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The arrest of Turkish journalist and mother of two, Arzu Yildiz, is merely one of many fierce crackdowns by the Turkish government on its media outlets.
Turkish journalist Arzu Yildiz has just been sentenced to serve twenty months in prison. According to her lawyer, in addition to the news that she will spend almost two years inside a cell, she has also been stripped of custody of her two young children.
What to make of it all? What exactly is Ms Yildiz’ crime? Is she a “bad” journalist? A bad mother? Or both? Normally you have to beat up your child, starve it or have it sexually abused by this week’s “uncle” to lose custody. And does it naturally mean that female journalists behaving “badly” make “bad” mothers?
If this seems far-fetched, keep in mind that this is real – a sentence from a judge in a court of law. The Turkish judiciary has always been fairly independent, so this will worry many in the Turkish legal profession as well.
Ever since the election of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as president in August 2014, the Turkish State has been involved in a major crack down on the media. It has seized control of opposition newspapers and TV channels, accusing them of terrorism and “related activities.” It is the Play-Doh for the legal wizards. There are unprecedented legal obstacles in the way of reporting on corruption and national security issues, and new laws have expanded state powers to block websites and to increase the surveillance powers of the National Intelligence Organization, MIT.
Since the revelations in the Panama Papers a number of public figures have published their tax returns, in the “spirit of openness.” But in Russia and Turkey, the exact opposite has happened. Robust laws have been implemented in Turkey against “insulting the President.” The joke – if that is the word – in Russia is that if Vladimir Putin doesn’t like it, you may end up in some one’s letterbox.
According to the US-based Committee for Protection of Journalists, 500 journalists have been fired on the grounds of breaking the new Turkish rules. 30 are in prison and 70 have been subjected to physical violence, harassment, threats and verbal abuse. These concern mainly Kurds, or those reporting on the Kurdish Question, which has plagued Turkey since its foundation as a secular republic in 1920. Kurdish separatism is another moveable feast and underwrites the comprehensive anti-terrorism laws. It has been the source of Turkey’s troubled human rights record.
One case – and Kurd free – that has attracted worldwide attention is that of two prominent journalists who have just been sentenced to at least five years in prison, pending further possible charges. Can Dündar and Erdem Gül (the editor-in-chief and Ankara bureau-chief, respectively,) of Cumhuriyet, one of Turkey’s oldest and most respected dailies, have been found guilty of “revealing State secrets”. Their investigations exposed the involvement of the Turkish State and Turkish intelligence officers, in aiding and supplying arms to opposition forces in Syria, including Islamic State, against the regime of Bashar al-Assad. The journalists showed video footage of trucks, intercepted at the Syrian border, transporting weapons hidden under medicines. The Turkish government claims this was “humanitarian aid.”
The plot is worthy of a John le Carré spy novel. If you are not familiar with Le Carré’s oeuvre, I advise you to stock up and emerge fully informed on what is really going on in the world of, what he calls, “the dark arts.” This is what happened: the transport was intercepted on the orders of state prosecutors, as it was suspected of carrying weapons for Islamic State. The problem is that the MIT agents involved filmed their own misdeeds. MIT, often called, “a State within a State,” is usually fantastically on the ball and highly regarded in the spook business. Its agents are the progeny, so to speak, of the well-oiled imperial machine – the famous Turkish spy with the red fez in Egyptian movies. But MIT has also, always been divided in its loyalties to either the diehard secularists or the conservative religious traditionalists. There is therefore never a shortage of whistle blowers.
Now, no Turk falls on his sword, he assembles an even bigger, louder army. So the four prosecutors ended up in court as well. In essence, this is the State taking the State to court and holding it to account for what prosecutors are supposed to do.
The Cumhuriyet journalists were acquitted of treason, which carries a life sentence, and “trying to topple the government” and espionage. Lets put this in perspective: this is the equivalent of accusing, let’s say, the Sydney Morning Herald of trying to bring down the Australian government. President Erdoğan has expressed his belief that he is under attack from a “mysterious, foreign mastermind seeking to destroy Turkey.”
The big mistake often made is to ridicule leaders with authoritarian streaks, or to laugh at the fact that President Erdoğan is nicknamed the Sultan and has just built a palace with a thousand rooms. After all, they call Putin the Czar. I am not the only one who has repeatedly pointed out that, in history, Turkey and Russia develop, and act in parallel ways. Turkey has much more in common with Russia in terms of mentalité, than with the Middle East or Iran for instance. Both are former empires, which were truncated and both have strong, assertive nationalist sentiments. Both Erdoğan and Putin have ground support. Can Dündar survived an assassination attempt as he left the court recently, from an ordinary man with a gun, who shouted “traitor.” Constitutional protections are also subverted by hostile public rhetoric and lone wolves.
But much more pressing are present geo-political ambitions and agendas which both countries are engaged in. Both are regional superpowers with an enormous sphere of influence in often overlapping regions.
It is a little known fact that Recep Erdoğan and his wife Emine holidayed twice with the Putins at their summer house in Sochi on the Black Sea. The opulent property is locally known as the Putin Palace. This does not, of course, make them buddies, but it makes them two of a kind. Let’s say that they understand each other.
Putin has just muzzled RBC, a media group which, under its ambitious editor Elizaveta Osetinskaya, has established itself as influential and independent – a fatal combination in Russia. Its news site is the most cited in the country, digging into taboo subjects others dare not touch: Russian soldiers in East Ukraine, the finances of the Russian Orthodox Church and hard hitting corruption investigations which have touched Vladimir Putin’s family, like the construction of an oyster farm as an extension of Putin’s Palace.
In Turkey, 1,845 Turks are currently being investigated or prosecuted for insulting President Erdoğan. These are civil criminal cases. 1,800 of these were taken out by Erdoğan himself and his family, and include even children as well as journalists. Erdoğan’s youngest daughter, Sumeyye Erdoğan, a graduate of the London School of Economics (see Le Carré on the LSE and its reputation on producing fire brands) is her father’s staunchest campaigner. She just married Selsuk Bayrakta, a defence sector industrialist who develops un-manned air vehicles.
Journalists are in the dock everywhere. Freedom of speech is in peril globally. It has been said that the “Chechen wars murdered Russian democracy in its cradle.” In 2006, Anna Politkovskaya was assassinated in Moscow for her work reporting on the Russian war in Chechnya. She openly opposed the Second Chechen War and Vladimir Putin.
The situation in Turkey is not as bad as in Russia yet, or for that matter in Zimbabwe or Bangladesh, but President Erdoğan’s drive is of deep concern. US President Barack Obama is said to be “troubled” by it.
Like everything else in Turkey, the new laws are ruthlessly efficient and thoroughly enforced. The first daily to feel the wrath was Zaman, the conservative Islamist publication. This is the kind of outlet read by traditional people, small business owners, shop keepers, blue collar workers – hard working folk, family value-people. They are the kind of people who would vote for your Tony Abbott. So what did Zaman do wrong? They follow the line of the US-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen, an influential foe of Recep Erdoğan.
The good news: Turks do not need the media to know about “dark arts.” A very popular TV drama series, Kizilelma (The Red Apple), follows the missions of a Turkish spy agency. It is the Spooks of Turkey. The bad news: it has just been taken off the air on the directives of President Erdoğan, because of low viewer ratings…