Journalism about Turkey often highlights terrorism or refugees as the nation’s greatest afflictions, but President Tayyip Erdogan’s war on the press itself has grown increasingly worrying over the course of the last few years.
That tension sprung anew on Monday when President Erdogan suggested that journalists, members of Parliament, and activists who express sympathy to the Kurdish cause should be tried as terrorists. Erdogan’s government made the statements following attacks in Turkey’s capital Ankara. His administration has blamed the attacks, which killed 37, on the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) — a group which seeks the liberation of Turkey’s Kurdish population. Several international organizations, including NATO and the European Union, have deemed the PKK a terrorist organization.
While few journalists in the western part of Turkey defend the group’s violence, many of them insist on a deal that gives both Erdogan and the country’s Kurds what they want. After Erdogan’s speech, many fear that he will heighten his of use terrorism as an excuse to silence the press, reported The Independent.
“It is not only the person who pulls the trigger, but those who made that possible who should also be defined as terrorists, regardless of their title.”
Of course, this is hardly the president’s first confrontation with journalists to cause international outcry. Last week, 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 after her newspaper’s headquarters were appointed a board of trustees to oversee content following a police raid.
“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, charges of “aiding an armed terrorist organization and publishing material that threatened state security” were levied against reporters Can Dundar and Erdem Gul, senior editors of Cumhuriyet.
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. They 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 Uriel Sinai/Getty Images]