Freedom of press in ‘New Turkey’

Freedom of press in ‘New Turkey’

Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, with his almond mustache and typical Pinocchio smile on his face was boasting at an Ankara meeting how under his government, Turkey will be steered to a prosperous centennial of the republic and beyond. At the eastern city of Erzurum, some 870 kilometers away from the Turkish capital, Prime Ministry Press and Information Directorate executives were busy deleting the names of journalists working at certain media outlets from the list of invitees to a meeting designed to explore problems of the Turkish media. This is the “New Turkey.”

The appointment of Mevlut Çavuşoğlu as foreign minister and Volkan Bozkır as the European Union minister was celebrated by many in Turkey as a sign Turkey might gear back to a reform process reminiscent of the 2002-2004 period. Why? Because Bozkır, a former ambassador was known to be a “liberal” personality, while Çavuşoğlu has been quite experienced in European politics and developed a reputation of a man with integrity capable of embracing opponents.

Alas, after the presidency and the Prime Ministry – even though scores of government establishments followed suit immediately, the Foreign Ministry became the first among ministries to apply the so-called “accreditation practice,” which indeed was nothing but a de facto act of censorship and a blatant breach of the constitutional right to have access to news, fundamental in democracies.

Oct. 28, only a day after the National Security Council met under the leadership of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan for the first time, to the shock of diplomatic correspondents, Foreign Ministry security guards barred the diplomatic correspondent of a newspaper frequently accused by the president of being the flagship of the Fethullah Gülen Islamist brotherhood, or the so-called “parallel state.”

The atmosphere of fear in the country was so intense that professional organizations established to achieve solidarity within the profession could not utter a critical word against the government. It was accustomed practice anyhow, if journalists or their newspapers or TV stations refuse to budge the authority and engage in an allegiant relationship, they could be barred from government offices, party buildings, even from convention halls. Why would an association raise its voice alone and become a target of the mighty absolute ruler as well?

Associations living on state subsidies and funds the fate of which is left to the arbitrary will of the political authority unfortunately can produce nasty results. Worse, an association chairperson aligned with the political authority and awarded in various forms for his/her cooperation may find it difficult and expensive to take action against such gross infringement of constitutional rights and freedoms.

Remember the famous “First they came...” poem of Friedrich Gustav Emil Martin Niemöller (Jan. 14, 1892-March 6, 1984), a Protestant pastor and a social activist: 

“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out –
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out -
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out –
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me - and there was no one left to speak for me.”

Unfortunately, the “accreditation” illness of the political authority is continuing with an escalating tendency ever since it burnt bridges with its former ally, the Gülenists after the February 2012 interrogation of intelligence chief standoff. Since Erdoğan became a presidential candidate things became even worse and now with his instruction, Gülenists are replacing or substituting the separatist terrorists in the national security document as the “prime threat” the country is facing.

A journalist was turned down from the door of the Foreign Ministry, few journalists were not allowed to enter an Erzurum national meeting on problems of media, or leading journalists of the country being denied access to key political executives are of course “exceptional individual cases” that ought not to be generalized. What’s important is what great strides the country is achieving to become a prosperous and advanced economy when it marks its 2023 centennial.

Press freedom? Do we need it? For what? How much might it cost?