalists used by the government,” says Elif Ilgaz, a leading press freedom advocate. “They call it ‘organized journalism’ to discredit us.”
Ilgaz is campaigning on behalf of those journalists imprisoned in connection with the “Ergenekon Case,” an alleged anti-government conspiracy. According to the Turkish government, elements in military and ultra-nationalists were planning to stir up instability as a pretext for a military coup. Since 2008, more than 500 people have been arrested, many of them journalists, and were accused of spreading hate and causing strife. In the beginning, these arrests were welcomed as a move against the often undemocratic military, but soon people realized that Erdogan was using the case as a pretext to get rid of political enemies and critical voices.
One of these voices is Ahmed Şık. Şık had been researching a book about the Islamist Imam Fetullah Gülen movement and its role in Erdogan’s government. “Ahmet was a personal issue for the Imam, and Ahmet was meant as an example to others,” says Ilgaz.
Şık was arrested and held for one year in pre-trial detention. On the night of his release, he said, “The police, prosecutors and judges who plotted and executed this conspiracy will enter this prison.” Three months later he was indicted again, this time on the basis of this statement.
“Many journalists started to change their minds seeing cases like this,” says Ilgaz. “They lose their edges. Some TV presenters started music shows, others talk about lifestyle.”
Ilgaz says Turkey is transitioning to a civil dictatorship and blames the media for not standing up to the government’s undemocratic practices. “Already before all this happened, the structure of the media was unhealthy,” she says.
According to the European Journalism Center (EJC), 70 percent of the country’s media is owned by a few big companies. These conglomerates extend their activities into tourism, transport, construction and banking. To secure lucrative government contracts, many media outlets fear opposing the government. “In this environment media outlets adopt strategic editorial policies and become pro-government, pro-military or sect-orientated,” reads the EJC’s 2010 report.
In a famous case from 2011, the Doğan media group was forced to sell some of its media properties after it was fined 2.5 billion US dollars for alleged tax evasion. Though the fine was later reduced to $500 million, many saw it as politically motivated, as the group’s flagship newspaper Hürriyet was known for its critical views of the government and large readership.
“There is a nexus between the media, the corporations and the government,” says Ilgaz. “And if you want to get the big deals, you have to work with the government.”
The Erdogan government says it sees these measures as necessary to defend the country. When CNN Turk confronted Burhun Kuzu, a leading member of Erdogan’s party, with a similar CPJ report published in October, he called it rubbish. “This is a report to be thrown in the trash. There is no trash can here, so I'm throwing it on the floor,” Kuzu reportedly said and threw the report on the floor.
With Erdogan’s popularity at an all-time high, it is getting increasingly difficult to stand up against him. Some nevertheless are vowing to try. “Politically I’m a very stubborn person,” says Mert. “I’m not going to let them take away my freedom of speech and my support of the Kurdish issue.”