December 3, 2015 | Politico Europe
Erdoğan Gags Turkey
In May 2015, soon after Can Dündar was appointed as editor-in-chief of Turkey’s center-left Cumhuriyet daily, he made journalism history by exposingin detail the weapons and ammunitions that Turkish intelligence was transporting to proxies in Syria.
Although the cargo was discovered in January 2014, when Turkish police stopped the trucks en route to Syria, the case was swiftly hushed up. Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, furious about the expose, threatened Dündar in the run up to the country’s general election on June 7 by announcing on TV that “the person who wrote this report will pay a heavy price.” Dündar and his close colleague Erdem Gül’s pre-trial detention last week showed that Erdoğan is a man of his word.
Earlier last month, Cumhuriyet won the Media of the Year prize from Reporters Without Borders for its “independent and courageous journalism.” Many in Turkey and around the world hoped that such a high-profile celebration of Dündar’s journalism would protect him from Erdoğan’s wrath. The Turkish president proved them wrong, and Dündar was arrested on his 28th wedding anniversary, just nine days after receiving the Reporters Without Borders prize in Strasbourg. For his wife, Dündar’s arrest was a cause for celebration: “He was receiving a lot of threats lately. His arrest in such uncertain times ensures his personal safety!”
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Ironically, Dündar wasn’t the only journalist who dared to publish proof of Turkey’s involvement in the Syrian war. Although the Aydinlik daily, affiliated with Turkey’s fringe Maoist-cum-nationalist party, printed a few photos of the same weapons cache 16 months before Cumhuriyet, it has managed to escape Erdoğan’s wrath, in part owing to its growing admiration of Erdoğan’s nationalist and anti-Western policies.
As Turkey’s judiciary has increasingly come under the sway of Erdoğan, such double standards became commonplace, inspiring fear as well as dark humor. Following Dündar’s arrest, one of Turkey’s leading satirists, Hakan Köksal — a.k.a. the Sensei of Humor — tweeted that the statement that hangs at every Turkish court of law, namely “justice is the basis of order,” should be replaced by Erdoğan’sthreat to Dündar: “I won’t let him go!”
The two Cumhuriyet journalists, Dündar and Gül, aren’t the only casualties of Erdoğan’s increasing authoritarianism and his ensuing intolerance toward independent journalism. Government-mouthpiece journalist Cem Küçük regularly issues ultimatums to media bosses to silence or fire critical journalists. Erdoğan loyalist and former Justice and Development Party (AKP) deputy Abdurrahim Boynukalin was filmed saying that it was a mistake not to beat journalists.
In one instance, Küçük threatened Turkey’s leading TV anchor Ahmet Hakan by saying that the government would “crush him like a fly.” Soon after, Hakan was severely beaten in front of his home in an attack that left him with broken ribs and nose. Of the four thugs responsible for the brutal beating, three turned out to beAKP members.
In cases where pressure and threats fail to deliver results, the AKP turns to taking over media outlets. The Koza-Ipek Holding media company, which owns the Bugün and Millet dailies as well as Bugün and Kanaltürk TV stations, was raidedby the police in late October. The AKP government didn’t hesitate to appoint pro-government trustees who then purged all the critical journalists of the media company. These media outlets, known for their vocal criticism of Erdoğan’s policies, turned overnight into AKP mouthpieces publishing nothing but praise for the Turkish government.
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There are several reasons why the Turkish government has turned to such hardline policies against the country’s remaining independent media. In the June elections, the AKP lost its single-party majority for the first time in 13 years. Erdoğan feared that any coalition could lead to a revival of a 2013 probeimplicating him, his family and his cronies for graft. Desperate to regain a single-party majority in November’s snap elections, he cracked down on critical media outlets, acutely aware that restricting opposition access to the media could be key to winning elections.
The AKP’s landslide victory in November proved that Erdoğan’s calculations were accurate, and that there was little cost to the party’s hardline authoritarian policies. Receiving a single-party mandate for the fourth time in 13 years seems to have brought out the worst in Erdoğan and the AKP. Contrary to the predictions of optimists that the AKP’s electoral victory could relax its oppressive policies, Erdoğan and his party have turned more vengeful than ever.
Pundits who have given up hope of reform in Turkey’s domestic dynamics expected the country’s European Union membership bid and the attached conditions to keep Erdoğan’s authoritarianism under control. The EU-Turkeysummit last weekend showed why such hopes were void and misguided.
Erdoğan, acutely aware of the EU leaders’ desperation vis-à-vis the Syrian refugee crisis, knows the extent to which refugees can be used as leverage against the EU. Since Erdoğan sees that EU leaders are interested in a transactional relationship, he is aware that they will be willing to let go of their values and principles, turning a blind eye, if necessary, to the breach of fundamental rights and freedoms enshrined in the Copenhagen criteria, the rules that define whether a country is eligible to join the EU.
This, of course, is bad news for Turkish journalists who are already in jail, and others who will soon join them. In a global context in which Erdoğan’s authoritarianism gets a free pass in exchange for his rendering seemingly vital services, protests by Turkish citizens — like the one that took place recently in Istanbul to draw attention to the arrest of Dündar and Gül — will fall on deaf ears. Erdoğan knows that his intolerance of independent media will be tolerated by his European counterparts who need him more than ever to guard Fortress Europe against the influx of Syrian refugees.
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A Turkish scholar recently compared Erdoğan’s November 1 electoral victory to Louis Bonaparte’s coup on the “18th Brumaire,” drawing a parallel with Marx’s seminal work on how history repeats itself “first as tragedy, then as farce.” Truly, Erdoğan’s earlier victories that allowed him to gradually take over Turkey’s independent media were tragic for the country. What makes Erdoğan’s authoritarianism since November farcical is not only the exaggerated and out-of-control destruction of the independent media but also the dark comedy staged by the European Union’s complicit and appeasing leaders.
Aykan Erdemir is a former member of the Turkish parliament and a non-resident senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington. He currently teaches at Bilkent University in Ankara. Follow him on Twitter @aykan_erdemir