Turkey Pulse

The reason Erdogan champions press freedom abroad

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Article Summary
Defending Al Jazeera’s right to report becomes a double-edged sword for Erdogan, who suffocates free media in Turkey and struggles to remain friends with Saudi Arabia.

On June 22, Qatar received a list of 13 demands the Saudi-led coalition said must be met before they lift the regional blockade against Qatar. On June 27, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told the media that he supports Qatar’s refusal to discuss such demands. When asked about the most crucial items on this list for Turkey — requesting the closure of the Turkish military base in Qatar and ending any Turkish-Qatari military cooperation — Erdogan said these kinds of demands were against international law. Then he shrewdly brought the subject to another point on the list, which is not even remotely related to Turkey: the closure of Al Jazeera, Qatar’s state broadcaster. Erdogan said, “There is [global] talk of press freedom. Now I call upon all the global media networks, what are you waiting for? What are you good for? Right now, media freedoms of an international outlet [of Al Jazeera] are at risk, its activities are to be suspended. You [global media organizations] must make noise. But they are quiet.”

Erdogan’s sudden and angry outburst in defense of the Qatari network is perplexing for a couple of reasons. First, it is wrong: Al Jazeera’s reporting on June 23 shows that Erdogan is not even following the news. Several media outlets and rights groups have voiced their concerns about the demand that violates Al Jazeera’s freedom of expression. The Committee to Protect Journalists has called upon the Saudi-led coalition not to include Al Jazeera in their list of demands to normalize relations with Qatar. Daoud Kuttab, an International Press Institute (IPI) executive board member and Al-Monitor columnist, wrote a searing piece in The Washington Post opposing the attempt to silence Al Jazeera. Interestingly, Al Monitor’s columnist Kadri Gursel, who is IPI’s chair for Turkey and also an executive board member, is one of the jailed journalists in Erdogan’s Turkey.

It is rather ironic that on June 28, government-funded Anadolu Agency acknowledged and tweeted about UN Special Rapporteur David Kaye’s report in support of Al Jazeera, yet Kaye’s multiple warnings on press freedom and human rights in Turkey have been diligently ignored by the pro-government media for years.

To make matters more complicated, Erdogan’s love for the network is quite a change of heart. In 2011, Al Jazeera Turk was set up with high hopes and a significant amount of investment in Istanbul. It was gradually shut down in May 2017 because it failed to receive permission to launch properly and was only able to broadcast over the internet with a rather limited audience in Turkey.

One of the little-known causes for this failure was the fact that the Turkish government was not pleased with its broadcasting policies. Its first Turkish investor, Vural Ak, had a big budget and wide-ranging plans of even launching a sports channel for Al Jazeera Turk.

However, these dreams were not realized, as Vural Ak quit in early 2012 allegedly due to Al Jazeera’s insistence on referring to the Kurdistan Workers Party as a resistance organization, not a terrorist group.

During the last couple of years, Al Jazeera Turk was known for its pro-Justice and Development Party (AKP) broadcasting and dwindling viewership. Al Jazeera’s record in Turkey regarding freedom of expression is also mixed. For example, in 2013, there were allegations that eight journalists were fired from the network due to their tweets. With dozens of pro-AKP networks, Erdogan had little to no use for a foreign media outlet that he could not fully control. Another important point is that if Erdogan really believed in the Al Jazeera network, why did he not provide the support for the outlet to survive in Turkey? So could it really be about freedom of expression?

To put this question into perspective, we can take a brief look at the dramatically worsening situation in the Turkish media. Reporters Without Borders announced Turkey’s ranking as 155th among 180 countries in its 2017 Press Freedom Index. Turkey has regressed four levels in the last year and 56 in the last 12 years.

The data on Turkish journalists present a more depressing picture with each passing day. About 160 journalists are in jail, with more than 150 media networks permanently shut down by emergency government decrees since July 2016, and 2,500 media workers have been fired from their jobs. Along with financial and legal difficulties, journalists and publishers also face physical and verbal abuse.

Foreign journalists suffer as much as Turkish colleagues, facing deportation, arrest and other difficulties at an increasing rate.

Erdogan’s censorship has permeated all levels of society. Even top private colleges’ academic conferences are now designed around the government’s sensitivities. The latest case was from Koc University in Istanbul, when an academic paper that was accepted months ago and scheduled for presentation during the Turkey-Latin America Workshop was taken off the list due to “academic cowardice,” according to Yasemin Yilmaz, the paper’s author from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. It was Turkish academics who decided “politically sensitive topics” should best be avoided in humanities and social sciences. The most pressing question for academia then becomes: How and what can be studied in Turkish academia while avoiding jail during emergency law?

So why would Erdogan champion press freedom for a Qatari network given the increasingly worrisome picture in his own country? In other words, why does Erdogan act so blatantly hypocritical? The simple answer is it works for his end goals. Erdogan in his own careful wording in standing up against the closure of Al Jazeera did not directly target Saudi Arabia or the coalition. Hence, most of his base perceives this as an attack on an Arabic news channel from the West. With increasing xenophobia, it is easy to convince Turkish audiences that the West is shutting down media outlets and not respecting the freedom of expression.

In addition, it is Erdogan’s usual vexing pragmatism that has worked to his advantage for so long. For example, Germany’s refusal to grant space for Erdogan’s rallies is reported as an act of open aggression in pro-AKP Islamist media outlets. It is impressive how Erdogan can demand freedom of expression, association and assembly rights from Western countries but ever so persistently refuse them to his own citizens.

Erdogan might know that these tactics would not work against Saudi Arabia or other Gulf states, which do not subscribe to Western values of freedom of expression. But this kind of vague approach still helps Erdogan avoid targeting Saudi Arabia directly while defending Qatar. Under the cover of these tactics is Erdogan’s dilemma of how to keep friendly relations with the Saudis while not sacrificing the benefits of supporting Qatar.

Found in: Press freedom

Pinar Tremblay is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Turkey Pulse and a visiting scholar of political science at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. She is a columnist for Turkish news outlet T24. Her articles have appeared in Time, New America, Hurriyet Daily News, Today's Zaman, Star and Salom. On Twitter: @pinartremblay

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