by Michael van der Galien
Now that most protests have come to an end and the rest of the world is focusing on Egypt rather than Turkey, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has decided that the time is ripe for some good, old-fashioned revenge. Turkish style.
As I reported earlier for FrontPage Magazine, it started early in July, when a few journalists were publicly harrangued for their coverage of the protests in Gezi Park. One of them was even publicly called a “traitor“ by the mayor of Ankara, a member of the prime minister’s party, the AK Parti (Justice and Development Party).
In the following weeks, as many as 22 journalists and columnists have been fired since the start of the famous protests in Istanbul and other major Turkish cities. Thirty-seven others had to accept a “forced leave of absence,” meaning that they had to pretend to enjoy some precious off-time, while they, in fact, were desperate to get back to work.
One of the fired columnists is Yavuz Baydar from the daily Sabah. His first mistake was, as Sabah’s ombudsman, publishing letters from readers that criticized the government’s stance on the protests. After that he went even further by writing a column related to the protests and media-government relations. The editorial board refused to publish his piece, however.
At that moment, Baydar decided to take a leave of absence. Instead of keeping silent about the stranglehold in which the government holds the media, he decided to speak out. In a column for the New York Times, he explained that media moguls are undermining the “basic principles of democracy” in Turkey. He added that media “bosses fear losing lucrative business deals with the government.”
After having written the opinion piece for the New York Times, Baydar once again tried to get a similar critical column published in Sabah. Instead, he was fired.
Many other journalists have have gone through the same ordeal in the last few weeks. And they are the lucky ones. According to Reporters Without Borders’ (RWB) World Press Freedom Index, the situation has gotten so out of hand that Turkey is now “the world’s biggest prison for journalists.” Yes, the country beats Afghanistan, North Korea, China, Iraq and Iran in that regard. Of course more journalists may be killed in some of those countries, but with regards to locking them up, Turkey leads them all.
Apparently, Erdogan is quite happy with that remarkable record. Instead of backing down, his government is arresting even more people. Not only journalists, but whomever has the audacity to criticize the AKP. For instance, nine more Twitter- users and protesters, living in five different cities, were recently detained.
At the same time, two “suspects” were sent to court on July 30 to face charges of “opposing the law on public marches and demonstrations.” Their crime? They had organized an iftar dinner in Gezi Park. An iftar dinner is the evening meal that breaks the fast during Ramadan. Erdogan organizes such dinners for his own supporters, but when those critical of him try to do the same they are considered enemies of the state, and quickly detained.
University students are in trouble too, for it was announced Tuesday that students who engage (or engaged) in “resistance, stage boycotts, chant slogans or become involved in similar activites” will no longer be granted student loans. The Higher Education Loans and Dormitories Institution (KYK) says that such activities constitute “a violation of the right to an education.”
Note how the KYK uses words such as “anarchy” and “terrorism”: These are the same phrases Erdogan uses to describe the Gezi Park protesters. When he is not calling them “piteous rodents,” that is. Somewhat surprisingly, this report was later denied by Youth and Sports Minister Suat Kilic.
However, according to Hurriyet Daily News, the anti-protesting policy has been in place for several years, but has simply not been implemented. That might, the Turkish English-language newspaper says, change this year around.
Going after students in this fashion would undoubtedly make sense to the increasingly paranoid and authoritarian Erdogan since the protests were led by them and soccer (football) supporters … which leads me to another measure the AKP government may take according to the Interior Minister: outlawing “chanting political or ideological slogans at stadiums/matches.” If Erdogan and his allies have their way, no opinions critical of the AKP will be heard on campus, in stadiums, in parks, or on the streets. In other words: anywhere.
If Erdogan continues down this path, freedom of speech will be no more in Turkey. Sadly, I have little reason to believe that terrible fate can be averted. There still are no alternatives for voters who have had enough of the AKP, except the notoriously corrupt (secular) CHP and the radically-nationalist MHP. For many, that isn’t a choice at all.
Additionally, increasingly more people are allowing the government to silence them out of fear for their livelihoods. After all, students want – no, need – loans and journalists need to make money. Rather than growing a backbone and continuing their resistance regardless of the price to be paid, many opt for the easy way out: remaining silent, not saying a word about what they really think.
That’s why the freedom of speech may not only be on trial in Turkey, but may very well have already been sentenced to death. The prosecution and the judge want to end its life, and dissenting jurors, who understand what is at stake, are too afraid to intervene on the defendant’s behalf.
Michael van der Galien
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