Cold Turkey Limiting Freedom of Speech in Turkey

Sony Pictures' decision to release the controversial film The Interview spite of a series of cyber-attacks that thoroughly embarrassed the company has seemingly answered a fundamental question about the United States' commitment to free speech. By releasing the movie, the nation has affirmed that it will not be held hostage to what some have branded as cyber terrorism. When Sony initially announced its decision not to release the comedy, President Obama warned of the danger of appeasing "cyber vandals" thereby opening the door to other cyber aggressors.

While a slew of American actors, politicians and entertainers were lining up to offer their insights on what the company should do and the importance of free speech, they were regrettably silent about events taking place elsewhere in the world, namely Turkey where another surreal convergence of media, arts and politics is taking place in a preposterous way.

In recent weeks, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan has stunned much of the country with his treatment of the media. Authorities detained 27 people most of whom are media professionals including the editor-in-chief of the highest circulated newspaper, Zaman, and the president of Samanyolu Media Group, one of the nation's oldest and most popular TV channels. Among those taken into custody were the producer, screenwriters and directors of a popular drama series that aired on Samanyolu TV. After a few days, officials released most of the detainees however, Hidayet Karaca, the president of STV is still in jail. He stands accused of "being a member of an armed terrorist organization." While the charges against Karaca appear ludicrous to many people across the spectrum in Turkey, Erdogan has gone on the defensive.

In addition to criticizing the European Union for trying to make Turkey a political scapegoat for its criticism of these moves, Erdogan has steadfastly denied attempts by his administration to stifle dissent. "Nowhere in the world is the press freer than it is in Turkey," he proclaimed during a press conference on December 26. However, the evidence strongly suggests otherwise. TheI international Committee to Protect Journalists, for instance, reports that Turkey ranks tenth on its list of nations hostile to a free press. This is actually progress from 2012 and 2013 when Turkey ranked ahead of China and Iran on the same list. Erdogan's recent actions however threaten to set the nation back once again. Turkey likewise placed a disgraceful 154th on the World Press Freedom Index of 2014. This is indeed unfortunate for an administration that began with such promise.

In 2002, Erdogan rose to power as Prime Minister by mobilizing a large stratum of Turkish society who felt neglected and distrustful of mainstream politics. They embraced Erdogan's "democratic, practicing-Muslim" image and agenda, particularly, after his release from jail. His arrest ironically came for reading a poem, a not-so-different pretext his administration is presently using to justify the recent arrests. Many of Erdogan's supporters not surprisingly feel betrayed.

They believe he may be entering in an unfortunate if all too familiar phase of politics in which long-term leaders try to consolidate power at the expense of democratic practice. Efforts to centralize power under one ruler or system have traditionally eroded protections such as separation of powers during this stage. As the Turkish author Mustafa Akyol recently pointed out in a New York Times Op-Ed, Erdogan is on a mission of "nation-reshaping." He has targeted three crucial structures: judiciary, police, and the media for "reform" in what are more likely efforts by his administration to cover up serious corruption allegations. As a result, all three institutions have witnessed significant disruption. Given recent events the problems in the media have garnered the most attention. Currently, Erdogan directly or indirectly controls two-thirds of the news channels. He has also been supporting them financially by channeling half a billion dollars of advertisement money into these media corporations. This annual investment comes through government-controlled companies, such as banks, telecomm and housing entities. It goes without saying perhaps that he who pays the piper calls the tune. Simultaneously, the Ministry of Finance punishes private corporations that provide advertisement to the media outlets that are critical of the government. Furthermore, all of the governmental departments from the Presidency to Foreign
Ministry require media accreditation, which authorities deny to anti-governmental newspapers and TV channels effectively barring them from attending press conferences.

Such is the disappointing state of the press in Turkey where the Erdogan administration's actions have rightfully earned the suspicion of the Turkish people and democratic nations across the globe that fear, with good cause, that the assault on the media is only the beginning. Not all is lost for Erdogan yet. He could still show exemplary leadership by reaffirming in words his regime's commitment to personal liberties, the rule of law, and a free press and backing it up with actions that point toward a democratic future over what's swiftly becoming an autocratic present. However, with every attempt by Erdogan to justify his questionable actions the light of redemption and true democratic practice at the end of the Turkish tunnel dims with each passing day.