Analysis |

How Erdogan's Purge Is Making Turkish Journalists Think Twice

Turkey has made more than 150,000 political arrests since the failed coup of July 2016. The Turkish president isn’t deterred by outside criticism, but the arrests are definitely deterring internal criticism of the regime

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan delivering a speech in Ankara, November 2, 2017.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan delivering a speech in Ankara, November 2, 2017.Credit: Yasin Bulbul/AP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Hunting season in Turkey never ends. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has no intention of stopping the wave of political arrests until his country is cleansed of the last of the “traitors.”

October alone yielded at least 3,100 new arrests, while 25 companies were seized by the authorities. Erdogan is unfazed by the harsh criticism coming from countries within the European Union, to which he has a standard reply: “Europe supports the terrorists who are acting against Turkey.” He’s referring to the Kurdish activists whom EU countries allow to operate in their territories.

He also has a political score to settle with some of these countries for not allowing him and his ministers to stage support rallies for Turks living in Europe ahead of the national referendum last April.

Occasionally, some well-known name pops up on the list of arrestees and detainees, who now number more than 150,000. These include politicians, former military personnel, journalists and intellectuals. The big name briefly causes a stir – until the next big name is hauled off to prison.

The latest one is Osman Kavala, a wealthy businessman and the head of Kavala Companies. He was arrested on October 18 and, after two weeks of questioning, was jailed last Wednesday on the charge of “attempting to overthrow the government of the Republic of Turkey” and “attempting to overthrow the constitutional order.”

This grave charge has become a legal cliché, used against anyone suspected of ties with the movement of U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom Erdogan accuses of being behind the failed July 2016 coup.

Kavala is a particularly interesting figure. Not only is he a businessman who had extensive ties to the Turkish military for 15 years (his company was involved in the manufacture of parts for missiles installed on F-16 jets), he also founded the International Peace and Reconciliation Initiative, whose goals include promoting reconciliation with the Armenians and the Kurds.

The 60-year-old was born in France and graduated from the University of Manchester in England. He is a respected figure in international academic institutions, a social activist and an ardent supporter of promoting democracy in Turkey.

Businessman Osman Kavala has been an ardent supporter of promoting democracy in Turkey. He is now in jail, charged with attempting to overthrow the Turkish government.Credit: YouTube

But when the Erdogan regime learned of Kavala’s involvement in the 2013 Gezi Park protests in Istanbul (against the government’s plan to convert one of the city’s last green spaces into a shopping center), his name was added to the blacklist.

Erdogan, who promised at the time that anyone taking part in the demonstrations would pay a price, did not forgive or forgot. Two years after the protests, articles were published in Turkey citing Kavala’s links with the Turkish mafia, alleging that they helped finance his businesses. These reports were denied, but the mud stuck.

Later, due to his support for a “secret conference” that was held on the island of Büyükada around the time of the coup attempt, Kavala fell under suspicion for collaborating in a CIA plot to topple Erdogan.

The conference organizer, Dr. Henri Barkey – who at the time headed the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and was also a member of the U.S. State Department’s policy planning division – wrote that the conference had been planned long before the coup attempt occurred, and that the purpose of the conference was to discuss Iran’s influence in the region.

In a September 2016 article in the New York Times, Barkey described how he and the other conference participants were being depicted as having plotted the coup on behalf of the CIA, and even “bringing a convicted murderer from California into Turkey to engage in evil deeds.”

Kavala’s photograph was published in pro-government newspapers alongside images of the conference participants; some of the Turkish participants were later arrested.

It’s unclear why the authorities decided to arrest Kavala at this time. Some Turkish commentators believe Erdogan wished to create public unrest to divert attention away from the criticism of his arrest of a worker at the U.S. Consulate in Istanbul – which strained U.S.-Turkish relations to the point where both countries ceased issuing regular visas to American and Turkish citizens.

A Turkish journalist who spoke on condition of anonymity said that Kavala’s arrest is intended to “sustain the fear.”

“The arrests fall into several categories,” he explains: “Those who were arrested right after the coup attempt, on the basis of information that directly tied them to the coup; those who were arrested in the second wave so as to eliminate Gulen’s influence in the government, the courts, the police and the army; and those who are being arrested now, in order to snuff out any desire to criticize the regime.”

He points to the coverage of the recent arrests by journalists who are considered supporters of the opposition, noting the tepid language that is being used.

“Everything is written carefully and cautiously, for fear that tomorrow the writer will be arrested or summoned for questioning. Suddenly, you see cultural events being given more prominence than political events. Opinion pieces have become highly generalized and refrain from naming specific people as being responsible for anything, and the images are also no longer news-related,” the journalist observed.

Kavala probably won’t be the last public figure to be arrested in Turkey. Criticism of the arrests policy won’t deter the president, who is convinced that around every corner lurks an opponent seeking to oust him.

Many countries are subject to sanctions for gross violations of human rights, but Turkey is still immune. Thanks to its strategic importance, it’s in a league of its own.

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