December 21, 2014

AK Party’s media crackdown exacerbates Turkey’s isolation

As a NATO ally which professes to share NATO's core principles about democracy, human rights and press freedom and as a candidate country for European Union membership, the Turkish government's recent crackdown on opposition media outlets has shocked many outside observers and contributed to the country's isolation and increasing distance from its allies.

Ekrem Dumanlı, the editor-in-chief of the Zaman daily, and Hidayet Karaca, the chairman of Samanyolu TV, were detained on Sunday in a police operation that targeted journalists, TV scriptwriters and former police officers.

A number of international advocacy groups and press organizations in addition to political actors such as the EU and the US have reacted strongly to the detentions, which are fostering the image of a Turkey increasingly drifting toward authoritarianism.

“The ruling party in Turkey has launched an operation against media. The operation -- which you can only explain as a result of [the country] ‘going mad' -- has severely strained ties with the West and especially the EU. Turkey has turned its face to the Middle East, where the government does not have a single friend and cannot post an ambassador to three capitals,” Mehmet Altan, an academic and prominent Turkish journalist, told Sunday's Zaman.

Turkey does not have ambassadors in Israel, Egypt and Syria due to its problematic relations with these countries and is not considered a trustworthy partner by the Gulf countries due to its support for the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist political group.

Altan added that Sunday Dec. 14, when Dumanlı and Karaca were detained, will be remembered as “Black Sunday” in Turkey and that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been trying to drop the country's EU membership bid from the agenda, an intention he has expressed on numerous occasions.

Following criticism from EU institutions and officials this week due to the crackdown on the media, Erdoğan defied the union by telling it to “mind its own business.” On another occasion, he said the EU can't give Turkey a “democracy lesson” and that Turkey is not the EU's “doorman.”

“If they let us in, they let us in. If they don't, they don't,” Erdoğan said in a speech on Dec. 17 this year. “You can speak against Turkey as much as you like. We will devise our own path,” he added.

Erdoğan also addressed “those who try to advise Turkey by shaking their finger, just like a governess” and said that they are no longer facing the old Turkey. Since he came to office in August, President Erdoğan likes to use the term the “new Turkey,” but his remarks sent the Turkish lira down by four percent against the US dollar due to concerns about the country's future.

According to Altan, this new Turkey corresponds to a country where there is no tolerance for democracy or the rule of law. “They [the government] are trying to build a country which is dominated by one man without any accountability and where the ruling party can use state money however it likes and commit all kinds of corruption with impunity,” Altan said.

Last week, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini and EU Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn called on Turkey to show respect for the rule of law and fundamental rights, recalling that Turkey's hopes of being a member to the EU depends on observance of democratic norms. They also called the recent detentions incompatible with the freedom of media, which is a core principle of democracy.

The Economist magazine reported the developments in an article titled “Media freedom RIP?” noting that “a fresh round of arrests takes relations with the European Union to a new low.”

Putin calls Erdoğan a ‘tough guy' not intimidated by West

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday praised Erdoğan as a “tough guy” who is not intimidated by the West. During his annual end-of-year news conference, Putin said he was reluctant to announce a decision to replace the South Stream gas pipeline with a route via Turkey when he visited Ankara earlier this month. However, Putin added, Erdoğan had convinced him to announce the energy deal between Turkey and Russia, saying that the two countries had not stolen anyone's possessions and there is no need to hide the deal on energy cooperation.

The Russian economy has been feeling the effects of Putin's alienation from the West due to the Russia's annexation of the Crimean Peninsula and he has formed an unlikely friendship with Erdoğan and partnership with the new Turkey.

Another prominent journalist, former Hürriyet daily columnist Oktay Ekşi, has also condemned the recent detentions. To show his solidarity with those detained, Ekşi -- who is also İstanbul deputy for the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) -- visited Zaman's İstanbul office on Sunday.

“Repressing the media and isolating Turkey from the rest of the world is nothing new in the country. The recent blow to the Turkish media is simply the latest example of a media crackdown that began in 2007. The government has imposed unprecedented pressure on the media with enormous tax fines being handed to large media groups. They have tried to suppress one of the largest media groups in Turkey. About 289 journalists have been fired due to the political pressure and a number of them were jailed during the Balyoz and Ergenekon cases,” Ekşi told Sunday's Zaman over the phone on Thursday.

The Doğan Media Group was fined a record $2.53 billion by the government in 2009 in a move which was intended to intimidate journalists. The Turkish government has jailed a number of journalists on allegations of having links to a far-right network called Ergenekon, which has been accused of plotting to topple the government, drawing up dozens of coup plans such as Balyoz (Sledgehammer), which was first outlined in a military barracks in 2003.

“Unfortunately, Turkey has become the number-one jailer of journalists in the world. The widespread perception that has been imposed upon the country is that you can survive as a journalist only if you become a yes-man to the ruling party. Under a great deal of pressure and fear, many journalists have become aligned to the ruling party,” Ekşi said.

He said the latest pressure and scare tactics against Zaman and Samanyolu have finally given the media crackdown in Turkey worldwide exposure, with strong reactions coming both from inside and outside the country. “We have experienced these autocratic developments since 2007, along with Turkey's isolation. Previously, the US, the European Union and the European Commission were unwilling to comment on the pressure on the media. But with the latest crackdown, the pressure on the Turkish press has become something that you cannot hide anymore,” Ekşi added.

Veteran diplomat and CHP Adana deputy Faruk Loğoğlu told Sunday's Zaman that with the latest arrests of journalists, Erdoğan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu “as a team” have now dealt “perhaps a near-fatal blow to Turkey's standing as a democracy and the country's chance of accession to the EU.”

But Loğoğlu warned that if the EU further distances itself from Turkey, the EU would be making “a huge mistake. That would only mean playing into the hands of the Erdoğan-Davutoğlu team. The way to go for the EU is to open Chapters 23 and 24 [of Turkey's membership bid, which are currently closed] and challenge them [Erdoğan and Davutoğlu] to reveal their true thinking about the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary in Turkey.”

A well-known Turkey and the Middle East expert in Washington, D.C., Dr. Steven Cook from the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), has compared Erdoğan to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Erdoğan lashes out at Sisi whenever he can, saying that he came to power through a military coup and that Western countries are hypocrites due to their maintenance of normal relations with the Egyptian regime.

In an analysis Cook wrote on his blog on Dec. 16, he described the Erdoğan and Sisi administrations as “tin-pot dictatorships.”

“Supporters of the governments of Egypt and Turkey have become adept at telling the world that under presidents Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Recep Tayyip Erdogan respectively, these countries are making progress toward more open and just political systems. In reality, they are nothing more than tin-pot dictatorships,” Cook wrote.

Published on Sunday's Zaman, 21 December 2014, Sunday