Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has always had a thin skin and low tolerance for anyone criticizing him. He has now taken the dramatic step of not only attacking a newspaper that has regularly opposed his actions, but Erdogan ordered the paper seized by the government. (See list of articles below.)
The take over is just another in a series of actions by Erdogan and his government that has earned Turkey a status not having free media from Freedom House.
According to the Freedom House report, news organizations that criticized the Erdogan government were harassed and often individual journalists were targeted with death threats.
In its report on Turkey, Freedom House laid out the steady decline of press freedom in Turkey ever since Erdogan became a national leader — prime minister and now president:
The government enacted new laws that expanded both the state’s power to block websites and the surveillance capability of the National Intelligence Organization (MİT). Journalists faced unprecedented legal obstacles as the courts restricted reporting on corruption and national security issues. The authorities also continued to aggressively use the penal code, criminal defamation laws, and the antiterrorism law to crack down on journalists and media outlets.
All this happens while the Turkish constitution claims free press is a guarantee. Unfortunately for the Turkish media, the government has pushed through a number of laws that get supported by the courts, all in the name of fighting terrorism.
Press freedom in Turkey has been in a steady decline for the past five years. The latest move by Erdogan is perhaps the most blatant attack on free press.
The highly popular Zaman was taken over by the government when police raided the offices late Friday, March 4. The paper was only barely able to get its last indpendent edition out before the takeover.
Zaman was tied to Erdogan former ally and now political foe Fethullah Gulen. The two had a falling out as Erdogan moved toward a more militant Islamic style government. Gulen — who lives in the United States in self-imposed exile — preaches a tolerant Islam and promotes dialogue among Christianity, Judaism and Islam, the so-called Faiths of the Book.
The latest Freedom House report of political freedom puts Turkey in the PARTLY FREE category, but with a downward trend. It is nestled in with other PARTLY FREE societies such as Zambia, Tanzania and Nicaragua.
Now, why should we, in the United States, care about what goes on in Turkey.
There is the basic humanitarian issue, that people should have political freedom and with it, press freedom. But on a larger issue, Turkey controls the Bosporus Strait. Through this narrow strip of water millions of dollars of goods flow in an out of the Black Sea. If turkey were to take a dislike to a country, it could prevent vessels bound to/from that from passing through.
Then there is the refugee issue. Thousands of Middle East refugees pass through Turkey on their way to Greece and western Europe. The European Union needs help in dealing with this complicated humanitarian issue.
And, Turkey is a member of NATO. It is bound to North America and western Europe by treaty. What Turkey does inside its own borders has a direct impact on U.S. foreign policy — diplomatic and military. It is a vital partner in the fight against ISIS and in dealing with the Syrian civil war.
If the Turkish government shuts down the independent media, then the only way the rest of the world will know what is going on in that country will be what the government wants the world to know. Given the volatility of the region and important role Turkey plays in the area, we need to know as much as possible about not only what the government is thinking but also the reactions of the country’s citizenry.
Articles and commentaries about the take over of Zaman:
- BBC: Turkey seizes control of Zaman newspaper linked to Gulen
- Reuters: Turkish opposition newspaper turns pro-government after state takeover
- Roy Greenslade/Guardian: Erdoğan, the enemy of press freedom, will humiliate the EU again
- CPJ: Istanbul court to appoint trustees for Zaman, Today’s Zaman editorial board