Journalists are the “watchdogs” of democracy, according to the European Court of Human Rights. Anyone who wants to control a country without being troubled by criticism tries to muzzle reporters, and unfortunately, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is a past master at stifling the cries of freedom. As journalists from around the world converge on Antalya to cover this weekend’s Group of 20 summit, many of their Turkish colleagues are being denied accreditation.
Sidelining opposition media has become a bad habit in Turkey, which is ranked 149th out of 180 countries in the latest Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index. Four days before the Nov. 1 parliamentary elections, the police stormed Ipek Media Group headquarters and shut down its two opposition dailies and two opposition TV stations. After control of management had been secured and 71 journalists fired, these outlets resumed operations with a new editorial line verging on caricature. The dailies, Bugun and Millet, ran Erdogan’s photo on the front page along with the headlines “The president among the people” and “Turkey united.”
Journalism is being murdered. The fact that the AKP, the ruling party for the past 13 years, recovered an absolute majority in parliament has not sufficed to halt the oppression. Two days after the elections, two journalists were jailed on charges of “inciting an armed revolt against the state” in a story. Since then, some 30 other journalists have been placed under investigation for “terrorist propaganda” or “insulting the president” — the two most common charges.
On Nov. 17, 18 editors and publishers will go on trial for “terrorist propaganda” because of a photograph. They face up to 7½ years in prison. One of these journalists, Cumhuriyet editor Can Dundar , already stood accused of “spying” by Erdogan, who has vowed that Dundar “won’t get away with it.” His paper published evidence that Syria-bound trucks leased by Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization had, as suspected, been carrying arms.
For years, the growing concentration of media ownership in the hands of government allies has eroded pluralism and encouraged self-censorship. The authorities have also reined in the Internet. Following draconian reforms, the blocking of Web sites has become systematic. Turkey is responsible for more than two-thirds of the requests to Twitter to remove content. The government does not hesitate to block the entire YouTube platform.
These practices compound problems inherited from the years of military rule: laws restricting freedom of expression, a judicial culture centered on defense of the state and impunity for police violence. The metastasizing Syrian conflict and the resumption of fighting with Kurdish rebels have accentuated governmental paranoia about critical journalists. Far from defusing political and communal tension, the accelerating censorship and aggressive government rhetoric have sharpened it. Demonstrators egged on by the government’s discourse attacked the Istanbul headquarters of the daily Hurriyet twice in early September.
The G-20’s leaders must take stock of the course on which their host has embarked. They need a stable Turkey to help limit the spread of the Syrian chaos and to guarantee its people’s security and prosperity. The Turkish government must stop fueling tension and, for this, it is essential that the truth can be told. Reopening the space for democratic debate is essential for stabilizing the country. Freedom of information is part of the solution.