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“I wear my Turkish and Muslim identity as easily a pair of well-worn jeans. I no longer worry that my writing will land me in trouble.”
These were some of the heady feelings I shared with Yeni Safak, a highbrow pro-Islamic newspaper, in a 2005 interview. Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP) had been in power for just three years. Overtly pious yet savvily flexible AKP used its big popular mandate to dismantle decades of army tutelage and embark on a giddying raft of reforms. Turkey, it seemed, was on a path to full-blooded democracy, shaming the European Union into opening talks for Turkish membership that same year.
It was a golden age. Erdogan became the first leader to publicly acknowledge that the country’s long-suffering Kurds had been treated unfairly by the state. Bans on the Kurdish language were steadily eased while Kurdish rebel leaders sat opposite Turkish government officials to hammer out a deal for lasting peace.
The changes swept across the ethnic, religious and ideological divide. Using the word genocide which accurately captures the horrors that befell the Ottoman Armenians in 1915 was no longer a criminal offence. In 2003, Turkey’s long-suppressed yet vibrant LGBT community held its first ever gay pride march in Istanbul. In 2011, Zenne, a film about the first officially recorded gay honour killing in Turkey, swept five of the country’s prestigious Antalya Golden Orange awards including best film. That night as I snuggled in bed with my beloved friends and the film’s co-directors, Caner Alper and Mehmet Binay, my heart soared. Albeit in fits and starts, my country was becoming a community of shared values, where citizens of all stripes and creeds could find a place for themselves, be respected, and treated equally before the law. And yes, a majority Muslim country that could prove to hundreds of millions of other Muslims living under thuggish regimes that yes, it is possible, that yes, they too can become us, this. Or so I believed.
Six years on it all seems like a distant dream.
Today, Yeni Safak, is nothing but a government propaganda sheet, spouting off obscene conspiracy theories about how everything from the failed July 2016 coup attempt, to the deadly New Year’s Eve shooting spree at the Reina nightclub in Istanbul, were all engineered by the USA, and other dark forces bent on destroying Turkey.
Apparently I was among them. Turgay Guler, the managing editor of another pro-government title, Gunes, said I helped “plan” the Reina attack. He declared this to his 480 thousand plus Twitter followers unleashing a tidal wave of cyber threats which inundated my timeline for days. The tweet has not been removed. A Turkish prosecutor saw no harm in it and ignored my formal complaint, as has Twitter. Yet, well over a hundred of my colleagues, some of them dear, trusted friends, are languishing in jail for airing critical views of the government that are grounded in hard facts.
Peace with the Kurds is also on thin ice. A two and a half year-long ceasefire with the Kurdish rebels broke down in July 2015, soon after Mr Erdogan disowned a draft roadmap for peace that was initiated between his government and Kurdish leaders. The rebels recklessly threw coals on the fire by carrying the battle into towns and cities. Over 2,000 people, at least 300 of them are thought to be civilians, have died in the fighting since then
Emboldened by the new spirit of openness Diyarbakir, the biggest and most vibrant city in the mainly Kurdish south-east region had been striving to recreate its multi-cultural past. Udi Yervant, a renowned Armenian oud virtuoso gave up his life in California to return. Today, Diyarbakir is a ghost of its former self. Large chunks of its historic centre, home to a glorious Armenian Orthodox church, and a cherished Ottoman mosque, were pulverised following months of bitter fighting between Kurdish rebel youths and Turkish security forces, who bloodily prevailed. Diyarbakir’s co-mayors, a man and a woman, in keeping with the main Kurdish parties’ emphasis on gender equality, are currently in prison on thinly-supported terror charges.
Tens of thousands of others have been sacked, jailed or both, on tenuous charges of involvement in the failed putsch. Fethullah Gulen, the Sunni cleric and a former ally of Erdogan is accused of masterminding the coup. While there is little doubt that many of his associates were involved few believe they were acting alone.
Torture and arbitrary detentions are once again the norm. Not since the 1980 coup has Turkey been this divided, broken and grim. Should yes votes outnumber the nos in a critical referendum on formalising the vast powers Erdogan already exercises, Turkey’s sharp turn towards authoritarianism can only accelerate. And in the opposite case a fresh cycle of revenge may be on the cards.
How did it come to this? Many say it is because Erdogan was never serious about democracy. His real goal all along was to supplant the generals’ tutelage with his own. Others blame Turkey’s perennially squabbling pro-secular opposition politicians.
Power crazed Gulen has caused incalculable harm as well. Then there is Europe which held out the hope of full membership only for the likes of Germany’s Angela Merkel and the former French president, Nicholas Sarkozy to declare that it was all a farce. Turkey was too big, too Muslim and too poor. Either way, the rise of populism and xenophobic nationalism infecting Turkey is a global trend.
