October 14, 2015

Bülent Keneş and ‘unlimited freedom’

Ömer Taşpınar

Turkey has become a country where only foreign journalists are able to ask the president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, critical questions.

The handpicked local journalists attending presidential press conferences or official trips are sycophants who never have the courage to ask Erdoğan a question like the one asked by a Finnish journalist a couple of days ago. After that experience, I would not be surprised if the presidential press office starts screening questions from foreign journalists beforehand. This would be a pity because it is only thanks to such critical and direct questions from the foreign media that we are able to truly witness the delusional mindset of the leadership of the country. "People are afraid of you. There are people who say you're a dictator," the Finnish journalist said, before asking Erdoğan, "What do you say to that?"

Erdoğan's answer was surreal. After repeating the same refrain that such questions should prove he is not a dictator -- never mind he would never allow a critical Turkish journalist to ask him such questions -- he went as far as to claim Turkey is a country where there are unlimited liberties. Really? As most objective analysts of Turkish politics would attest, there is not much left in Turkey in terms of freedom of speech and freedom of opinion. Erdoğan may be entitled to his own opinion but he is certainly not entitled to his own facts. What unlimited liberties is Erdoğan talking about?

Turkey has become a country where you criticize Erdoğan and his government at your own risk. Dozens of journalists have lost their jobs for doing so. If we can speak of any kind of unlimited freedom, we must admit that those who criticize him on social media have unlimited freedom to enjoy a few days in prison, as the editor-in-chief of this newspaper, Bülent Keneş, recently did. Yes, Erdoğan, you are entitled to your opinions but not to your own facts.

It was very telling that Erdoğan asked the Finnish journalist what newspaper he represented. This is the kind of intimidation tactic that Turkish journalists regularly face. Erdoğan's natural reflex when he is criticized is to intimidate his critics. He has ridiculed himself by thinking the same method would probably work with the foreign media. This is where ignorance meets arrogance.

In the same answer he gave to the Finnish journalist Erdoğan also claimed he and his family members are the targets of relentless insults. He even had the chutzpah to say he "has been very tolerant of these insults in the past” and that he “continues to tolerate them." Again, really? Is Erdoğan delusional? Hundreds of people, including high school students and dozens of journalists such as Hasan Cemal, Yavuz Baydar and Keneş, are currently under investigation on charges of "insulting" the president. Turkey has now become a country where you tweet or even re-tweet at your own peril. Unless of course you want to have unlimited freedom to enjoy prison time.

But here is the most important point. Erdoğan can still claim to have a modicum of legitimacy. He can claim he is not a dictator because Turkey is a country where elections take place regularly and he is elected to office. Yet, it is equally clear that in an environment where critical journalists are regularly imprisoned and opposition media outlets are illegally suppressed, these elections are not free and fair. Add to this the fact that there is no rule of law or checks and balances on his increasingly presidential style of governance. What do you call leaders of countries where there is no rule of law, where journalists are imprisoned and criminals roam free, where there are no checks and balances, where the judiciary takes orders from the executive branch? You can answer the question freely if you want to enjoy "unlimited liberties" in a Turkish prison.

Published on Today's Zaman, 14 October 2015, Wednesday