As Erdogan Cracks Down on Free Press, Journalists Leave Dire Warning as They Flee

'I expect many more government critics and journalists to leave Turkey for Europe, and try to do their job from there,' says a former editor of recently shuttered daily.

The Cumhuriyet newsroom.
Davide Lerner

A growing number of journalists and intellectuals are fleeing Turkey, following a major crackdown on the press in the aftermath of last month’s unsuccessful military coup that tried to overthrow President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

In a climate of fear where those who decide to stay are bowing to self-censorship, they warn that the country now risks being bereft of any independent media sources to hold the increasingly autocratic AKP government to account.

Information that doesn’t conform to AKP party narratives on crucial issues like investigations into the failed coup, the ongoing military repression of the Kurds or the huge influx of refugees is becoming “almost extinct.” So says Bulent Mumay, a former Hurriyet journalist who has just been released after spending four days in police detention. He warns that “the obliteration of an independent press will have dire consequences on [Turkish] democracy.”

In a seemingly unprecedented attempt to cleanse the media of journalists affiliated to “Hizmet” – the movement linked to Fethullah Gulen, the onetime ally of Erdogan but now living in exile in Pennsylvania – more than 130 media institutions have been shuttered; hundreds of press cards have been revoked; 89 arrest warrants have been issued against journalists, with 61 journalists detained.

“No wonder a massive brain drain is currently underway. I expect many more government critics and journalists to leave Turkey for Europe, and try to do their job from there for some time to come,” says a former editor of Zaman, which was Turkey’s first daily broadsheet but was formally closed by the state 12 days after the July 15 coup.

“The more critical voices leave, the more authoritarian Turkey becomes,” he says, adding, “Like the progressive intelligentsia that left Iran in 1979, I hope our intellectual diaspora will be able to enlighten the outside world on the true nature of the Erdogan regime.”

Cumhuriyet journalist Duygu Guvenc.
Davide Lerner

Like other publications linked to the “Hizmet” movement, Zaman had already been put under “trusteeship” by the government last March, which translated into an overhaul of its staff and editorial stance.

“I have lived in Brussels ever since the paper was seized by the government last March. It was too risky for me to remain in Turkey,” says Sevgi Akarcesme, the former editor-in-chief of the English edition of Zaman.

Two weeks ago, Akarcesme was notified that her passport had been canceled by the Turkish government, after she boarded a flight to New York, and she was escorted off the plane by border police. According to Turkish Interior Minister Efkan Ala, 75,000 people linked to the failed coup have had their passports canceled.

“On the same day,” continues Akarcesme, “Turkish police raided my house in Istanbul, confiscating books – including the biography of the prophet Mohammed by preacher Gulen.

“At Zaman, we never denied being influenced by Gulen’s teachings on tolerance and interreligious dialogue,” she says. “But we have nothing to do with the failed coup and were frightened by the bombing of the Parliament in the capital like everyone else,” she adds, referring to the most shocking event on the night of the coup, when Turkish F-16 planes bombed the parliament building, aiming at the office of the prime minister.

Gulen had been an ally of Erdogan within the Islamist camp until a rift developed in 2013. He has since been accused of nurturing a “parallel state” of loyalists who infiltrated Turkish institutions.

Hisyar Ozsoy, vice chair of the Kurdish opposition party (HDP)
Davide Lerner

The government and President Erdogan have interpreted the attempted military coup as Gulen’s make-or-break attempt to wrest power from them. In turn, purges have ensued against his alleged affiliates – ranging from the army and police to the judiciary, and from civil servants to academics. Members of the so-called “Gulenist press” are accused of spreading bogus, antigovernment propaganda and being partially implicated in the failed coup as part of Gulen’s “fifth column” in Turkey.

“I believe the authorities are also targeting people disconnected from the movement,” says Mumay, still recovering from the shock of his four-day police detention.

He believes the goal is to create “an intentional climate of fear where obedient journalists make it easier to steer public opinion,” in the aftermath of a coup “engineered by a broad coalition of forces, probably also including elements of the ‘Hizmet’” movement.

