Turkey’s free press withers under crackdown

  • World, Published on: Saturday 19th November 16 - 8:18pm

A prominent columnist wrote recently about how President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey hates cigarettes so much that he confiscates packs from his followers, lecturing them on the evils of smoking.

The columnist, Kadri Gursel, then urged his readers to protest the President’s anti-democratic ways by lighting a cigarette and not putting it out.

For that, Mr. Gursel was arrested on terrorism charges and is being held in pretrial detention, one of 120 journalists who have been jailed in Turkey’s crackdown on the news media since a failed coup attempt in July. There, he has the company of 10 colleagues from his newspaper, Cumhuriyet, the country’s last major independent publication. Among them are its editor and the paper’s chief executive, arrested as he stepped off a flight to Istanbul last Friday.

Turkey now has handily outstripped China as the world’s biggest jailer of journalists, according to figures compiled by the Committee to Protect Journalists.

The arrests are the most obvious example of an effort to muzzle not just the free press, but free speech generally. More than 3,000 Turks have faced charges for insulting the President.

Wave of demands

The government and its supporters are behind a wave of demands to Twitter to remove offending posts, more than all other countries in the world put together, according to Twitter’s Transparency Report (of 20,000 Twitter accounts affected worldwide this year, 15,000 were Turkish).

Several journalists have been retroactively accused of “subliminal” messaging in support of the July uprising.

Even more risky now is anything viewed as support for the outlawed Kurdish nationalist party, the PKK. Some have been attacked for calling members of the group “militants”, rather than “terrorists”. Others are in jail for advocating a resumption of the collapsed peace process with the Kurdish guerrillas.

Failing to mention how many people were killed in the attempted coup, in any article about it, is also considered proof of terrorist sympathies.

Others have been convicted on terrorism charges for reporting a 2015 scandal in which Mr. Erdogan’s government was accused of supplying weapons to the Islamic State. One of those is Cumhuriyet’s former editor-in-chief, Can Dundar, who was free on appeal when he announced in August that he was not returning from a trip to Germany, saying he could not expect a fair trial in the wake of the coup attempt.

In addition to the arrests , some 150 news outlets have been shuttered, ranging from TV stations to online enterprises, according to Erol Onderoglu, the Turkish representative for Reporters Without Borders. But probably the most corrosive long-term effect of the crackdown has been a highly effective government push for businessmen who are loyal to it to take over ownership of many of the remaining outlets, turning them into avid cheerleaders for Mr. Erdogan and his policies.

“What’s left, they are all basically Pravda,” said Gulsin Harman, who resigned in disgust from her job as a foreign editor at Milliyet, a once independent newspaper that is now owned by an Erdogan crony.

Asked for comment, a senior government official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with official policy, maintained that the journalists in jail in Turkey were there for criminal and terrorist offences, not for their journalism. — The New York Times News Service