Journalists will harm Turkey more in jail than on the run

Journalists will harm Turkey more in jail than on the run

“The reaction of the West - or its lack of reaction - to the coup seems to have pushed you to a nationalist line,” a friend told me after I complained about the Western media’s reporting about the situation of the press in Turkey.

Asking the right question, and the way you ask it, is crucially important in “good” journalism. 

So when someone asks me, “What happened in your office today? Did your editor-in-chief get arrested?” with a half-joking voice, I don’t find this question appropriate. When the next question is, “What do you do daily when you go to your office?” (believe me, they come from very respectable media outlets), I feel like I am in a zoo. A journalist from an advanced democracy is watching with interest and wonders how a journalist from a “non-democratic country” performs their job. 

The assumption in the West is that Turkey has become an autocratic “Erdoğanland,” where there is room for only pro-government media, genuine journalism is dead, and all critical journalists are persecuted. The questions are asked based on that preconception and to vindicate that preconception. 

“Isn’t that the case?” some might ask. I’d say, “We are facing a real risk of ending up like that, but we are not there yet.”

“You’re angry because in the eyes of the West, Turkey has fallen from the top league to the second league. And that is indeed the case, so don’t blame the wrong guys,” my friend told me.

Indeed. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s lust for power, his authoritarianism, and the fact that the Turkish society has not yet internalized democratic culture, have halted the consolidation process of Turkish democracy, which is now in a coma.

But approaching every development from the lens of “what is undemocratically new in the autocratic Erdoğanland” can land one in an unhealthy analysis of events. That’s what we saw happen after the coup. Many in the West hoped that the bad, Islamist Erdoğan would go and the good, secular military guys could come to power. But wait a minute… Ooh la la… It was not secular guys carrying out the coup, but the Gülenists! And who was Fethullah Gülen? Another Islamist, one who preaches peace and interfaith dialogue. Well, anyone but Erdoğan!

“The West and Turkey are no longer on the same page in terms of universal values. That has led them to have transactional relations with Turkey. They cooperate on issues like terror and refugees while paying lip service to issues of democracy,” my friend told me.

That may well be the case with governments, but what about the press? Aren’t they supposed to understand and explain what’s going on while avoiding bias and preconditioned generalizations?

In their eyes the current purge is nothing but an Erdoğan strategy to silence dissent. This is partly true, but not everything in Turkey stems from Erdoğan. 

Part of the problem also stems from the broad interpretation of terrorism in Turkey’s state tradition. The outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) is recognized even by Europe as a terrorist organization. The Fethullahist Terrorist Organization (FETÖ) only recently entered the Turkish lexicon. Until now it would have been fair to accuse Gülenists of “infiltrating the state.” With the coup (which left 241 dead and more than 2,000 wounded), they entered the element of violence. But is FETÖ a classic “terror organization?” Can all its sympathizers be called “members of a terror organization?”

“The milestone is 2013. Those who have not cut their links to Gülen will have to pay for it,” says the government. Ankara should give credit to those who think the government’s anger has stemmed from the December 2013 corruption accusations against its ministers. But it does not. Now, anyone somehow implicated with FETÖ becomes a target. What we currently see is a shameful process of “guilt by association.”
I can easily hear a Turkish official saying to a European counterpart: “It’s like is ISIL had more than 20 media outlets, universities, companies, etc. Wouldn’t you close them? One is about the propaganda of terror and the other is about the financing of terrorism.”

Turkey might have a more convincing case on the financing of terrorism. But propaganda for terrorism is an area where the European and Turkish interpretations differ. For Turkish prosecutors, working in a newspaper known to have links to Gülen is enough reason to open a case. Currently, most of the journalists under detention are those who have worked in Gülenist media. And the Turkish system does not differentiate between opinions that can be interpreted as incitement to violence or hatred.

Then comes the second malaise of the Turkish system: Trial under detention. The Turkish system does not differentiate between one who held a gun and one who held a pen. Long detention periods become a punishment for all. 

What about those journalists who have never worked for a media outlet linked to FETÖ or the PKK?

That’s where the Erdoğan factor and the loyalist prosecutors who are more royal than the king come in. The circle is kept large in order to intimidate the rest of the press. 

So where does all this put us? Turkish journalism has been facing and is continuing to face successive waves of anti-democratic practices. Despite the fact that the majority of the press is dominated by pro-government media, critical journalism is not yet dead in Turkey. It might be in a coma, but it is not dead yet.

And while the government thinks it is protecting itself by targeting journalists, it is actually doing more harm to the country.