January 5, 2015

Hello Ankara, are you there?

Ali Aslan

Readers of The Washington Post who opened the paper on Friday morning saw an article on the op-ed page titled "Turkey's witch hunt." It was written by Ekrem Dumanlı, the editor-in-chief of the Zaman daily. The editors of the paper wrote in the sub-title that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's media crackdown is tarnishing his nation’s image. A photo of a group of women holding copies of Zaman and Turkish flags in their hands and protesting the Dec. 14 operation against the media also made its way onto the same page. An article by prominent US opinion leader Fareed Zakaria was placed below Dumanlı's article. All the choices of The Washington Post editors with regards to the publication and presentation of Dumanlı's article showed that they gave this article a lot of importance. Why?

Dumanlı, who was taken into custody by police officers who raided the offices of his paper, has become one of the leading international symbols of the heavy pressure on the free media in Turkey. In a way, journalists around the world have raced to show solidarity with all their colleagues in Turkey following what happened to Zaman and Dumanlı. After Dumanlı's article appeared at The Washington Post, Chicago Tribune also published the article in its entirety. British Channel 4 News aired a video clip which in an effective way tells the story of Dumanlı's fight for freedom of the press. Influential Middle Eastern newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat published an interview with Dumanlı. I am sure more coverage will follow.

They hit a tough nut to crack

President Erdoğan could make the hypnotized masses believe in his claim that the freest media in the world is in Turkey but he cannot easily convince the international public opinion, journalists in particular, of this.

The situation of the media in Turkey speaks for itself and it is obvious that Erdoğan and his companions want to take control of the entire media. A single-voice media would befit the one-man and one-party regime which they dream of. However, those who have invaded the towers of the media castle one by one with various tactics so far have hit a tough nut to crack in their latest move because this time they are not dealing with journalists whose bosses have been taken hostage one way or another. It’s a courageous and independent media group with bosses, editors, reporters, writers, producers and scriptwriters: Zaman and Samanyolu TV.

In his article for The Washington Post, Dumanlı talks about the crackdown on the supporters of the Hizmet movement -- which he said became the primary object of Erdoğan's obsession following the Dec. 17-25, 2013 corruption scandal -- in the public and private sector, adding that it was now the turn of Hizmet-affiliated media organs. Although the persecution of Hizmet over the past year has not appeared much on the world's agenda, everyone has raised their voices following the crackdown on the media.

The officials of the ruling party must have been astonished by this because they have really hit a hard wall this time. Freedom of the press is not like anything else. The one who touches it gets burned.

It is interesting to note that the government's attempts to silence the media with the aim of covering up corruption allegations seem to have inflicted more damage on the government's international legitimacy than the corruption scandal itself. The hunter has become the hunted. How can those who raid the headquarters of a daily, detain its editor, keep the editor under police custody for 80 hours, arrest the executive of a TV station, launch criminal complaints against opponent journalists due to their tweets, threaten media bosses and order the dismissal of journalists expect to see respect from the world? The democracy sins committed against the free media has even overshadowed the corruption sins.

Turning point

Several years ago, arrests of journalists Ahmet Şık and Nedim Şener in violation of freedom of the press led to a similar outcry in the world. It marked a critical turning point in the weakening of the international support for the Ergenekon and other coup trials. With regards to its commitment to democracy, Ankara lost significant credibility, mainly in Washington and Brussels. Looking at the reactions today, it is possible to see that the detention of Dumanlı and the arrest of Samanyolu TV top executive Hidayet Karaca have yielded similar results.

In a way, the world public opinion uses this as an opportunity to register that they do not give much credit to the Turkish government's attempts to label the Hizmet movement as a "parallel structure" or an "armed terrorist organization." Although the actors in the bureaucracy and the judiciary, most of whom abide by government orders, have changed, the continuation of the anti-democratic stance strengthens the perception that the main source of the problem is actually the political authority.

The world does not care about the national, ethnic, religious or ideological identities of the journalists whose freedoms are being restricted. The editors of The Washington Post have not opened their prestigious columns to Dumanlı due to a personal relationship.The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) did not give the International Press Freedom Award to Nedim Şener for nothing. The issue is a matter of principle. It is about professional solidarity and demonstrating a pro-freedom and moral stance. It is about taking a stance against pressure. As long as they don't use any weapon other than their pens, journalists cannot be imprisoned and cannot be treated as terrorists. Or else, the world would raise their voice against the treatment they face.

Democracy is a learning process. Turkish democracy is learning to stand on its two feet with ups and downs. It may take some time for everyone in Turkey to understand that journalists have democratic immunity.

We must honestly confront the mistakes we have made so far with regards to freedoms and make sure we do not to repeat them. This is valid for the Hizmet movement as well. It is promising to see intellectuals from different camps are starting to stand behind each other when freedom of the press and freedom of expression is restricted. This is a significant step towards breaking the cycle of polarization and building a consensus based on democratic principles.

Yes, the media make noise and journalists sometimes give one a headache. Yet, in the absence of a free media, a nation's ability to see, hear and think gets weakened. The people of such a nation benefit neither their country nor the world. That's why the international community intervenes in the wake of restriction of the free media. Hello Ankara, are you there?

Published on Sunday's Zaman, 04 January 2015, Sunday