Turkey's Erdogan Ratchets Up War on the Media

In the run-up to elections, persecution of journalists and efforts to reenact a draconian law precede the president’s bid to amend the constitution and alter his country’s form of governance.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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President Erdogan visiting Kiev, Mar. 20, 2015. Every speech slams the media.
President Erdogan visiting Kiev, Mar. 20, 2015. Every speech slams the media.Credit: Reuters
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

The furious eyes of the penguin, with huge wings threateningly spread out to the sides as if it is about to flee, lend a clear, real-time significance to the logo of the Turkish satirical magazine Penguen. Its editors, among them co-founder Bahadir Baruter and Ozer Aydogan, are being sued for “insulting” President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. If convicted, they could be imprisoned for five years.

The reason for the lawsuit is a caricature the magazine published in August 2014, shortly after Erdogan was elected president. The cartoon shows him turning to senior officials and asking them if they had prepared a journalist for slaughter. Next to him appears an official whose hand, Erdogan’s lawyers assert, is making what Turks consider to be an offensive gesture.

Another journalist, Sedef Kabas, a television presenter, also faces five years in prison. Her alleged offense? “Publishing lies” on her Twitter account. She accused the government of whitewashing corruption, and criticized the handling by the chief prosecutor of a huge corruption case last year, which involved high-level members of the administration. She could be convicted of interfering with the work of the prosecutor, who prosecutes terrorists.

Kabas, whose laptop and phone were confiscated, had presented a lengthy manifesto during an interview she granted to a Turkish television station, in which she elucidated the regime’s injustices, its persecution of journalists, and the widespread corruption in the corridors of power.

“I am being tried in a country," she explained, "in which books are defined as ‘bombs,’ Twitters as a ‘disaster,’ journalists who ask prepared questions ‘shameless,’ anyone who exercises their legal right to demonstrate are called ‘rioters,’ policemen who uncover crimes are accused of rebellion, and prosecutors who launch investigations are defined as ‘traitors.’” Journalist Mine Bekiroglu, a 29-year-old journalist, received a five-month suspended jail sentence for insulting Erdogan, in 2014, when he was prime minister, on Facebook regarding the Gezi Park protests against the government crackdown on freedom of the press and other rights. Two other journalists had their laptops confiscated after they allegedly insulted the president.

Since Erdogan’s election, some 70 lawsuits against journalists and citizens for insulting the president or the government. At least 10 journalists have been sentenced to prison terms.

This month, 74 U.S. senators signed a letter demanding that Secretary of State John Kerry take action against moves involving infringement of freedom of the press in Turkey. Previously, 90 Congressmen sent a similar letter, but it is doubtful these efforts will affect Erdogan’s campaign against Turkish media outlets who dare to criticize his behavior.

The Turkish ambassador in Washington, Serdar Kilic, accused the senators' letter of being full of distortions. The turkish newspaper Sabah, which is owned by Erdogan’s brother-in-law, asserted that the organization of Fethullah Gulen, Erdogan’s main political rival, was behind the anti-Turkey campaign, and also hinted that some members of Congress had received bribes from the organization.

Turkey, which is ranked 149th out of 180 countries by Journalists without Borders in the realm of freedom of expression, is reviving a draconian law permitting the prime minister and his colleagues in government to demand the blockage or removal of websites that they deem harmful to general security or public order, or which threaten public property or public health.

The Turkish media authority must pass along any such demand within four hours to Internet service-providers; an ISP that does not comply will be fined substantially. There is no need for a court order, although the decision can be appealed. The ISP and the site owners will be liable to lawsuits as well.

The Turkish Supreme Court struck down a similar law six months ago, but it looks like it will find a way to get the law passed now, despite international and local criticism.

Ergdogan’s war on the press has lasted throughout almost all of his tenure in power, on several levels. He encourages his supporters to buy the media outlets of his rivals, after they were hit with enormous fines. He intervenes in the appointment of editors and journalists. Almost every speech he gives includes criticism of the damage certain news outlets do to Turkey, and he continually utilizes his country's legal system to fight anyone who dares criticize him.

Analysts in Turkey believe the struggle against the local critical press will expand as the parliamentary elections in early June approach. Erdogan hopes to increase his party’s majority from 341 seats to 400 out of 550 then, to enable him to amend the country's constitution and method of governance. He is framing these elections as a vote of confidence.

Meanwhile, the prevailing mood doesn’t tolerate criticism, even if the upshot is the Turkish version of a well-known Israeli slogan: “A Turkish and democratic state – first Turkish, then democratic.”

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