Erdogan government putting pressure on Turkish journalists
Istanbul - There are times when Emrah Ulker gets a fright when he hears someone walking in the door. Ulker, foreign news editor at Ozgur Dusunce, a daily newspaper in Istanbul, remembers police storming the building of his former newspaper Bugun when the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan took over the publication.
“We expect the police to turn up here any day,” Ulker, 44, said as he sat at his desk in the Ozgur Dusunce newsroom. “We are not an opposition newspaper. We are a normal one. Being a normal newspaper makes us a target.”
Erdogan’s Turkey has come under severe criticism for what the president’s detractors say is increasing pressure on the media. Like Bugun in 2015, Zaman, another daily critical of the government, was put under the control of court-appointed trustees in March. Both newspapers suddenly became pro-Erdogan outlets. Prominent journalists Can Dundar and Erdem Gul were put on trial on March 25th for publishing an article about alleged arms shipments by Turkey to Syrian rebels.
Reporters Without Borders, a media freedom advocacy group, ranks Turkey 149th out of 180 countries in an index measuring press freedom. Since becoming president in 2014, Erdogan has launched nearly 2,000 lawsuits against journalists and others for alleged insults against him. Emma Sinclair-Webb, senior Turkey researcher at Human Rights Watch, said the takeover of Zaman, which followed the blocking of two television stations critical of the government, was “the latest blow to free speech in Turkey”.
The government denies that there is any such pressure on the media. Erdogan has said Turkish media were freer than those in any other country. Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has argued that proceedings against Bugun and Zaman as well as the Dundar and Gul trial were actions by an independent judiciary and outside the government’s control.
But Ulker said the reality was different. Reporters at Ozgur Dusunce, whose name means “Free Thought”, have been denied press cards by the government and are barred from attending government news conferences.
Ulker, a journalist with 20 years’ experience, said government officials refuse to talk to his reporters. “If I meet an official by chance, say on the bus or somewhere else, he will act as if he doesn’t know me,” Ulker said. He said companies were not taking out ads in Ozgur Dusunce for fear of government reprisals. The paper was surviving on the income generated by selling about 50,000 copies every day.
Like Bugun and Zaman before the takeovers, Ozgur Dusunce is seen as being close to the Hizmet movement of Fethullah Gulen, a US-based Islamic preacher who used to support Erdogan but broke with him in 2013. Erdogan has accused Gulen of plotting to overthrow the elected government, a charge Gulen denies. Thousands of Gulen followers have been purged from the judiciary and the police force. Numerous supporters of the movement have been arrested in what Gulen associates say is a witch-hunt.
Reports said a court in Istanbul accepted a charge sheet by prosecutors against media mogul Aydin Dogan, owner of the high-selling Hurriyet newspaper, the CNN-Turk news channels and other media. Erdogan supporters say Dogan media side with government critics. The prosecution is calling for a 24-year jail sentence for Dogan in connection with business irregularities concerning a chain of petrol stations he owns.
Erdogan personally filed a criminal complaint against Dundar and Gul after their newspaper, Cumhuriyet, published the story about alleged arms shipments. At the trial in Istanbul, the prosecution is asking life-in-prison sentences be given the journalists. The court accepted Erdogan as a plaintiff at the trial and ordered closed sessions. Erdogan blasted Western diplomats who attended the opening of the trial in support of press freedom.
Critics say pressure on the media demonstrates that Turkey is no longer governed by the rule of law. “Judges and prosecutors are really public servants of the government,” said Aydin Engin, a veteran journalist at Cumhuriyet. In Turkey, journalists had to decide “whether to be on the government’s side or to do their job”.
Ulker said he and the four dozen other journalists at Ozgur Dusunce were acutely aware that the government was watching. He said the newspaper had hired a lawyer and that editors were looking for details in articles that could trigger trouble. When quoting opposition politicians, for example, it was sometimes advisable to end the quote by writing “he claimed” instead of “he said”, Ulker explained.
Ulker said his newspaper was trying to do the best it could under the circumstances. “We are very careful, from the headlines down to the pictures we are using,” he said. “We don’t feel as free to report on our country like German, British or Greek reporters can report about their respective countries. These are hard times.”