For several years I have been posting blog items on the fraught relationship between Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and the country’s journalists.
His takeover of Turkey’s largest-selling newspaper, Zaman, is extreme, but it is anything but an isolated example of his contempt for press freedom.
As the Guardian’s editorial on Monday noted, his reaction to any kind of media opposition is becoming ever more excessive and vindictive. And the Times’s leading article was similarly unsympathetic to Erdoğan, referring to “his determination to silence opposition views and his increasingly authoritarian behaviour.”
None of this comes as a surprise. Last November, following his election victory, I published a piece headlined, Will Erdoğan allow greater press freedom in Turkey? Don’t count on it.
The previous week, police had raided the Istanbul offices of the Koza İpek group and shut down its live television broadcasts. It followed a similar police raid on the company’s Ankara headquarters to enforce a court order replacing senior management with a government-approved board of trustees.
Even if we accept that Erdoğan’s media opponents have their own political and religious agendas, his actions cannot be seen as other than inimical to press freedom and human rights.
Zaman, for example, supports the moderate Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen, who lives in self-imposed exile in the US and is seen as the spiritual leader of the Hizmet movement. Erdoğan and his Justice and Development party (AKP) regard it as an illegal organisation and refer to Gülen as a terrorist who has plotted to overthrow the government.
Newspapers and broadcasters thought to be supportive of the Kurds have also been subjected to crackdowns. In fact, Erdoğan is something of an equal opportunities enemy of press freedom. Anyone who opposes him feels the heat.
Columnists have been fired by government diktat. Non-compliant media groups have been acquired by Erdoğan-friendly businessmen. Many journalists have been intimidated and arrested on charges of espionage or giving aid to terrorists.
Under Erdoğan’s regime, Turkey became the largest jailer of journalists and is ranked 149th out of 180 countries in the world press freedom index compiled by Reporters Without Borders (RSF).
Global press freedom watchdogs have condemned the Zaman takeover without much expectation of the Turkish government taking any notice.
So, will the European Union, now desperate to obtain help from Turkey over the refugee crisis, take Erdoğan to task for his latest media clampdown? Not a chance.
RSF’s secretary-general Christophe Deloire said the EU “must exercise all of its potential leverage” and contended that “there can be no question of resuming EU accession talks while Ankara visibly tramples on basic European values.”
He isn’t holding his breath about EU action, however. “Until now, the European Union has demonstrated culpable weakness in response to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s attacks on the media.
“But ‘business as usual’ would be incomprehensible after he seized control of the main opposition media group in such a brutal manner... Is the EU determined to let itself be humiliated?”
The answer, given his past record and the EU’s need to keep him on side, is clear: “yes”.
Published on The Guardian, 7 March 2016, Monday