Many cast the April 16 referendum as a final chance to turn back the clock. But the odds are heavily stacked against the opposition. The referendum is being held under emergency rule. The government has virtually full control of the media. It is painting the vote as a choice between Erdogan and the abyss, between patriotism and treachery. Whatever the outcome, Turkey has entered uncharted waters. The big question now is how long it can remain afloat.[/vc_column_text][vc_column_text]
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“A militant in the guise of a journalist, a shameless woman.” “Know your place.” “[Y]ou insult at a society of 99 percent Muslims.”
The comments from Recep Tayyip Erdogan — Turkey’s newly elected president and outgoing prime minister — were heard across the world. While he did not mention a name, it was the clear the woman in question was Amberin Zaman, a journalist for The Economist and Taraf. Erdogan’s tirade came during a campaign rally last Thursday in the city of Malatya, ahead of Sunday’s presidential vote. Zaman had expressed opinions critical of Erdogan during a TV discussion the night before.
Erdogan continued during a rally in Ankara on Saturday, calling her a “despicable woman” and saying she had insulted Islam. She has also been targeted online by Erdogan supporters, in what the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has labelled a “widespread smear campaign“.
“The pro-Erdogan camp emboldened by his very public insults against me continue to mob lynch me via the social media,” Zaman told Index on Censorship. “My Twitter feed is flooded with threats and profanities. Being called an enemy of Islam in a Muslim country, when radical groups like IS have Turkish members who are active Twitter users, puts me at physical risk and hobbles my work.”
She says she was unable conduct interviews on the streets on election day, “for fear of being recognised and attacked”.
This is not the first time Zaman has been targeted for speaking out against Turkish authorities. She was fired last year from Haberturk over articles critical of the government, and she was also one of the journalists reportedly wiretapped with the approval of Erdogan. As she said at a recent Index event on digital freedom, she is attacked online daily by pro-government trolls.
But Zaman is not the only member of the Turkish media under threat. According to recent figures there are 40 journalists behind bars in the country, making it one of the world’s worst jailers of press. Since 1992, 14 journalists have been murdered with impunity. Turkey stands at 154th out of 180 countries in the latest Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index, and its ranking has deteriorating over the past years.
In addition to Zaman’s case, there have been a number of other attacks on press freedom just over the past few days, as reported by the Index media mapping tool among others. Enis Berberoglu, editor-in-chief of Hurriyet, resigned on 8 August. The paper has denied that it was as a result of political pressure. However, in his attacks on Zaman during the Malatya rally, Erdogan specifically mentioned the owners of the TV channel she was on, Dogan Holding. Hurriyet is also owned by Dogan.
“The consensus is that he was pushed out but his departure coincided with the elections so it didn’t get the attention it deserved. But it is a further sign that media bosses will continue to cave in to power. It’s a tragic comment on the state of the Turkish media,” says Zaman.
The same day as Berberoglu’s resignation, investigative journalist Mehmet Baransu was beaten by police. The day after he was detained for tweeting about the incident, and about the Istanbul public prosecutor. There have also been reports that the Cihan news agency was restricted from covering the presidential election, with police ordered to keep journalists out of polling sites across the country.
The election also put the spotlight on issues surrounding biased media coverage in favour of Erdogan; something that was highlighted by observers after the vote. Zaman says it is difficult to measure the impact of the poor state of media freedom on the election and its outcome — Erdogan won comfortably after one round. But it was not, she says, “a level playing field”.
“Erdogan has indirect control over a broad swathe of media outlets, most crucially of television. So the opposition candidates received scant coverage, and the little they got in pro-government was more of a smear campaign to which they were unable to effectively respond. Intimidation of the media and of media bosses has created an environment of self-censorship where journalists fear losing their jobs,” she explains.
“Even the mildest criticism is no longer tolerated. It’s stifling.”
Despite the attacks from Erdogan and his supporters, Zaman says she is “very heartened by the thousands of messages of support I have received, including from pious Muslims”.
The Women’s Equality Monitoring Group, whose membership includes female journalists, academics and writers has called on Erdogan to apologise.
“Making a female journalist a target by calling her shameless for simply performing her job was the last link in a chain of sexist stances,” they said. “This attack was also an attempt to silence the few remaining critical voices in the media, which has been silenced with bribery, censorship and self-censorship.” The Economist have stated that they “stand firmly” by Zaman.
“I am not alone,” she said.
But as Erdogan has indicated intention to expand the powers of the presidency, Zaman is not optimistic about the future.
“Should he continue to run the government as he announced he would it is horrible news for journalists. Things can only get worse not better.”