President Tayyip Erdogan’s government has slowly scaled back Turkey’s freedom of the press, causing many around the globe to say that the country’s ruler has transitioned from democratically elected government to authoritarian regime.
On Friday, President Barack Obama spoke out against these affronts to press freedoms in Turkey. The American president rejected the actions of Tayyip’s government to move the nation toward a more conservative, Islamic-centric state, reported Bloomberg. Erdogan had campaigned, says Obama, on a much less regressive platform.
“He came into office with a promise of democracy and Turkey has historically been a country in which deep Islamic faith has lived side-by-side with modernity and an increasing openness, and that’s the legacy he should pursue. [I warned him against] repression of information and shutting down democratic debate.”
Tayyip did not react well to Barack’s comments about Turkey’s freedom of the press. Erdogan claimed that Obama never mentioned any such gripe with his government when they had the opportunity to meet face-to-face during the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, D.C. earlier this week, reported Reuters.
“I was saddened to hear that statement made behind my back. During my talk with Obama, those issues did not come up.”
Tayyip has faced heavy international criticism for extreme restrictions on the freedom of the press in Turkey. When confronted about these actions, Erdogan explains that there is a “mastermind” at work that seeks to destroy the country. Because of that, certain voices, he says, need to be limited.
“You cannot consider insults and threats press freedom or criticism. [They] divide, shatter and if they could, swallow up Turkey. This is what I mean by mastermind. A mastermind is playing games over Turkey.”
Of course, this is hardly the president’s first confrontation with journalists to cause international outcry. In March, Sevgi Akarcesme, the editor-in-chief of Turkey’s highest-circulating daily, Today’s Zaman, penned a New York Times editorial begging the international community to take action against Tayyip’s increasingly repressive actions against journalists in the country. She wrote the letter following a police raid, after which her newspaper was handed a government-appointed board of trustees to oversee content.
“This pressure is not a recent thing. In December 2014, state authorities detained Zaman‘s editor in chief at the time, Ekrem Dumanli, as part of a systematic crackdown on government critics. My predecessor as editor in chief of Today’s Zaman, Bulent Kenes, was imprisoned last October for critical Twitter comments. I myself received a suspended jail sentence late last year for somebody else’s response to one of my tweets… [we] are accused of disseminating ‘terrorist propaganda’ and aiding terrorist organizations. This has become a convenient catchall accusation for clamping down on government critics.”
Erdogan’s battle against journalists may have begun as early as 2013, when he first led a campaign against sympathizers of exiled Hizmet preacher Fethullah Gulen. That push ended in the seizure of Zaman for printing Gulen’s sermons. By May 2014, Erdogan had first begun to demonize social media like Facebook and Twitter.
After a string of other violations, Can Dundar and Erdem Gul, editors of Cumhuriyet, were charged with “aiding an armed terrorist organization and publishing material that threatened state security.” After spending months in jail, the pair of journalists were cleared of terrorism charges by Turkey’s Supreme Court, much to the annoyance of Erdogan.
Dundar and Gul were arrested in the first place over a report that showed the state was sending a seized package of weapons to Syria. In her NYT editorial, Akarcesme noted that the release was aided by the public support of Vice-President Joe Biden, who had spoken out about the jailed journalists while visiting Istanbul in January, reported The Guardian.
“[Journalists in Turkey are being] intimidated or imprisoned for critical reporting in Turkey… that’s not the kind of example that needs to be set.”
There are currently at least 14 journalists in Turkish jails under President Tayyip Erdogan, some of them on terrorism charges, and perhaps many more in the future.
[Image via Mark Wilson/Getty Images]