As I stood in the passport line at the airport in Istanbul on the night of March 6, ready to leave Turkey for an indefinite period of time, I couldn’t help but remember the nerve-wracking scene in the movie Argo in which six American consular officials went through the airport in Tehran to escape Iran after the 1979 revolution.
As a law-abiding citizen, I knew I had done nothing wrong to be stopped at the border. But in Turkey being a journalist from Zaman media group was enough for me to be considered an “enemy of the state.” And I was the editor-in-chief of Today’s Zaman which had been brutally taken over a few days earlier, earning me a suspended jail sentence for my tweets criticizing then-Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu.
As I stood in line at the airport, I contemplated how all the signs pointed to an even worse future.
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Turkey has long been a tough place for journalists, worsening with the crackdown on the protests in Taksim Gezi park in 2013 and increasingly after that.
But the despicable coup attempt in July this year gave President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan what he described as “a great gift from God” by allowing him to persecute and purge anyone at will, turning Turkey into a complete hell for all but Erdoğan loyalists.
Thanks to Erdoğan’s bluntness or over-confidence, we learned that the government wouldn’t have been able to conduct the purge “under normal circumstances.” As he suggested: Purges are easier to conduct under a state of emergency which shelves fundamental rights.
In what can only be described as a witch-hunt, at least 32,000 people have been arrested since then, including schoolteachers, academics, lawyers and prosecutors — even housewives. Several companies have been seized without due process. There is no guarantee for private property in post-coup Turkey. Star football player Hakan Şükür’s properties were confiscated as the draconian regime put his father in prison, too.
While the foiled coup still awaits a thorough investigation, the government has leveled wild accusations and people have been linked to the coup under such spurious pretexts as carrying one-dollar bills as some form of code.
* * *
Currently, 120 journalists are behind bars. And I have no doubt that, had I not left Turkey when I did, I would be behind bars like many of my colleagues who were arrested on unsubstantiated charges of terrorism.
This is how the government operates: The first target is anyone who is perceived to be a sympathizer of the Gülen movement. Then the Kurds are in line. Yet, the majority of the Turkish intelligentsia turns a blind eye to such massive oppression mainly because of the identity of the victims.
Appallingly, in the absence of any credible evidence, they are willing to buy Erdoğan’s argument that Muslim scholar Fethullah Gülen is the mastermind of the coup. Even some European politicians seem ready to jump on the bandwagon simply because “everyone says so.”
The overall atmosphere of fear, coupled with a bias against anyone remotely religious, has turned Turkey’s intelligentsia into tacit accomplices of the oppressive regime. Some don’t want to challenge the government’s narrative, others openly support “pre-emptive” purges to prevent future crimes.
* * *
How did Turkey – a country which successfully carried out wide-ranging EU reforms a decade ago – under the same government become this authoritarian nightmare?
Though I wasn’t aware of it at the time, the turning point was the corruption investigations in 2013 that were aborted before they could implicate the Erdoğan family. The main suspect, Iranian gold trader Reza Zarrab, meanwhile, was cleared of all charges in Turkish courts.
Erdoğan, who assumed it was Gülen sympathizers within the state who had aired his dirty laundry, began to wage an all-out-war against the movement, calling it a “parallel structure.” And when Zarrab was arrested in the U.S. for violating sanctions against Iran, Erdoğan argued that the Gülen movement had bought off the American prosecutor and the judge in the case against the man who Erdoğan says is innocent of any wrongdoing.
And it is this case that is the root cause of everything we have seen since.
Millions of people bought the argument that the corruption probes were actually a coup attempt to topple Erdoğan, as the government claimed. From then on, the tall tales got more and more outlandish as the government realized what it could get away with.
One popular tale in the pro-government media has been the “superior mind” tale, according to which unnamed Western enemies try to halt Turkey’s rise through nefarious means.
After Moody’s decision to downgrade Turkey’s rating, a deputy prime minister blamed it on the Gülen movement. In the absence of free media to pose real questions, Erdoğan went further and said Moody’s could be bribed, obliquely suggesting the movement had done just that.
* * *
What does the future hold? As far as my own case is concerned, I made it through the airport in March and I now live in Brussels, in practical exile. To me and my colleagues, the present has never felt this bleak and the future has never seemed this uncertain.
After the coup, my apartment was raided and an arrest warrant was issued for me in absentia — the same day as I was barred from leaving Belgium, taken off a plane because the government had canceled my passport. Even from afar, the government can retaliate. But at least I’m not in jail. And while the price of exile is steep, I don’t see a way I could work within the existing system.
How much is your own comfort worth? That is my question for those parts of the Turkish media and intelligentsia that continue to enable Turkey’s oppression and this parallel universe that Erdoğan has established. Is it worth the truth? For now, in Turkey, it is the price being paid.
*Sevgi Akarçeşme was editor-in-chief of Today’s Zaman.
Published on Politico.eu, 12 October 2016, Wednesday