A journalist with hope is a common contradiction in these strange days. When I set forth to share my thoughts on what the new year may offer us, I was overwhelmed by the thickening siege on our profession worldwide.
Having recently witnessed President Tayyip Erdoğan praising Donald Trump for putting a CNN reporter in his place, what keeps swirling in my mind is the age-old Turkish saying that goes, in a rough translation: “Snow falls over the mountains that you trust.” It means disappointment is piling up and there is nowhere you can turn to.
That’s the taste Trump, elected as the leader of the “free world”, leaves when he redefines the professional standards we have grown up with, taken for granted and sought to establish in less free environments.
That leaves journalists, particularly those in Turkey, deeply stunned and more helpless than ever. Wishing for better times is a fragile exercise, a distant daydream, a hopeless task. What makes one think in those terms is the sheer horror of what we have been subjected to may only be a harbinger of what comes next, in a higher level of oppression.
The year we left behind marks an ordeal most of us would prefer to forget. Yet it is impossible. In every possible aspect, 2016 was annus horribilis for what we in the bold and independent flanks of Turkish journalism stand for. The year will go down in history as a midwife of a series of lethal blows to people’s right to have access to truth and diverse opinion.
It became a period of severe punishment with the constitution suspended and the rights of the Fourth Estate eviscerated. The introduction of the state of emergency, which was enthusiastically championed by Erdoğan, only accelerated the strangulation of the free word.
In the final days of 2016 journalism was in ruin: 146 journalists in jail (it now stands at 152), placing Turkey in the special position of having around 60% of the global total of journalists behind bars. More than 9,000 journalists have lost their jobs, or around 45% of the active journalists at home. Erdoğan’s regime also ended the year by shuttering more than 190 media outlets – a blend of all political leanings and various identities – leaving only one (out of 245) TV channels, the tiny Halk TV, as the lone critical voice. The remaining independent newspapers on the political left struggle with financial and circulation problems. Their alternative narrative is barely heard. A number of journalists – including myself – had to leave the country, chased into exile by the forces of the counter-coup that launched an immense purge and nearly 1,000 had their press cards cancelled. And more foreign colleagues experienced harassment at the hands of officials – as the arrest of Dion Nissenbaum of the Wall Street Journal showed – and deportations.
We entered the new year with a yet another announcement that the authorities had launched a massive legal inquiry and arrested over 62,000 people for “clandestine activity” on social media — such as critical tweeting — of which 17,000 were already indicted. This news came as Bekir Bozdağ, minister of justice, proudly declared that 25 new prisons are now being built, a 22% increase in capacity.
Journalism is a profession in agony. Frankly, none of us in this now dreaded exercise of informing the public can see any way out. The odds are that Erdoğan is only inches away from securing a fully empowered executive presidential rule, equipped with impunity and it is fair to assess that the state of emergency will continue as long as his party deems necessary. One can only pray — as a colleague told me over the phone recently — that the AKP shows mercy to release jailed journalists, who were all jailed for doing their job. Under such circumstances, it is an arduous task to report about daily events; forget about plunging into daring investigations of official corruption in the public interest.
Which leaves me with one hope for 2017: we won’t be able to give up. Turkey’s independent journalists will continue to do what they know best. But it will have to be mainly online from editorial bases outside the country. This will be a very tough battle for our integrity and a long-term one. We will have to keep our spirits intact. But we need the consistent, courageous backing of our colleagues in the West.
“The West is largely silent. And Erdoğan is triumphalist. ‘Now that the demagogue Trump is about to become the world’s most powerful man, the authoritarians believe history is on their side’,” wrote Owen Jones in The Guardian, adding:
“Turkey is a warning: democracy is precious but fragile. It underlines how rights and freedoms are often won at great cost and sacrifice but can be stripped away by regimes exploiting national crises. The danger is that Turkey won’t be an exception, but a template of how to rid countries of democracy. That is reason enough to stand by Turkey. Who knows which country could be next?”