November 16, 2015

Free press under Turkey’s autocratic regime

Abdullah Bozkurt

With a fractured opposition, a media under immense pressure, a frightened business community and a civil society in retreat because of the witch hunt by the Islamists against anybody who dares to utter “rule of law,” “fundamental rights” and “democratic principles,” Turkey has transformed into an autocratic regime of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

This autocratic regime has been using the same demonizing campaign against the free, independent and critical media just like his other past and contemporary authoritarian peers in order to neutralize chunks of the political opposition by suffocating critical and alternative voices. The culling season on journalists, declared by the political Islamists, showed no sign of abating even when Turkey was hosting the G-20 leaders in a high-profile summit in Antalya where the US and EU leaders were posing with Erdoğan in smiley and cheerful photo ops.

The highly popular Samanyolu Broadcasting Group, which owns 13 national TV stations, had to close shop on the first day of the summit when Erdoğan orchestrated an unlawful removal of the networks from the state-run satellite company Türksat in violation of the long-term contract without even bothering to obtain a court order. Close to 900 journalists in this major media outlet that has been around for decades lost their jobs overnight, leaving them and their families out in the cold. Nobody seemed to have been bothered with this outrageous event at the G-20, which was obviously overshadowed by the senseless and tragic killings in Paris by the vicious terrorist group that calls itself the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

The Samanyolu network saga was preceded by yet another unlawful seizure of the third major media outlet some three weeks ago when the government engineered the unlawful takeover of the Koza İpek Media Group, which owns two TV networks, two national dailies and one radio station. Close to 100 journalists, including the top editors and managers, were summarily fired by the Islamists and neo-nationalists who were appointed as caretakers to turn the media into another government mouthpiece. This media group was quickly added to a huge pool of Erdoğan's propaganda machinery that already controls some 20 national TV stations and about a dozen newspapers.

Now, credible sources suggest that Erdoğan will go after the largest fish in the media market by orchestrating another unlawful takeover. Feza Publishing Company, which owns best-selling national publications such as daily newspapers Zaman and Today's Zaman, the weekly magazine Aksiyon and the leading privately funded news agency Cihan. As expected, the government will make up an excuse with trumped-up charges to make that happen just as it did for dozens of critical journalists who have been languishing in jail without a trial for months. The anti-terror, espionage and coup charges that are typical accusations one might find in authoritarian and autocratic regimes will also be leveled against Feza. Since there is no independent and impartial judiciary left in the country to challenge the government's unlawful acts, their fate is already sealed.

It is clear that Erdoğan is determined to suffocate what is left of critical independent media outlets in Turkey with the hope that his regional and global political Islamist project, however obscure and misguided it may be, will proceed unhindered. With the critical media out of his way and the rule of law in suspense, existing governmental and nongovernmental organizations that refuse to follow his political Islamist line will be an easy target for Erdoğan. Ironically, the president levels the barrage of false accusations against members of the Gülen or Hizmet movement, charging the group with establishing a "parallel structure," a great hoax in Turkey, when in fact he has been driving a campaign of a parallel structure for himself by setting up a shadowy government, partisan judiciary and paramilitary force.

Despite the fact that Erdoğan has amassed so much power in his hands, his regime nevertheless remains on shaky ground, primarily due to economic challenges, a hardened political opposition and simmering social discontent. The president's personal paranoia about losing power, coupled with the regime's unrelenting efforts to blame critics at home and foreign governments, especially the West, have made it more difficult to govern some 80 million people. Rather than solving the country's urgent problems and mobilizing the nation with a conciliatory approach, Erdoğan is bent on pursuing the witch hunt as part of a personal vendetta and increasing the polarization in society.

The next step in Erdoğan's campaign would be to go after critics in his own camp in order to show the hazards of fraternization with the perceived enemies. The president's propaganda machinery has already started targeting several Islamist politicians, pro-government journalists and intellectuals in a demonizing campaign after they expressed what appear to be mild criticisms of the government. As this devolves into an intra-party witch hunt, the cracks will deepen in Erdoğan's camp. That will further boost the sentiment in Turkey across the board for the need to make a change even after his favorite party secured the majority in Parliament.

In a democratic regime, the position of media freedom reflects that of good governance, accountability and transparency. Without a free, independent and critical press, the government as we know it in the Turkish parliamentary democracy will not be able to sustain itself. The free media is the barometer of Turkish democracy and currently shows a storm is in the making. As the mercury rises commensurate to rising pressure on Turkish society with all the release valves shut-off by the Islamists, a social eruption in Turkey is more likely than ever.

Published on Today's Zaman, 16 November 2015, Monday