The detention of journalists is not exceptional in Turkey: The Committee to Protect Journalists says the country was the world's worst jailer of journalists in 2012 and 2013, and among the 10 worst this year. However, reports of the detention of Turkish journalist Sedef Kabas on Tuesday suggest a remarkably low bar for arrest: a single tweet.
In the past year, social media has become a controversial subject in Turkey. “Twitter, mwitter!” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan infamously said earlier this year, before implementing a broad yet ineffective ban on the microblogging service.
It'd be tempting to dismiss the aversion to Twitter as typical behavior for Erdogan: The Turkish leader and his governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) have pushed a blend of Islamist nationalism that has looked increasingly eccentric over the past year: arguing passionately that Muslim explorers were the first to discover America, for instance.
However, the battle over social media in Turkey often seems to signify more dramatic struggles behind the scenes. Kabas's tweet had referenced a corruption probe that began Dec. 17, 2013, when 53 people, many deeply linked to the AKP, were arrested in dramatic raids across Turkey. Although that investigation was eventually dropped this month, it shook Turkish society: As the Financial Times notes, Turkey fell 11 places in Transparency International's recently released Corruption Perceptions Index.
A few months later, someone with inside knowledge of the Turkish political elite began to leak damaging information: One recording posted online in February even appeared to feature Erdogan telling his son to get rid of a large amount of cash (Erdogan says the recording was faked). The rumors spread mostly on social media, in particular on a number of anonymous Twitter accounts.
The AKP and Erdogan were quite clear in deciding whom to blame for these problems: a U.S.-based Islamic cleric who held deep sway in Turkey. Fethullah Gulen, who now lives in Pennsylvania but was born near the Turkish city of Erzurum, had once been an ally of the AKP, espousing a modern and business- and education-friendly concept of Islam that fitted well with the party's ideals. In a country with a history of "deep state" conspiracies, many suspected that a network of Gulen supporters in the police and judiciary were working to oust Erdogan, who had been prime minister of the country since 2003 and took over the president's office in 2014.
The conflict between the AKP and Gulen largely faded from view in the past few months, as controversial comments by Erdogan and the conflict in neighboring Syria and Iraq dominated headlines. But it quietly returned recently: Not only was the corruption investigation dropped, but four prosecutors who had pursued the case have been suspended. In addition, a number of journalists were arrested (including Ekrem Dumanli, editor in chief of Zaman, a leading newspaper with links to the Gulen movement), and there were reports that an arrest warrant for Gulen had been issued.
The situation is worrying for many Turks, not just journalists. Erdogan, however, has denied that journalists are being silenced. "Nowhere in the world is the press freer than it is in Turkey," he said in a televised speech to a conference in Ankara last week. "I'm very sure of myself when I say this."
Published on The Washington Post, 30 December 2014, Tuesday