Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s security detail manhandled reporters and protesters at an event at which the Turkish president was speaking.
Turkish media and the president’s critics are by now used to such incidents, but they probably didn’t expect them to happen in Washington, D.C., where Erdogan was speaking at the Brookings Institution.
The altercation with journalists is merely a physical manifestation of what’s been happening to Turkey’s free press since Erdogan was elected president in 2014 (after more than a decade as prime minister). Since then, newsrooms deemed critical by the president have been attacked, journalists arrested and charged with espionage, an opposition newspaper has been seized, and foreign reporters deported and harassed for their coverage. Indeed, Freedom House, the pro-democracy advocacy group, says the press in the country is “not free” following a five-year decline in press freedom. Reporters Without Borders, the media-watchdog group, ranked Turkey 149 out of 180 countries in its 2015 World Press Freedom Index—an improvement from 154th place in 2014.
It’s probably worth pointing out a couple things here: Much of what the Turkish media is experiencing today is similar to what it went through under successive military governments. Erdogan, who is still very popular in Turkey, began his rule in 2003 as a reformer under whom the media thrived.
The situation has changed in Turkey, not least of which is the fact Erdogan is now president and attempting to increase his powers. But the situation around him has changed, too. Turkey’s heavy involvement in the Syrian Civil War (where it supports groups fighting against President Bashar al-Assad) and its campaign against Kurdish rebels, whom it views as terrorists, form the basis of much of the crackdown on media.
Exhibit A in this crackdown is Zaman, the country’s largest newspaper, which is closely linked to Fethullah Gulen, the influential U.S.-based cleric and former ally of Erdogan whom the Turkish president now views as the head of a terrorist movement. Earlier this month, a Turkish court—without providing a reason—placed Zaman under state control, effectively turning an opposition newspaper into a pro-government publication overnight.
Then there is the case involving Can Dundar, the editor of Cumhuriyet, and Erdem Gul, the newspaper’s Ankara bureau chief. Their newspaper published a story in May 2015 that alleged Turkey was shipping arms to Islamists in Syria.
Erdogan’s reaction: “The person who wrote this news shall pay a heavy price for it, I won’t just let it go.”
The two journalists were arrested in November and charged with espionage in connection with the story. Their closed-door trial, which began last week, has been adjourned until April 1. The journalists have denied the charges, but face a life sentence if found guilty.
Human Rights Watch, in a statement, said the trial “is about putting journalism itself on trial and is one of the most flawed prosecutions in Turkey in recent times.”
They were among 14 journalists arrested in 2015, double the figure from the previous year. The New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins counts at least 20 reporters who have been imprisoned, including about a dozen Kurdish journalists.
“It’s so hard to get information that we aren’t sure how many journalists have been detained,” Nina Ognianova of the Committee to Protect Journalists told Filkins. “The campaign is unrelenting.”
On Wednesday, that campaign made its way to the U.S. capital.