Turkey now has handily outstripped China as the world’s biggest jailer of journalists, according to figures compiled by the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Every day is a new low for Turkey”. The jailings are the most obvious example of an effort to muzzle not just the free press, but free speech generally. More than 3,000 Turks have faced charges of insulting the president, including a former Miss Turkey. Months of human and civil rights abuses Turks have experienced since July’s failed military coup.
But what happened last Monday was different.
At dawn that morning, several journalists working for Cumhuriyet, Turkey’s oldest and most consistently outspoken newspaper, were arrested in their homes and taken into custody on charges of “aiding terrorism”; there are arrest warrants for five more.
Erdogan’s government has shut down 185 media outlets and detained more than 100 journalists in the past few months . And since Cumhuriyet has been highly critical of the government for years it was inevitable that it would find itself in the line of fire.
But the news struck an emotional blow more severe than anything to have occurred during the relentless erosion of press freedom since July — or, arguably, since the Gezi Park protests of June 2013. It is difficult to convey the social significance the paper has in Turkey.
Others 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.
In addition to the jailings here, some 150 news outlets have been shuttered, ranging from TV stations to online enterprises, according to Erol Onderoglu, the Turkish representative for Reporters Without Borders. But probably the most corrosive long-term effect of the crackdown has been a highly effective government push for businessmen who are loyal to it to take over ownership of many of the remaining outlets, turning them into avid cheerleaders for Mr. Erdogan and his policies.
In Turkey, an oppositional press is an inconvenient reminder that the actions of a democratically elected leader are not necessarily democratic, especially if most voters see only the filtered version of events provided by government mouthpiece papers and news channels. “There is no more critical journalism, 90 percent of the free press is destroyed directly or indirectly,” Mr. Onderoglu said. “Investigative journalism is considered treason. Journalism has been stolen by the government.”Asked for comment, a senior government official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with official policy, maintained that the journalists in jail in Turkey were there for criminal and terrorist offenses, not for their journalism. He also said there remained many publications in Turkey that were critical of the government.
As the author of Turkish awakening commented , “Mr Erdogan is popular, certainly — his party won 49 per cent of the vote in the general election in November last year. But popular sovereignty without the rule of law is tyranny, and Turkey today in effect has no rule of law”.