by Catherine Shakdam (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 45, No. 2, Jumada' al-Akhirah, 1437)
Turkey’s wannabe Pasha (Sultan) Recep Tayip Erdogan has gone after the country’s independent media for its temerity in exposing his misdeeds. For all practical purposes, Turkey is now a dictatorship.
Long upheld as a democratic model for the Muslim East (aka Middle East), Turkey is fast becoming ground zero for all things totalitarian and neocolonial, under the leadership of its ruthlessly ambitious president, Recep Tayip Erdogan. A despot cloaked in democratic garb, Turkey’s strongman has played by America’s exceptionalist handbook, citing “national security” to usurp people’s civil liberties. Determined to impose himself as a neo-Ottoman monarch, Erdogan is behaving like a wannabe imperial power, a rogue state among other rogue states: Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Qatar.
Empowered by EU capitals on account that Turkey stands as a tentative ally vis-à-vis the axis of resistance against Zionism and imperialism, Erdogan has been set free on an unsuspecting Turkish society. He has become a grand devourer of freedoms and democracy.
If 2011 marked the beginning of the uprising of Islamic consciousness across the Arab world, 2016 could well be remembered as the year Turkey lost its democratic shirt to despotism — a devolution the Western powers have yet to address in their desire to rationalize political paradoxes. For all their self-proclaimed declaration of faith in democracy, Western powers have invested a great deal of time and money in cultivating autocratic rulers.
On March 6, 2016, Erdogan targeted one of Turkey’s last-standing independent media organizations, Zaman. The newspaper that had hitherto made a point of demanding political accountability by challenging officials and their narrative, its offices were violently broken into for daring to “challenge” the president’s judgement in running the affairs of state.
Erdogan’s ire was directed mainly against Zaman’s editor-in-chief, Abdulhamit Bilici, whose editorial line against the ruling party, and particularly Erdogan’s policies, incensed Ankara to the degree that it sought his removal, and subsequent imprisonment. With riot police running in and out of the premises in full view of the public, the Zaman newspaper was made an example of. It became a scapegoat so that other would-be critics would not dare to even utter a whisper of criticism. Over the span of a single press cycle, the Zaman newspaper went from being the bold voice of conscience and courage to becoming a pliable journalistic tool of the regime. Under the shadow of bayonets, Turkey’s most prominent media organization succumbed to duress, turning it into another echo chamber for the state.
Of the matter not a word would be written. Instead, the following day Zaman reported on President Erdogan’s visit to a bridge under construction. Under new management, Zaman was told in unambiguous terms to toe the line or face the consequences.
In reaction to Zaman’s seizure, editors of the English-language version of the paper said in a statement, “We are going through the darkest and gloomiest days in terms of freedom of the press, which is a major benchmark for democracy and the rule of law. Intellectuals, businesspeople, celebrities, civil society organizations, media organizations and journalists are being silenced via threats and blackmail. We have entered the last phase in terms of pressure on those who persistently remain independent in their publications.”
Indeed, Erdogan’s crusade against the independent media has run as a dangerous theme over the past year, a trend that has accelerated because of global silence in the face of such authoritarianism. The Western powers’ growing dependence on Ankara to do their bidding and carry out their policies in the region has only encouraged Erdogan’s belligerence.
Turkey’s press violations and freedom of expression track record is abysmal. In the past two years, Turkey’s justice ministry has opened as many as 1,845 criminal cases against citizens accused of insulting the president. In one case, a doctor lost his job for comparing Erdogan to the creature Gollum in “Lord of the Rings.” Teens have been charged for ripping Erdogan’s posters, or posting unwelcome Facebook comments. Journalists of course are particular targets: two from another opposition publication, Cumhuriyet, face serious charges for reporting on alleged arms smuggling to Syria.
Back in February 2015 the British daily, the Telegraph reported on Turkey’s already pronounced slide into the darkness of autocracy when it wrote, “Turkish authorities including government agencies have stepped up their crackdown on freedom of expression online in 2014, with figures from Twitter showing the problem getting worse. According to the latest transparency report from the website for the last six months of 2014, Turkey was the country that made the most content removal requests.”
Although grossly under-reported, Turkey’s despotization campaign can be traced to the summer of 2013 during the Gezi Park protests in Istanbul and a breakdown in relations between exiled preacher Fethullah Gulen and Erdogan. From their very public spat Turkey under Erdogan was launched on the path of drastically reduced civil liberties, especially related to freedom of the press. While Turkey has abandoned its previous claims to leadership, values, principles of self-governance, civil liberties and freedom of expression, the NATO ally is actually following in the footsteps of a long despotic tradition.
According to 2015 statistics of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), 28 lawsuits were opened by applicants against member states regarding their violations of freedom of expression. Ten of those applications (complaints) were made against Turkey, making it first in that category. Turkish law professor Ayse Isil Karakas, both a judge and elected Deputy Head of the ECHR, said that among all member states, Turkey has ranked first in the field of violations of free speech. “619 lawsuits of freedom of expression were brought at the ECHR between 1959 and 2015,” she said. She also went on to say, “258 of them — almost half the total — came from Turkey and most were convicted as violations of freedom of expression.”
A wannabe EU member-state, Turkey offers a rather troubling insight into Western powers’ politicking.