With Turkey’s ruling Islamists advocating secular democratic freedoms as the antidote to disgruntled constituents across the Middle East, critics question whether the Justice and Development party (AKP) is truly committed to the freedoms they preach. The basis for such doubts, the critics say, is a trend of diminishing press freedoms and an upsurge in state sanctioned religious doctrine. An estimated 100 journalists are behind bars in Turkey, many jailed for months without charge, making the moderate-Muslim country one of the leading foes of dissent worldwide. Meanwhile, the 2012 budget for the country’s Diyanet, or ministry of religious affairs, has been boosted 22.4 per cent to cultivate Sunni Islam.
Turkey has fallen ten places in the annual press freedoms index of Reporters Without Borders, which says the government must work quickly to reverse this trend or risk damaging its democratic gains: “Press freedoms will not improve as long as minority rights such as the Kurdish issue, Alevis’ religious rights and other minority rights remain a source of conflict,” says Erol Onderoglu from the media-monitoring body, noting an estimated 5,000 cases are currently pending against journalists in Turkey.
While Turkey’s image has been tarnished by such reports, the government emphatically denies any problem. In January, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that arrested journalists are not behind bars because of journalism but for crimes of sexual harassment or terrorism. At a party speech two weeks later, he set out his vision for Turkey’s future: “We will raise a conservative and democratic generation that embraces the values and historical principles of its nation.”
The Diyanet plans to hire 7,000 imams and install 2,000 more muezzins. Internet sites on Darwin’s theory of evolution can now be blocked by parents under the “child profile” Internet filtering system implemented by the Council of Information Technology and Communications last August.
Ozgur Gurbuz, an environmental reporter, says the explosion of private media owned by conservative big business is also somewhat responsible for mounting censorship in Turkey.
“These are dark days for Turkish democracy,” says broadcaster Cigdem Anad, who explained that in this environment journalists censor themselves to keep their jobs. “We practice self-censorship, not once, not twice, but three times. We’re afraid to speak our minds.”
Journalist and author Ece Temelkuran claims she recently lost her job at the HaberTurk daily for writing critically on an airstrike that mistakenly killed 34 Kurdish smugglers along the Turkish-Iraqi border in January. Temelkuran says that if the status quo continues, social unrest could follow, as the media shies away from issues such as diversity and self-criticism.
“Hypocrisy and violence will be the consequences of this censorship, ‘Others,’ or those who are different from the stereotype conservative Sunni Muslim, will become something unfamiliar. As we’ve seen before this ignorance can easily turn to violent action,” she says, citing the case of the Turkish Armenian editor Hrant Dink who was shot outside his office in 2007 by a nationalist youth.
Enter social media. Although the mainstream press is under siege, free speech is thriving online. According to a report by ComScore last year, Turkey ranks in the top ten countries of Twitter and Facebook users worldwide, suggesting that Internet users are embracing social media as a way to spread an alternative message. The turning point, says Temelkuran, was during the October earthquake in Van, which killed 279 people and injured 1300. “Twitter became a serious source of information during the earthquake,” she says. “Twitter users noted the suffering and cries for help, whereas pro-government media reported everything was under control.”
Another story driving the Twitter revolution is the Oda TV trial, an investigation into a group of journalists, writers and security officials accused of being members of a neo-nationalist terror group code-named Ergenekon that has allegedly formulated plans to overthrow the Islamic-rooted government.
The case involves Ahmet Sik and Nedim Sener, both well-known investigative journalists and authors. The two have been imprisoned for a year. Ironically, it was partly their writing that exposed anti-government plots, which led to the mass arrests of high-ranking military officers, ultimately empowering the civilian government and arousing a public historically indoctrinated by the military.
In January, Twitter became the main source of information on the trial as observers tweeted frantically from the courtroom, providing an unedited real-time version of the judicial proceedings not reported in the mainstream media. Twitter reports fueled opposition claims that the investigation is being used as a tool to silence dissent when a former police chief who is currently a suspect said in his own defense that he had been instructed during his career to follow the very journalists he stands accused of conspiring with.
“ETemelkuran: A former intelligence chief who is among the accused, admits he once gave orders to follow the journos. Laughter in the court! via @ttatari”
Twitter has empowered the people, says Temelkuran. “Before such political cases, Twitter was no more than a gossip room for Turkish people. But after journalists streamed from the court it became more like Twitter in the Arab world politically informing and mobilizing.” Temelkuran has over 200,000 followers on Twitter.
The authorities surely don’t believe that Turkish democracy has reached its final destination., President Abdullah Gul said in January: “Either we will lead by reform at home by putting our house in order, or foreign intervention will become inevitable.” This was likely aimed in part at the besieged Syrian regime, but with Qatar-based Al Jazeera due to launch its Turkish language channel later this year, he may do well to advise the prime minister to face his domestic critics; or perhaps an international broadcaster, not bound by the same editorial pressures, will do that instead.
Erdogan has become infamous for opening slander cases against journalists, cartoonists and even youth theatre groups that criticize his rule. He has promised to drop these cases but many remain open. Onderoglu of Reporters Without Borders warns, “the prime minister's daily pressures and intense polemics against the press lead us to believe that Arab countries could become an inspiration and a model for Turkey.”
Jody Sabral is a broadcast journalist, film maker and author. Based in Turkey for ten years, she has worked for the online English news service at Hurriyet, Aljazeera English, France24 and has also contributed to CBC Canada, Press TV, Iran's first 24-hour live news channel broadcast in English and Metropolis TV, an arm of VPRO the Netherlands.