Turkey’s 15 minutes of free expression are over

The Globe & Mail, Canada
May 2 2014

Turkey’s 15 minutes of free expression are over Add to …

Amberin Zaman

Saturday, May 3, is World Press Freedom Day. Amberin Zaman is an
Istanbul-based columnist for the independent Turkish daily newspaper

April 24 marked the 99th anniversary of the beginning of the Armenian
Genocide. Civilitas, an Armenian NGO, was providing live coverage of a
slew of commemoration events in Istanbul – until recently, it would
have been unthinkable for Turks to pay homage to the victims, as
discussion of the genocide was taboo.

I navigated to Civilitas to watch their webcast from Taksim Square. A
dull gray window covered with legalese popped up, reminding me that
access to YouTube remains banned.

Welcome to the new Turkey, where freedom of expression is shrinking by
the day and which has more journalists in jail than China or Iran do.

Over the past year, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has overseen
the brutal suppression of mass demonstrations and rammed through
controversial laws that augment the powers of the national spy agency
and censorship of the Internet.

The bulk of these appear to be designed to stifle further
investigation (and debate) of the massive corruption scandal
implicating Mr. Erdogan’s family and close circles, and to ease his
path to the presidency when incumbent Abdullah Gul steps down in
August. Mr. Erdogan’s threats against his perceived enemies have grown
louder since his neo-Islamic Justice and Development Party (AKP)
thrashed its secular rivals in the March 30 municipal polls.

Is Turkey on the path to becoming another Russia and Mr. Erdogan
another Vladimir Putin? This question is frequently asked these days.

It is easy to forget that Mr. Erdogan was not always a bully and that
Turkey has never been fully free. Over the past half-century, the army
has overthrown four democratically elected governments, and until a
few years ago, many newspaper owners and editors toadied up to the
generals, just as they do to Mr. Erdogan today. Turkey’s uneasy march
toward democracy was long best described as one step forward, two
steps back.

After he and the AKP shot to power in 2002, Mr. Erdogan introduced
sweeping reforms, chipping away at the army’s influence, reaching out
to the Kurds, building new schools and hospitals and transforming
Turkey into a freer, richer place. True, his conservative views caused
the occasional blip, as when he tried to criminalize adultery. But for
the first time, reform outpaced repression and the European Union was
shamed into opening membership talks with Turkey in 2005, its first
with any majority Muslim country.

It was against this backdrop that, in a 2005 interview with Yeni
Safak, a respected pro-Islamic daily newspaper with close ties to the
government, I marvelled about feeling truly free as a journalist, with
no worries about whether my words would land me in trouble, as they so
often had in the past.

Today, as my Twitter feed is inundated with reports of Mr. Erdogan’s
latest excesses as well as threats to “rape” and “kill” me over my
critical coverage, it’s almost as if those days never existed. These
days, repression has overtaken reform, and honest reporting comes at a

While it is possible now to write about the Armenian Genocide and to
defend the Kurds, it is not acceptable to question Mr. Erdogan’s Syria
policy (in my view, disastrous) or to mention government-linked

The red lines have merely shifted. They used to be defined by the
generals; now they are defined by Mr. Erdogan.

Any journalist who dares to breach them can end up without a job, as I
did last year when Haberturk, a mainstream Turkish newspaper that
published my biweekly column, sacked me for ignoring editors’ warnings
about my tone. They were bowing to pressure from the Prime Minister’s
office. “Can’t you write about Uruguay or something?” one of my
editors had pleaded. Newspaper owners who do not toe the official line
are slapped with arbitrary tax fines, cut out of lucrative state
contracts, even scolded by Mr. Erdogan himself.

It is tempting to imagine that once Mr. Erdogan leaves power, Turkey
will revert to “normal.” Such thinking ignores why he continues to be
so popular at the ballot box.

The reason is that most of the people who vote for him care more about
economic prosperity than they do about access to YouTube. Mr. Erdogan
has improved their living standards and his opponents have failed to
convince voters that they can do better. Yet, in Turkey’s polarized
atmosphere, to give the Prime Minister credit for past achievements is
to risk losing your friends.

Indeed, this peer pressure is almost as much a challenge as pressure
from the state. You have to either love Mr. Erdogan or hate him. And
this speaks to the lack of tolerance in Turkish society as a whole.

Mr. Erdogan is not a dictator – he is a big disappointment. He had the
chance to break with the authoritarianism of the past. Instead, he has
embraced it.

From: A. Papazian


You may also like