March 15, 2016

The noose tightens for free media in Turkey

Days after the capital city of Ankara was hit by a massive terrorist bomb attack that killed 39 and injured scores more the Turkish government used tear gas and water cannons to seize control of the opposition newspaper, The Daily Zaman, pushing Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan closer to his dream of dictatorship.

“Our state will never give up its right to self-defense against all kinds of terror threats,” Erdoğan declared. “Terror organizations and their pawns are targeting our innocent citizens in the most immoral and heartless way as they lose the fight against our security forces. Terror attacks - which intend to target the integrity of Turkey, unity and solidarity of our people - do not diminish our will to fight against terror, but further boost it.”

The government said it believed the Sunday terrorist attack was carried out by the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which it charges, is responsible for another suicide car bombing in Ankara on Feburary 17 that killed 29 people.

The President said, “We consider all terror organization groups a terror threat, but the PKK is the number one threat in terms of terror in our country. Daesh is an outside threat to our country.”

October suicide bombers also unleashed chaos at a pro-Kurdish peace rally that rocked the secular country, killing 97 and wounding hundreds more. So far government investigators confirm the bombing was likely the work of either the PKK Kurds or ISIS.

The concern for many analysts is whether the Turkish terror attack was the work of ISIS/Daesh/PKK, or if it was a “false flag” operation spearheaded by Turkey’s intelligence agencies to unite Turks behind Erdoğan. The bombings raised alarms because they looked like a trademark of al-Qaeda, but surprisingly no terror organization has claimed responsibility for the bombings that struck Ankara. Normally terror organizations claim responsibility for attacks to boost insurgent moral and power over other rival jihadis.

Daniel Pipes, an expert at a DC think tank, the Middle East Forum said, “ISIS involvement must have taken place with the connivance of Turkish intelligence. The government has a motive: Eager to win a majority of seats in the next election both to avoid corruption probes and legitimately increase his power, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has initiated a quasi-war against the Kurds of Turkey hoping thereby to rouse Turkish nationalist feelings. The Ankara bombing fits exactly into this pattern. Further, it conforms to Turkish intelligence's history of dirty tricks, including some against Kurds, as well as a pattern of fabricating evidence against domestic rivals (such as the military or the Fethullah Gülen movement).”

Ironically, Erdoğan 's usual suspects, Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), al-Qaeda or the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) groups have not claimed responsibility for the bombings. This fact leads many political opposition groups inside Turkey to believe the suicide attacks may lie at the feet of the notorious Turkish intelligence agency.

The BBC reported that Turkey has increased its military operations against the PKK, in retaliation for the weekend terrorist attack. “Within hours of the attack, which targeted civilians at a transportation hub, Turkish warplanes bombed 18 PKK targets in northern Iraq, including ammunition depots and bunkers. Meanwhile, security forces in Turkey arrested 36 suspected members of the PKK in Adana and 15 in Istanbul. The government also imposed curfews in three mainly Kurdish towns in southeast Turkey, while the military conducts operations.”

Adding to the disinformation from all parties, the attack also bears likenesses to a February 17 car bomb attack also in Ankara. In that attack, terrorists allegedly belonging to the PKK, or the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK), used a similar type of a nail bomb.

Meanwhile Turkish nationals are reporting “that after yesterday's terrorist attack the Turkish government has put a ban on the broadcasting and social media sharing images from the attack scene as well as images from the funerals, etc. I think they are justifying the ban by saying it will interfere with the government investigation and/or it'll upset people.” Regardless, the result is the same, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is effectively ending free speech and the dissemination of information by those in opposition.

Weighing in on the latest terrorist attack the Defense Department Chief of Press Operations, Navy Captain Jeff Davis said, “We stand with our Turkish allies in the face of these heinous acts and will continue to deepen our ongoing cooperation in the fight against terrorism. We do strongly condemn the horrific terrorist attack in Ankara.”

More alarming news came out ten days ago when a Turkish court ruled that the AKP government could take over its opposition daily newspaper called “The Zaman.” The country’s largest free media paper had a circulation of 650,000 daily print copies. It didn’t take long before the police raided the Istanbul office and began firing water cannons and tear gas on reporters and protesters seeking to block the government takeover.

“The seizure of the news agency following that of Zaman is another nail in the coffin of journalism in Turkey,” according to Yavuz Baydar, a founding member of the Platform for Independent Journalism. “[The agency] was known for independently monitoring each and every election in Turkey. The real effects of its (the agency's) closure can not yet be understood, neither by the local nor by the global public.”

Researcher Andrew Gardner of Amnesty International suggested the country is “lashing out and seeking to rein in critical voices, President Erdoğan’s government is steamrolling over human rights. A free and independent media, together with the rule of law and independent judiciary, are the cornerstones of internationally guaranteed freedoms which are the right of everyone in Turkey.”

US Department of State spokesman John Kirby responded to the government takeover of Zaman and said, “the latest in a series of troubling judicial and law enforcement actions taken by the Turkish government targeting media outlets and others critical of it. … We urge Turkish authorities to ensure their actions uphold the universal democratic values enshrined in their own constitution, including freedom of speech and especially freedom of the press. In a democratic society, as I’ve said many, many times, critical opinions should be encouraged, not silenced.”

