Grotesque though it looks, Erdogan’s anti-terror strategy focuses not only on potential and actual terrorists, it equally targets those who, especially journalists, refuse to unconditionally subscribe to the official narrative and ask questions that challenge it. Blamed for holding ‘anti-state’ views, Turkey has incarcerated at least 81 journalists since the failed coup attempt in July, according to the records of CPJ. In Turkey, media freedom has been under siege since early 2016, with authorities arresting, harassing, and expelling journalists and shutting down or taking over news outlets. Many of these outlets were forcibly shut down due to their questioning of the way Turkey was (mis) handling the menace of terrorism. This ‘media silencing’ campaign has left Turkey’s as perhaps the least democratic government of all the democracies. As of today, Turkey has the highest number of journalists in jails than any other country, rendering it as centralized and exclusive a polity as any dictatorship.
Among those behind bars in Turkey are Mehmet Baransu, a former columnist and correspondent for the daily Taraf, who reported extensively on a previous coup plot. He is accused of, among other crimes, obtaining secret documents, insulting the president, and being a member of a terrorist organization. The most recent set of charges against him carry a maximum sentence of 75 years in prison.
Turkish authorities have also subjected Kurdish journalists to a fresh round of arrests and trials, in addition to shutting down pro-Kurdish news outlets. Zehra Doğan — a reporter for Jin News Agency, which is staffed entirely by women — was arrested in Southeast Turkey on the site of urban warfare between Turkish security forces and ethnic-Kurdish fighters. The state’s evidence consists of testimony from people saying they saw Doğan talking with people in the street and taking photos, according to interrogation records and an indictment that CPJ has reviewed.
Some other journalists have been convicted of terrorism charges for reporting on a 2015 scandal in which Mr. Erdogan’s government was accused of supplying weapons to the Islamic State, which it is now fighting in Syria. One of those is Cumhuriyet’s former editor in chief, Can Dundar, who was free on appeal when he announced in August that he was not returning from a trip to Germany, saying he could not expect a fair trial in the wake of the coup attempt.
“Never has there been such a dark period as this,” said Ayse Yildirim, a Cumhuriyet columnist, who found out by accident that criminal charges had been lodged against her for reporting on a Kurdish baby killed by a police bullet at a protest.
According to a separate report of Human Rights Watch, “by December 2016, 140 media outlets and 29 publishing houses had been shut down via emergency decree, leaving more than 2,500 media workers and journalists unemployed. Hundreds of government-issued press accreditations have been cancelled and without accreditation journalistic activity in Turkey can be impeded. An unknown number of journalists had their passports revoked, thus banning them from all foreign travel.”
The report continues to claim that Turkish officials are using “criminal justice system to prosecute journalists for terrorism, insulting public officials, or crimes against the state.” Besides it, the report further claims that the government is using threats and launching physical attacks to pressurise media outlets and editors into writing pro-government editorials and even firing the ‘undesiring’ journalists.
Certainly, such a policy isn’t going to help Erdogan win the fight against terrorism—a fight that he is assumed to have changed his previous policies against, departing from exclusively supporting Assad’s ouster to partially supporting his stay in power.
Notwithstanding Turkey’s changed regional position, no such change has occurred in the domestic political arena. On the country, as the latest news of the burning to death of two Turkish soldiers by ISIS broke out, Turkish media was silenced by the authorities and the news was taken off the air in an apparent attempt to diffuse the news as false and fabricated.
However, were this the case, what explains the deliberate the crackdown on the internet? In an apparent attempt to stop news and pictures of the immolations spreading on social media, Turkey’s authorities launched an unprecedented crackdown on Internet sites, blocking Twitter and Facebook for hours. Access was barred to VPNs, the virtual private networks used by thousands of Turks to bypass the government ban on social media. As part of tightening control on the Internet, Prime Minister Binali Yildirim announced plans to introduce a Turkish search engine.
Therefore, while Turkish officials have denied that IS has burned Turkish soldiers to death in Syria, there is nothing that explains the sudden disappearance of the news of burning soldiers from the media or even the fact that identity of the soldiers has been kept hidden.
According to the last reports appearing on the media, the father of Sefter Tas, one of the soldiers, who said that he had recognized film footage of his son but had no word from the authorities about his fate.
Even the identity of the other soldier who died was unclear with speculation that he might have been an agent captured on an undercover mission to infiltrate ISIS.
With Turkey being repeatedly bombed by terrorists, what it needs is support from within to counter them. Erdogan’s exclusivism would only serve to create more friction and political instability, which in turn would directly serve the purpose of those willing to punish Turkey—and those supporting terror networks in the region according to Erdogan— for what it has done in the past (supporting ISIS and other networks) and is doing now (targeting ISIS) in Syria.
Targeting journalists on criminal and terror charges would only serve to complicate the war on terror that Turkey is currently immersed in. By charging journalists on terror charges, Erdogan is creating more ‘terrorists’ and a huge menace that would serve only to destabilize the country and render it more vulnerable than ever before.
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.