As Turkey’s ruling party consolidates its power, the space for free expression narrows.
“A militant in the guise of a journalist — a shameless woman. Know your place!” This is how three-term Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan chose to describe Amberin Zaman, the Economist’s longtime Turkey correspondent, during a campaign rally on Aug. 7, just three days before he won the country’s first-ever direct presidential election. Erdogan lashed out at Zaman for having allegedly “insulted” Muslims in an interview with opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu on the 24-hour TV news channel CNN Turk — and she was likewise vilified in the conservative press and aggressively harassed online by Erdogan supporters.
The next day, Enis Berberoglu, editor in chief of Hurriyet, one of the country’s highest-circulating dailies, abruptly resigned. Because Hurriyet is owned by Dogan, the same media group that owns CNN Turk, many doubted that Berberoglu’s move was coincidental. Erdogan went on to win the election with 52 percent of the vote. By the time of his inauguration at the end of August, several journalists at other newspapers had also lost their jobs — for reasons widely regarded as political.
These events followed a pattern that has become disturbingly familiar in recent years. As Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) has grown increasingly entrenched since it first came to power in 2002, the space for free expression has narrowed perceptibly. This trend has been particularly evident over the past 15 months, starting with the protests that began in Istanbul’s Gezi Park and which then swept the country in the summer of 2013, when dozens of journalists were fired or forced to resign after expressing critical viewpoints. Most recently, Turkey’s trouble with press freedom made headlines this weekend when Erdogan denounced the New York Times for, he said, implying that the Turkish state was connected with Islamic State (IS) militants.
In 2013, Turkey remained the world’s top jailer of journalists (followed by Iran and China) for the second year in a row. As of the end of the year there were 40 reporters behind bars — one of several factors that led Freedom House to downgrade the country from “partly free” to “not free” in its 2014 press freedom rankings. Turkey came in 134th out of 197 countries.
Social media has not been spared. In the lead-up to local elections on March 30, the Turkish government shut down Twitter for two weeks and YouTube for 67 days in an effort to suppress the leak of damning wiretapped recordings that surfaced in a police and judicial investigation into government corruption at the highest levels.
“The main problem is that pro-AKP media is not only the dominant media, it’s the obligatory media,” said one Turkish journalist who asked not to be named. “If you’re not with them, you’re against them.”
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