The World Press Freedom Index, published by Reporters Without Borders, states Turkey ranks 149 out of 180 countries.

A former Today Zaman editor and current Turkish Review editor, who fled the country, Karim Balci exclusively told CW6 San Diego News: “A new de-facto constitution is being written in Turkey.” He continued, “It’s a mafia government in Turkey, not just a dictatorship. In a dictatorship you may still have rule of law. And with rule of law, you may know what happens tomorrow. In a mafia, you don’t know anything.”

For the past several years, Turkey, a NATO member, has been actively seeking to join the European Union, but Balci said the government only wants a visa waiver, so Turks can travel freely, something that will be a part of a new EU Syrian refugee agreement. “Turkey managed to take in return for the shameful acceptance of Syrian refugees back into Turkey, according to the latest agreement about one million Syrian refugees who are already in Europe and will be sent back to Turkey in return for money.”

However, Human Rights Watch was slightly more optimistic and said, “The EU is expected to double its aid package, to €6 billion, for health care, education, and other basic services for more than two million Syrian refugees already in Turkey, and ramp up political concessions to Turkey, such as easing visa restrictions for Turkish nationals and reviving talks on Turkish accession to the EU, in exchange for stepped-up efforts to curb migration and refugee flows to Europe.”

Last week, Turkey’s Prime Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu was greeted in Europe and virtually guaranteed billions in refugee aid in exchange for Turkish visa-free travel that could amount to further mass immigration to the EU.

Even Ohio Governor, and presidential hopeful, John Kasich said at the last GOP debate: “We’re going to have in some way or another rapprochement with Turkey. And I frankly think that the Europeans went in the wrong direction when they rejected Turkey from joining into the economic sphere of Europe.”

Others strongly disagreed. “Gov. Kasich must surely know how the European Union works, with Germany contributing most of the bloc’s budget, though maintaining one of the lowest contributions as a percentage of its economy. As such, Germany basically calls the shots in the union, as we’ve seen over the past year with the migrant crisis especially. Frau Merkel has caused the effective collapse of the Dublin Treaty, the Schengen zone, and even undermined Germany’s own constitution in exchange for a low-wage population boom. But where’s the comeuppance? Where’s the accountability? There isn’t any,” Raheem Kassam said in a Breitbart article. “Germany’s population is around 81 million. Turkey’s is around 75 million. Accepting the latter into the EU would make Turkey the second largest nation by population in the EU. Overnight, the power dynamic of the EU would change, with around 90 Turkish members of the European Parliament being elected to Brussels/Strasbourg. No wonder Mrs. Merkel and Mr. Erdoğan seem so close. And this is a German-Turkish union that Gov. Kasich wants, and that Prime Minister David Cameron wants us to stay in?”

The messaging couldn’t look worse for a generally free speech EU, but the onslaught of refugees fleeing the embattled Middle East by the millions, the West seems poised to ignore the Turkish governments’ constitutional violations of a free press. Couple this with the increasing terrorist attacks in the country and Erdoğan’s march towards authoritarian rule is all but a fait accompleit.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel described the potential deal as a “breakthrough” last week and said there was a “common understanding” between Europe and Turkey. The details are expected to be worked out at a summit this week.

But those talks will likely see changes as the German chancellor suffered huge loses at a weekend election. “What an amazing evening," Andre Poggenburg, the burgeoning AfD leader said in a blistering speech. “We fought like lions for your land,” he declared, dismissing Angela Merkel as “the worst chancellor in the history of Germany.”

However, Turkey still wants its payout. “They promised to give us three billion euros, and four months have passed since then,” Erdoğan demanded in a speech from Turkey. “The prime minister is in Brussels right now. I hope he returns with that money, the three billion euros.”

Another wrinkle Erdoğan must overcome is a new scandal that involves his son, Bilal Erdoğan. Italian prosecutors said they have launched a money laundering investigation against the son.

Erdoğan, has been a main player inside Turkey since 2003. The West used to praise his democratic reforms hoping they could lead the nation into joining the highly coveted European Union. Unfortunately the leader has taken a hardline stance in Turkey, wiping away many of the changes Turkey’s “father of secularism” President Mustafa Kemal Atatürk made in 1924.

Erdoğan, first and foremost an Islamist, saw an opening during the Arab Spring fever. Demonstrations sparked civil unrest in Turkey on May 28, 2013, in Istanbul's Taksim Gezi Park. Erdoğan revealed his inner-dictator by clashing with anti- government protesters. Since then, the authoritarian leader, has been bogged down by multiple corruption investigations that forced the Erdoğan administration to eviscerate the judiciary, press, as well as the police who presented obstacles for the strongman leader.

January comments made by the Turkish president proved even more worrisome for the country’s slide into dictatorship. The Guardian asked Erdoğan on a visit to Saudi Arabia whether it was possible to have an executive presidential system while maintaining a unitary structure of the state? His response “There are already examples in the world. You can see it when you look at Hitler’s Germany.”

The last edition of the Zaman was published one day after the court ruling; the headline simply read, “CONSTITUTION SUSPENDED.” By Monday, pro-government stories had already erased the largest free and fair daily newspaper in Turkey.

Watch the entire uncut interview with Kerim Balci here.

Published on, 15 March 2016, Tuesday