Orhan Kemal Cengiz is a former columnist at Zaman, as well as a human rights lawyer representing the paper before the Constitutional Court, in a case concerning the legality of its trusteeship. He says he was detained over a tweet he made 18 months ago, where he criticized arbitrary arrests of people who had given donations to Gulen-related institutions.

Cengiz labels himself as an “atheist,” making police allegations that he might be associated to the Islamist Gulenist movement “simply ludicrous,” he says.

“I am planning to bring the Zaman case to the European Court of Human Rights,” he adds. This would add to an already lengthy backlog of pending freedom of expression cases on Turkey there.

Turks celebrating the failure of the military coup, in Istanbul last month.
Davide Lerner

Renate Schroeder, director of the European Federation of Journalists, confirms that many Turkish journalists who were abroad on the day of the coup are choosing not to return home. “I recommend everyone to keep away from the country,” she says. “Even those who have nothing to do with Gulen risk arbitrary arrest and detention.”

Her organization has launched an international campaign of solidarity with Turkish journalists, encouraging members to send protest letters to Turkish embassies around the world.

The Freedom in the World 2016 report classified the Turkish press as “not free,” while the World Press Freedom Index by Reporters without Borders ranked it 151st among 180 countries – and that was before the current crackdown on freedom of speech in the aftermath of the military coup.

In its Turkey overview, the Freedom in the World report criticized a “discriminatory accreditation system,” the use of the penal code and extensive antiterrorism laws against journalists in a judicial system where they “do not generally receive fair treatment,” as well as “systematic political pressure from the executive branch.”

Lack of media freedom is a long-standing obstacle in Turkey’s accession process to the European Union, as highlighted most recently in the Commission’s latest progress report on Turkey last November.

“One major issue is the concentration of media ownership in large private holdings that make their profits elsewhere, be it in energy or constructions,” says academic and Turkey analyst Michelangelo Guida, head of the political science department at 29 Mayis University in Istanbul.

“Corporations whose stakes are highly dependent on public procurement have no interest in jeopardizing relations with the government for the sake of promoting an independent press,” he adds.

However, “you cannot compare the current climate to the situation prior to the state of emergency,” says Duygu Guvenc, the diplomatic correspondent at Cumhuriyet, whose editor-in-chief, Can Dundar, was arrested last year after providing evidence that Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MIT) was trying to supply arms to Syrian rebels.

Selcuk Gultasli is the former Brussels bureau chief of Zaman, and he says he has no intention of going back to Turkey anytime soon. He speaks of “many instances where families of fellow journalists haven’t heard back from their arrested loved ones for days – even two weeks in the case of Ibrahim Karayegen,” referring to a Turkish journalist who was detained last month.

Such prolonged periods of silence are particularly worrisome, because Amnesty International reported on cases of torture during detentions related to the failed coup. Index, an international platform for the protection of freedom of expression, has reported that the wife of journalist Bulent Korucu – who is on the run following an arrest warrant for him – has been detained by police in his stead.

This case of family retribution is reminiscent of the case of Yasmine Taskin, a Sabah journalist who was fired in 2014 after her husband, Marco Ansaldo, interviewed Gulen for Italian daily La Repubblica.

“The situation is worse for us than in the days of the coup in 1980,” says Gultasli, referring to the successful military takeover 36 years ago, after which the junta imprisoned 85,000 people, including many journalists and intellectuals.

Affected journalists disagree on whether Turkey can still be called a democracy. “I believe we should wait until the shock of the failed coup is over before drawing our conclusions,” says Zaman lawyer and former columnist Cengiz. “When the dust settles, we will see whether the current autocratic drive is due to exceptional circumstances or simply our new normal. A captive press could well be the prologue to the end of democracy.”

Hisyar Ozsoy, vice chair of the Kurdish opposition party (HDP), is more negative, though, as he speaks from the bombed-out parliament building in Ankara. “Turkey is in a state of nature where no rule of law seems to be protecting people’s rights anymore. Sheer power is the only thing that counts,” he concludes.