Turkey's already stifled and repressed media freedom took another blow on May 19, when Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu fiercely attacked the Hürriyet daily during a speech at an election rally in Zonguldak.
Davutoğlu was fuming about the following headline: “The world is in shock: death sentence to the president who was elected with 52 percent of the vote.” This headline related to the decision of an Egyptian court to sentence former President Mohammed Morsi to death. There was no reason to think it could be about anybody else. However, Davutoğlu declared that this piece was not related to Morsi but a message to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who also happened to get 52 percent of the vote in the August 2014 presidential election.
Davutoğlu and Erdoğan have condemned the daily, accusing it of conspiring to carry out a “coup” against the government, while the Doğan Media Group, to which the daily belongs, has been labeled a treacherous enemy. Not surprisingly, Hürriyet, one of Turkey's oldest newspapers, was fully taken aback by such ludicrous accusations, publishing an open letter asking Erdoğan to explain himself, and putting forth direct questions, including: “Will you send us into exile? What will you do?” and “Why should we live in fear?” adding, “If you believe that we are afraid of defending our right to freedom of the press, freedom of speech and freedom to criticize, all of which are guaranteed by the Constitution, then you should know that we will defend these freedoms with no fear.”
This is not the first time Hürriyet, which has always tried to distance itself from any political affiliation, has been under attacks by the government that have included calls to boycott the daily and unfair financial probes.
Furthermore, earlier this week a Turkish prosecutor called for certain TV stations, in particular those linked to the Hizmet movement, which is also accused of conspiring to overthrow the government, to be prevented from using the state's communication infrastructure. If this were to happen, it would add to growing concerns over the fairness of the June 7 general election. Legislation around elections and the Supreme Election Board (YSK) are supposed to guarantee equal broadcast rights for all parties after the election campaign period starts. This is not happening, and apparently nobody can do a thing about it, which says a lot about the state of Turkey's judicial system.
What we can learn from this sorry state of affairs is that media freedom (including that of TV, print publications and anything one posts on the Internet) has reached an all-time low. You either have to worship the state or risk finding yourself in hot water. Newspapers and TV stations are typically owned by holding companies with multi-sector business interests that often require a submissive attitude toward the government, which further exacerbates the situation. Fear is building over what the next steps could be.
While the government's pressure on TV stations is more intense than it is on newspapers, with some 80 percent of Turks watching TV every day, there is the fear of a possible seizure of the opposition media by one means or another. This leadership is capable of anything. It is paranoid, controlling and obsessed with rooting out dissent. Conspiracies, coup-plotters and enemies of the regime are apparently lurking around every corner. As was stated earlier this week by the co-chair of the German Greens, Cem Özdemir, the Turkish government's harsh efforts to prohibit critical media outlets from using the state's communications infrastructure are an attempt to “transform Turkey into an intolerant place where no differing voices are heard.”
A free media is the cornerstone of a democratic state. A government which seemingly wants to have hundreds of newspapers like the Sabah daily, which is more or less a government mouthpiece, sends the message that they are not democrats but a regime that wants to control everything and everyone. Even during the days of military rule things were not this bad. There were quite clear red lines over what could or could not be written. However, being a journalist in Turkey today is like walking through a mine field. At any given point, or in this case, because of any given story, the situation may become dangerous.
Today's media environment increasingly resembles that of Russia, and the government and president should be ashamed.
Published on Today's Zaman, 23 May 2015, Saturday