Turkey’s Press Crackdown
So much for the Turkish Model? After the Arab Spring, many touted the idea that Egypt and other Middle East countries should follow in Turkey’s footsteps as a Muslim nation operating on democratic principles. Among the cherished democratic principles, of course, is liberty of the press. The latest news from Turkey therefore is as distressing as it is depressing: authorities sent heavily armed police into the offices of the Zaman newspaper on March 4 and seized control of Turkey’s largest daily.
Once friendly to Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who became president in 2014 after a decade as prime minister, Zaman has taken an increasingly critical editorial line on Turkey’s leader. Erdoğan had a political falling out with the Gulen movement, which is closely affiliated with Zaman, in 2013. Prosecutors accuse Zaman of engaging in terrorism propaganda.
The ongoing Turkish crackdown on the press extends well beyond Zaman, to reporters, columnists, and bloggers who criticize government policies or publish information deemed sensitive about national security, Kurdish demands, or Erdoğan’s rule. Turkey’s judiciary has reportedly charged some 1,800 people including many journalists under a law that prohibits “insulting the president.” Turkey has frequently blocked Twitter and YouTube, and Erdoğan has hinted at a total shutdown of social media.
Only days before the Zaman seizure, the state satellite signal provider yanked IMC TV off the air during a live broadcast—at the time, the channel was interviewing two senior Cumhuriyet journalists facing charges of exposing state secrets for reporting on the alleged transfer of weapons from Turkey to Syrian rebels.
Last fall, Turkish authorities seized the Ipek Media Group, firing journalists on its two opposition dailies and two opposition TV channels and transforming the media outlets into government mouthpieces.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Turkey is among the worst jailers of journalists in the world, with 14 journalists imprisoned as of the end of 2015. It ranks 149th of 180 countries in the Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index.
Today’s Zaman, the English-language version, issued a statement on the government’s seizure of the media group:
We are going through the darkest and gloomiest days in terms of freedom of the press, which is a major benchmark for democracy and the rule of law. Intellectuals, businesspeople, celebrities, civil society organizations, media organizations and journalists are being silenced via threats and blackmail.
Speaking to the New York Times, veteran political journalist Asli Aydintasbas, who lost her column in the daily Milliyet newspaper reportedly under government pressure last year, said:
This pattern is appalling, and Turkey is galloping towards an authoritarian regime full speed ahead. Unfortunately, the world, in particular the E.U., remains silent. The government here can sense the vulnerability in the West, especially since the beginning of the refugee crisis, and is pushing the boundaries to consolidate its power.