Istanbul, Turkey (TFC) – Journalism in Turkey is under assault under the administration of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, with at least seven journalists currently incarcerated, most in pre-trial detention.
One of these journalists is VICE News correspondent and fixer Mohamed Rasool. Rasool and two other journalists were covering the violence in Turkey’s southeast between the Turkish government and the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) which, along with other Kurdish groups, is outlawed in Turkey and considered a terrorist organization. On 27 August 2015, the three were detained by Turkish officials and placed in pre-trail detention. The other two journalists, who were British nationals, were subsequently released some days later on 3 September, but as of this writing Rasool, a native of Istanbul, is still being held on charges of abetting a terrorist organization. It should be noted here that the PKK, along with other Kurdish militant groups, has been fighting D’aesh in the region along with the Turks; however, the Erdogan government has still been suppressing support for and actively attacking these groups.
In the wake of these arrests, the defense attorney handling the VICE News case, respected human rights lawyer Tahir Elci was shot and killed in the southeastern Turkish city of Diyarbakır on 28 November. Elci had been detained as recently as October for speaking out in favor of Kurdish rights and declaring that the PKK was “not a terrorist organization,” and he reported receiving death threats. It is still unclear who carried out the assassination.
Among the other journalists currently incarcerated is Mehmet Baransu, who was imprisoned on charges of revealing state documents stemming from a piece he wrote in 2010 detailing a planned military coup to overthrow the Turkish government. Baransu’s piece led to the arrest and conviction of several military officers, but most of these convictions have subsequently been overturned or appealed, and Baransu himself has replaced the released officers in prison. He is not alone; seven other journalists currently occupy Turkish jails, and the number was much higher before a string of recent releases. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Turkey is the leading jailer of journalists, followed closely by China and Iran.
These developments have stymied Turkish media to the point of ineffectiveness. In a piece published in the Guardian entitled “Erdogan Has All But Destroyed Turkish Journalism,” author Yavuz Baydar, a Turkish journalist, writes:
“Self-censorship is the rule. Many Turkish newsrooms resemble an open prison rather than a creative hive and fear has gripped those of the so-called mainstream media institutions. It is not the fear of ending up in courtrooms or in jail: it is fear of being fired. There is utter professional vulnerability… We are witnessing the dismantling of a profession whose independence should be guaranteed by the constitution. The very DNA of Turkey’s fourth estate is being severely tampered with. The aim of the government is to subordinate the media, as a whole if possible, to the political executive.”
The Erdogan government seems to be controlling the ostensibly free press through fear and intimidation. This comes amidst the recent November elections, in which Erdogan’s AKP party won a surprise victory, achieving an outright majority. This was counter to the polling data, which suggested that the AKP would not be able to win the necessary votes for an outright majority victory. Issues with vote counts and polling processes were immediately pointed out by media outlets, but this information was suppressed, and few independent media outlets in the country were willing or able to challenge the results. Although many journalists have attempted to transition to New and Alternative Media platforms, the administration has made efforts to block outlets like Twitter and YouTube from the public. Four more years of an Erdogan administration in Turkey were guaranteed by these latest elections, adding to the 13 years that the AKP has been the ruling party.
The suppression of a free press through fear and intimidation, and the silencing of activists, intellectuals, and minority opinions, show a clear culture of corruption in Turkish government. The escalating conflict in Syria, in which Turkey is deeply involved (both as a sovereign state and as a NATO member) and the recent Turkish downing of a Russian bomber jet in disputed airspace add to the urgency of having a free and robust press in the region. It appears that Turkish democracy is failing, and as the situation worsens, the Syrian Civil War threatens to spill further into Turkey as well. This is a time for voices to be heard; not silenced.