The Criminal Offense of Criticizing Erdogan

With an early election just two months away, Turkey's president targets his critics while his police arrest foreign journalists for 'aiding Kurdish militants.'

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Turkish Lt. Col. Mehmet Alkan at the funeral of his brother, Capt. Ali Alkan, August 25, 2015.Credit: AFP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

“There’s nothing like sitting in a palace surrounded by bodyguards or riding in an armored car and declaring ‘I want to be a shahid.’ If you want to be a shahid, be a shahid,” Lt. Col. Mehmet Alkan challenged Taner Yildiz after the Turkish energy minister expressed a wish to be a martyr for Islam.

Alkan is the brother of Capt. Ali Alkan, who died on August 22 of injuries suffered in a terror attack in southeastern Turkey the previous day. Against the background of the deaths of over 60 Turkish soldiers and officers in the past few weeks in the government’s war against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and in terror actions, the army captain’s funeral might have gone unnoticed. But Mehmet Alkan couldn’t control his anger, particularly after seeing President Recep Tayyip Erdogan lay his hand on his brother’s coffin while making a political speech at the funeral.

“Who caused his death? Those who told us there was a solution” to the Kurdish problem, “and now they are talking about war,” Mehmet Alkan said at the funeral.

Such pointed remarks from a senior army officer are a direct threat to the patriotic, nationalist spirit that Erdogan is trying to instill in Turkish citizens — at the funeral of a different soldier, the president said, “Happy is the family whose son fell in battle.”

Alkan’s heated remarks to Erdogan and Yildiz immediately caught the attention of media outlets from both ends of the political spectrum. In response to stinging opinion pieces in Turkey’s battered opposition press, which still manages to criticize Erdogan, pro-government media outlets and thousands of activists enlisted by the government were mobilized to “retaliate” on social media. The “AK trolls,” so called because of their support for Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AK), responded with a broadside attack on Alkan. They accused him of acting on behalf of a “parallel government” — the term used for the movement headed by the exiled Islamist cleric Fethullah Gulen, that is suspected of deeply infiltrating government ranks.

The AK trolls have called on the army to investigate Alkan’s remarks, prosecute him and, of course, to dismiss him. According to Turkish media, the army has demanded that Alkan stop commenting on his brother’s death, while media outlets have received hints suggesting that it is in their best interest not to report on funerals that could stir up public emotions.

Two months ahead of an early election, called because AK failed after the June 7 election to put together a coalition government, Erdogan is attempting to save the party.

He cannot dictate an agenda to the media, but on Thursday Turkish anti-terror police arrested two British journalists, Jake Hanrahan and Philip Pendlebury of Vice News, ostensibly for reporting from southeast Turkey without government accreditation. Hanrahan and Pendlebury were filming in Diyarbarkir, the unofficial capital of the Kurdish area where a war is under way between the army and the PKK, causing civilians deaths as well. The reporters could be charged with aiding the PKK.

“Aiding the PKK” is a fuzzy criminal offense that can carry very heavy punishments. Does reporting on terror attacks in a manner that displeases the government constitute aiding terrorism? Is criticizing Erdogan’s policies at a funeral a criminal offense? As the election date nears, the incidence of journalists being charged with the offense is likely to rise, the editor of an opposition newspaper in Turkey told Haaretz.

Since the June election, when the Justice and Development Party failed to win a parliamentary majority and the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party entered the legislature, Erdogan has made the Kurds a nationalist issue, the editor said. Before the election, reconciliation with the Kurds was part of Erdogan’s political vision, but after the election the war against them became a high-value card, one the president will try to play in the coming months, the editor said.

Erdogan’s war against the media isn’t new. Last year, its persecution of journalists landed Turkey in 154th place (out of 180) in spot in Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index. The Turkish media can only envy the only area of their profession that can operate freely in the country, the media of the Syrian rebel movements, which have established themselves in Turkey over the past three years. Most of the 15 Syrian opposition radio stations are based in Turkey, as are sites that distribute print journalism.

These newspapers, written and published in Arabic, are funded by international nonprofits. The government has accused some of them of interfering in Turkey’s domestic affairs because of their support for local human rights organizations. Nevertheless, the media of the Syrian opposition is free to do what Turkey’s own media cannot. After all, Syrians don’t vote in Turkish elections.

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