The freest press in the world
Turkey rarely runs out of bitter political irony. At exactly the same moment as Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu was reading out his government’s program in parliament live on television, a news channel ran the typical “breaking news” ticker: “Prosecutors demand up to 20 years in jail for [Cumhuriyet] journalists [Can] Dündar and [Erdem] Gül.” As the ticker kept running on the screen, Mr. Davutoğlu was promising Turkey universal values on civil liberties and press freedoms.
Just a couple of weeks earlier, Mr. Davutoğlu told CNN International’s Christiane Amanpour that freedom of the press and intellectual freedoms are his “personal redlines.” What would have happened if they were not? Mr. Davutoğlu said: “First of all, I was a columnist in the 1990s when I was in academic life. So freedom of the press and intellectual freedom are redlines for me … If there’s an attack on any intellectual or columnist or a journalist, I will be the advocate of that. I can assure you this.” We all remain assured. We never doubted that. It’s just that every time a government bigwig boasts of media freedoms, some journalist has his unlucky day, often in courtrooms, if he is lucky; or in jail, if not.
In December 2014, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan proudly said that “Nowhere in the world is the press freer than it is in Turkey. I’m very sure of myself when I say this.” Perhaps he went a little bit too far. The American press, too, is one of the freest in the world: For instance, in America a journalist can insult the president of the United States. And, Mr. Erdoğan would surely respond, in Turkey, too, a journalist can insult the president of the United States.
In “free” Turkey, a journalist can criticize, condemn, insult, humiliate or even threaten opposition parties and politicians, foreign statesmen, foreign countries, foreign nations, non-Muslim religions (including non-Sunni Muslims), ethnic minorities, secularists, atheists and gays. From that point of view, Messrs. Erdoğan and Davutoğlu are absolutely right to claim that nowhere in the world is the press freer than it is in Turkey. Turkish journalists, unlike their Western peers, can even enjoy the liberty to direct hate speech against anyone belonging to those groups.
In May 2014, then-Foreign Minister Mr. Davutoğlu said: “We expect our journalists to be brave enough to say that we are not North Korea.” No one had gone as far as to claim that Turkey was in the same league as North Korea in press freedoms – no matter how hard its leaders tried to make it as such. But what exactly did Mr. Davutoğlu expect from us journalists? Write up thousands of column inches telling our readers that it is wonderful that we are not North Korea?
Journalists Dündar and Gül – hopefully – will eventually be released. But the charges against them and the fact that they are now in jail for journalism will remain in the archives forever. They are being charged with aiding terrorist activity and military espionage – by documenting on their front page how the Turkish state was sending trucks full of arms to unknown groups in Syria – the Turkmens, according to the government; “moderate” jihadists, according to others.
In many ways, the indictment is a bitter amusement, like the country itself. Aiding acts of terror just by running a scoop on the first page? Where are the guns and bombs? Page 21? Espionage in favor of a foreign country or countries? Which country or countries are they? Why did the “spies” publish state secrets instead of handing them over to their foreign controllers? Has any spy ever published news stories in order to relay secrets to foreign countries in the history of espionage?
All the same, Mr. Davutoğlu was right: Turkey is not North Korea. We send journalists to jail on charges of espionage for news stories that have been written. Over there, they execute journalists on charges of espionage for news stories that were never published. Happy?