The world according to Erdogan
The recent ruling by a Turkish judge to send a German-Turkish journalist to pre-trial detention after 14 days in police custody appeared to confirm the level of intimidation of the media in Turkey and raised tensions between Berlin and Ankara.
The charges filed against Deniz Yucel, Turkey correspondent for Die Welt newspaper, were, more or less, of the same nature as previously applied to his Turkish and Kurdish colleagues: “Terrorist propaganda” and “incitement to hatred”.
He was asked during interrogation about news stories he filed about Kurds in Turkey but the real reason, as his lawyers said, is the “suspicion” that he belonged to a group of investigative reporters who dug into hacked e-mail correspondence of Berat Albayrak, Turkish Energy minister and son-in-law of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. At least seven of those reporters are in jail after being held in police custody for a month without being allowed to meet with their lawyers.
Yucel is, according to the figures of Platform for Independent Journalism (P24), an Istanbul-based non-governmental organisation, the 155th journalist imprisoned. This figure corresponds to more than 70% of the jailed journalists worldwide, data from Reporters Without Borders and Committee to Protect Journalists indicate. There are claims this is the highest such figure since global monitoring of press freedom began.
Yucel’s case is affecting already sensitive relations between Turkey and Germany. The German media, which previously raised the alarm about the situation of journalists in Turkey, urged Chancellor Angela Merkel to tell Erdogan that enough is enough. A diplomatic rift appears to be brewing with the Turkish ambassador summoned to the Foreign Ministry in Berlin.
The question is: Will Erdogan reset his relationship with the media and dissent? All bets are he will not.
He recently lashed out at Hurriyet, which has the highest circulation of any daily newspaper in the country. Erdogan objected to an article that reported “unease” within the Turkish military about the lifting of a ban on headscarves for female officers. “They will pay a heavy price for this impertinence,” Erdogan said.
Hours later, the Dogan Media Group, which owns Hurriyet, announced that its editor-in-chief had been fired. Many observers see this as the end of the relatively independent vestiges of the Turkish media.
Unsurprisingly, tensions with Europe are rising. The Venice Commission, an independent, highly respected body of experts on constitutional law within the Council of Europe, has issued its harshest report ever on Turkey. It has called for Ankara to postpone the referendum, set for April, that could give the president greater powers. It described the continuous assault on freedom of expression as unacceptable.
It is clear that Erdogan sees politics at home and abroad as a battlefield. He prefers to keep Turkey’s relations with allies and partners on a knife’s edge and drive a hard bargain. Turkish journalists insist that their imprisoned colleagues will be bargaining chips in Erdogan’s negotiations with the European Union.
Rifts with Europe are growing. Erdogan is not on friendly terms with Italy after his son, Bilal, was accused of money laundering and deported. Relations with Greece soured over an artificial crisis that revolved around the tiny Aegean islet Kardak. Turkey is arguing with Germany, Austria and the Netherlands about Turkish imams on Ankara’s payroll. They are accused of being part of a network that spies on Turkish citizens in those countries and reports back to Ankara.
If the world is Erdogan’s battlefield, Europe is the front line. In his push towards concentrating power, Erdogan wants to organise rallies in Germany and Austria, home to more than 1.5 million Turks with the right to vote in the referendum. However, politicians and the media in those countries are pushing back, arguing that Erdogan should not be allowed to export acrimony and polarisation.
This creates a problem: What mechanisms should democracies use to deal with leaders seen to be waging war on their values?