Police stage a dawn raid on a large-circulation newspaper armed with warrants to take the editor-in-chief into custody. There can be no image quite so potent of a government that has lost its democratic legitimacy or one that has something to hide. It’s happened in Kazakhstan, Zimbabwe, and Somaliland. Last Sunday, it happened in Turkey.
Turkey already has an inglorious record on press freedom. A Washington-based democracy watchdog this year demoted the country from being “partly free” to “not free.” Organizations like the Committee to Protect Journalist or Reporters Without Frontiers point to the high number of journalists in pre-trial detention. Turkey slugs it out with China for the dubious title of the world’s most prolific jailer of journalists.
Yet even more chilling than overt coercion is the way the government controls the press with the collusion of media proprietors. Many bosses regard their press empires simply as political protection for their real businesses, like construction or property development, which require government grace and favor. Editors are under orders not to hold their rulers accountable but to give them a smooth ride. This means that the flow of news in Turkey is tightly controlled and that journalists are hired, but mainly fired, on political whim.
There is an oppositional press, but it is tolerated as long as it preaches to its own choir of people who would never consider voting for the ruling Justice and Development (AK) Party. The government, in turn, is careful to protect its own constituency from the pollution of dissenting opinion. State television has even cut opposition leaders off in mid-sentence when they proffered criticism or accusations of high-level corruption. Social media presents a particular challenge. In the run up to local elections last March the government temporarily succeeded in banning YouTube and Twitter.
The result is that the Turkish media has served not to heal but to deepen social divisions. When he came first came to power as prime minister in 2003, Tayyip Erdogan appeared to cultivate the centre ground – arguing for example that women should be able to wear headscarves in public life not as an obligation but a democratic right. Well before ascending to the presidency last August, Erdogan appeared to delight in cultivating extremes. He vilified environmental protesters in Gezi Park as people trying to overthrow the government and, more recently, has explained why women can never be equal to men.
Where there is polarization there is no dialogue. Government strategy has been to divide and misrule.
Even then, that the public prosecutor should have moved so openly against the Zaman newspaper group and the affiliated Samanyolu television station presents a new and disturbing escalation of the government’s highly developed sense of impunity.
The media organizations are linked to a religious movement whose spiritual leader, Fethullah Gulen, lives in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania. For over a decade, the group gave close support to Erdogan’s AK Party. However, the Gulenists began to split with the government and just one year ago police and prosecutors believed to have Gulenists loyalties staged a series of spectacular anti-corruption raids, detaining sons of government ministers and seizing millions of euros’ worth of cash from their homes.
Those year-old charges have all been dropped and the police and judicial system purged. The pro-government media now depicts the raids as nothing short of an attempted coup d’état. The very word Pennsylvania has become synonymous in the pro-government press with an underground state running “in parallel” to the elected government.
On Friday, Ekrem Dumanli, Zaman’s editor was released although the case against him continues. Hidayet Karaca, the head of Samanyolu media group is one of four of the initial two-dozen suspects still detained.
Such cavalier regard for freedom of expression and the rule of law makes Turkey appear to be some faraway outpost. But it is a country at the heart of Western concerns. It is about to assume the chairmanship of the G20 and to lead that organization’s fight against corruption. It is a member of NATO. If there will ever be peace in Syria then Turkey must play a role. Turkey still aspires to join the European Union.
Yet after witnessing journalists be led away in squad cars, a statement from the European commission openly questioned Turkey’s commitment to a free press and European values and standards.. Turkey is a country vital to the defense of the free-world. It does itself no good to play on the other side.