Turkey's War on Journalists

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A scathing report by the Committee to Protect Journalists is too late to make a difference.

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Journalists and their supporters protest the arrests of journalists in Ankara in March of 2011. (Umit Bektas/Reuters)

The October 22 report on Turkey issued by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CJP) is getting lots of attention, and rightly so. Amid the growing clamor over Turkey's media crackdown, the CPJ slammed Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's government for jailing (by its count) 76 journalists, 61 of whom are in prison as a direct result of their writing or reporting, mainly on Kurdish issues. The CPJ stated what many seasoned Turkey observers have known for awhile, which is that Erdoğan and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) have used overly expansive terrorism laws to staunch criticism of the government and intimidate the press into self-censorship.

The CPJ report is a welcome development, but it unfortunately comes too late. Not only is the harsh spotlight that the CPJ trained on Turkey unlikely to ameliorate the problem, it is in fact more likely that the government's response will be to retrench rather than to let up in its assault on journalists and free speech. The political environment is such that Erdoğan feels that he has more to lose now by admitting that his government has taken an undemocratic turn when it comes to restrictions on free speech, although this would not have always been the case had organizations like the CPJ been paying closer attention in the not too distant past.

Five short years ago, the AKP was a lot more vulnerable to this type of critique. Turkey was coming off a series of wide-ranging political and social reforms that had been passed as part of the European Union accession process, and the AKP had in fact been initially elected by running on a stridently pro-EU platform. The Erdoğan government was reluctant to do anything that would endanger this process, and condemnation from Western governments and NGOs was taken seriously. Furthermore, the AKP was in the midst of a reelection campaign and, like any other political party in a democracy, more attuned to criticism.

On top of all of this, the seeds for the government's subsequent - and unfortunately short-lived - Kurdish Opening were being sown, and Ankara was demonstrating its willingness to rethink its Kurdish strategy and try to solve the longstanding tensions between the government and its Kurdish citizens. These variables all combined to create an environment in which a tough critique on freedom of speech, and particularly one so wrapped up in Kurdish issues, would have had a chance of moving the needle.

Today, however, is a vastly different story. To begin with, the pressures associated with EU membership have dissipated. It has become increasingly clear to Turks that the EU is not inclined to grant membership to Turkey any time soon, making threats about the need for Turkish reforms ring hollow.

Even if that were not the case and Turkey's accession was not being held up, the financial crisis decimating the Eurozone has given Ankara pause as its own economy has been one of the great growth stories of the last half decade. In fact, the disparity between the Turkish and EU economies has been so great that Turkey has informally adopted the position that Europe needs it more than it needs Europe, and thus the threat of authoritarian backsliding harming its EU bid no longer carries the weight that it once did.

Erdoğan's near-term political goals also factor into what is likely to be Turkey's non-responsiveness to the lambasting from the CPJ. Whereas in 2007 Erdoğan was first and foremost concerned with consolidating the AKP's gains and building on its first electoral victory by getting reelected, now his eye is on a different prize following the AKP's third consecutive victory last year and its largest vote share. Erdoğan is currently aiming to rewrite Turkey's constitution, which is a much-needed initiative, but in the process create a newly empowered and directly elected president with the intention of serving as the first occupant of the office.

Because the AKP fell three seats short in the Grand National Assembly of being able to complete this process by itself, Erdoğan has indicated on numerous occasions that he will band together with the nationalist MHP to get the votes he needs. While Erdoğan will get to create a presidential system, the MHP wants a set of nationalist policies in return, and this primarily means that the government will keep the pressure on the Kurds and snuff out any nascent Kurdish nationalism or calls for Kurdish autonomy. It also means that when outside organizations call for the government to relax its restrictions on journalists reporting on Kurdish issues and the PKK, these calls will fall on deaf ears.

Finally, this summer and fall's ramped up and increasingly bloody war against the PKK and the general turmoil in southeastern Turkey means that Ankara will not have much patience for criticisms of its anti-terrorism policies, which include the press laws highlighted by the CPJ. Since the breakdown of the Kurdish Opening, Erdoğan's new strategy has largely been to hope that a military eradication of the PKK will put an end to Turkey's Kurdish problem. He has doubled down on this thinking in the wake of recent PKK terrorism. Backing away from asserting that imprisoned journalists are materially supporting the PKK would be a partial admission that this heavy-handed strategy is not working and that Kurdish nationalism is not going to just melt away if the PKK is defeated. This is an admission that Erdoğan will not make.

Turkey's hounding of journalists and efforts to censor the press have been going on ever since the AKP came to power, and they are not going to stop now. More likely is that Ankara is going to portray the CPJ's criticism as inaccurate and as external meddling in Turkey's affairs, and its restrictions on freedom of speech will not abate at all. While the CPJ's effort to highlight serious abuses by the Erdoğan government is admirable, it is unfortunately also overdue and thus destined to be ineffectual.

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Michael Koplow

Michael J. Koplow is the program director of the Israel Institute and a Georgetown University Ph.D. candidate in Government specializing in the Middle Eastern politics and democratization. He has written for Foreign Policy and Security Studies, and writes regularly at Ottomans and Zionists.

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