Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s hostility to the media is not new. In the later years of the Justice and Development Party government, the majority of the domestic media has been intimidated into silence. Now, a new and disturbing pattern of targeted verbal attacks by the Prime Minister towards foreign journalists is emerging.
Since the Gezi protests of last summer, Prime Minister Erdoğan has accused the foreign media and various outside interest groups of organizing and manipulating unrest in the country. He has also blamed foreign-based conspiracies for being behind the corruption allegations against his family and ministers.
After last month’s mine disaster in Soma which killed 301 people, Mr. Erdoğan claimed that a BBC Turkish Service reporter hired two actors to pose as relatives of dead miners. The women in question made a legal complaint about the accusation and the BBC, standing by its story, rejected the claim by the Prime minister as “unfounded”.
On 3 June, at his party’s Parliamentary group meeting, the Prime Minister this time targeted CNN correspondent Ivan Watson, calling him a henchman, a flunky and an agent. On 31st May, during the first anniversary of the Gezi protests, Watson was manhandled by the police, detained briefly and his live television reporting cut short.
“He was caught red-handed. These people have nothing to do with a free, impartial, independent press. These people are literally executing their duties as agents. That’s why they are here.” Mr. Erdoğan said. Amidst cheers from his deputies, the Prime Minister accused the international broadcaster of formenting unrest last year, too, by giving hours-long coverage to Gezi protests.
Like the BBC, CNN said that they stand unequivocally by their reporting from Turkey, describing it “fair, factual and impartial”.
The persistent disregard for the right of journalists to report freely is worrying enough but the accusation by the Prime minister that the foreign journalists are agents makes the chill factor all the more effective. As well as adding to the climate of fear, it increases the risks posed to the personal safety of journalists working in Turkey. It also encourages the xenophobia already prevelant in Turkish society.
It is highly irresponsible and dangerous coming from the mouth of a person in high office.
The police in Turkey do not need any more encouragement to use brute force against journalists. On the day they kicked the CNN’s foreign correspondent live on air, they again intimidated, insulted and injured local journalists covering the anniversary of the Gezi protests. The Brussels-based European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) has released a list of journalists being attacked while reporting in Istanbul and Ankara last week. According to figures gathered by the EFJ affiliate, the Journalists’ Union of Turkey (TGS), in addition to Ivan Watson of CNN and Italian photo-journalist Piero Castellano, Erdal Imrek of the newspaper Evrensel, Atılgan Özdil of the Anatolian News Agency, Ahmet Şık (the 2014 recipient of the UNESCO Prize) and Meltem Aslan, a journalist and trade unionist, were all beaten and tear-gassed by the police.
Condemning violence against reporters, the TGS said: “Those police officers who were attacking journalists are acting with impunity”.
A few days later, in his speech to his party deputies, the Prime Minister once again praised the police’s attitude during the crackdown on the Gezi anniversary. “Thanks to our police’s unyielding stance, protesters went as they came” he said.
After every high-profile, widely-reported verbal or physical attack on journalists, the reverberating effect on the media climate gets stronger.
I asked the OSCE Special Representative on Freedom of the Media Dunja Mijatovic how she saw the situation in Turkey.
“Journalists carry out an indispensable role by informing the public about issues of public importance. This applies to international and local reporters alike. Intimidation of journalists for their work obstructs media freedom and can lead to self-censorship. Instead of threatening them, the authorities must ensure that journalists can work freely, under safe working conditions.” Dunja Mijatovic said.
The Prime Minister often speaks about the recent local elections giving him a renewed mandate to deal with his opponents. I cannot help wondering whether the government in Turkey thinks that the election victory also gave it the authority to get out of its commitments to comply with universal human rights standards, in particular concerning the respect for peaceful assembly, freedom of expression and press freedom. Don’t they care about international opinion anymore?
Andrew Finkel, a veteran Turkey commentator, journalist and author, believes that is not the case.
“A strange aspect is that the pro-government press like Sabah and Yeni Safak now has English language content in an attempt to influence international opinion. The semi-official Anatolian Agency is being pumped full of steroids with new offices here and more staff there. At the same time the Turkish government constantly undermines its own case by declaring war on the international media – accusing it of propagating malicious falsehoods and for not abiding by their own absurd spin. It’s cloud cuckoo land!” he says. “They are so used to controlling their own media they think they can control the BBC and CNN”.
There are international instruments to prevent the arbitrary use of power by governments to silence, harass or coerce journalists but in the case of Turkey, they seem to be pretty ineffective so far.
This post is also available in: Turkish