ISTANBUL — When Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan dispatched his prime minister to Paris a week ago to join the march for free expression in the face of Islamist terror, not a few critics asked why he bothered. Back at home Erdoğan has been ratcheting up an alarming campaign against the press.
He is threatening to block Facebook and Twitter if they broadcast details of an alleged government arms shipment to an al Qaeda affiliate in neighboring Syria. And capping three days of a government offensive that included gag-orders by the courts, police raids and threats to shut down social media sites, Erdoğan delivered a ferocious tongue lashing Friday targeting the secular opposition newspaper Cumhuriyet.
Erdoğan's tone suggests there will be no relenting in the coming weeks. Critics say that in the run-up to parliamentary elections in five months he is determined to impose discipline on the national media. In December more than two dozen journalists were arrested in a government orchestrated crackdown that prompted an international outcry and claims the country is sliding towards authoritarianism.
One of the journalists arrested in December, TV presenter Sedef Kabaş, learned last week that she is facing a prison sentence of up to five years for tweeting about the shutting down of a massive corruption probe into close Erdoğan associates. The government is charging her with targeting individuals involved in the fight against terrorism.
Cumhuriyet's ostensible offense was publishing excerpts from Charlie Hebdo, a gesture of solidarity in the wake of the terror attack that left eight of the French satirical magazine’s staff dead at the hands of gun-toting Islamic fanatics.
“Where do you think you live?” the Islamist president of Turkey thundered in a bullying speech. “You cannot insult somebody’s sacred values with this.” Then he went on: “They may be atheists. But if they are, they will respect what is sacred to me. If they do not, it means provocation, which is punishable by laws.”
The “me” was telling—Erdoğan has increasingly adopted “l'état, c'est moi” rhetoric since his election to the presidency in the summer.
The newspaper editors didn’t need the president to tell them they are now in choppy legal waters and likely to face in the coming days the full force of the storm. News blackouts and prosecutions have become the government’s instrument of choice to suppress stories that it does not like.
Last June, a gag order banned reporting on efforts to free dozens of Turkish diplomats from the consulate in the Iraqi city of Mosul, who had been taken hostage by the jihadist militia Islamic State (ISIS). The hostages were released in September, amid speculation that Ankara had agreed to facilitate the exchange of Islamic militants held in Turkey or by other groups.
Cumhuriyet editors had a forewarning of the risks they were courting when police raided their premises midweek, stopping trucks to check what selection of Charlie Hebdo cartoons they were planning to reproduce in a four-page supplement. Police allowed distribution of the newspaper after establishing that Hebdo’s latest cover featuring a tearful Prophet wasn’t being included.
They didn’t pay close enough attention.
A scaled-down version of the cartoon was used along the borders of the columns of two writers, Ceyda Karan and Hikmet Çetinkaya. They are now at the center of a criminal investigation, accused of inciting the public to hatred and insulting people’s religious values. Other criminal probes are in the offing.
Cumhuriyet isn’t the only one in the crosshairs.
Whether on government orders or not, judges and prosecutors are helping Erdoğan to clamp down to prevent newspapers and social media sites publishing or posting leaked official documents detailing an alleged Syria-bound arms convoy coordinated by Turkish intelligence that police sought to seize after a tip-off.
On January 14 this year, a court in the southern city of Adana barred Turkish media from quoting reports saying that the Turkish intelligence service MIT was behind a three-truck convey of arms and ammunition destined for radical Islamic groups in Syria in January 2014.
Back then, prosecutors and gendarmes in Adana stopped the trucks before they reached the border after receiving information they were carrying arms destined for al Qaeda, angering MIT agents who were guiding the convoy. Confidential gendarmerie documents that surfaced this week on Twitter, but which since have been removed after government and court threats, said that Erdoğan, who was prime minister at the time, had ordered the shipment, which, according to the documents, included mortars, mortar shells and anti-aircraft missiles and ammunitions.
The gendarmes allegedly concluded that the destination for the weapons was al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra. A driver of one of the trucks said in a deposition that the weapons were loaded onto the vehicles at Ankara airport and there had been several similar convoys before.
The Turkish government has denied repeatedly that it has been providing arms to radical groups fighting President Bashar al Assad in Syria. It says the trucks were carrying humanitarian aid. But opposition politicians accuse the government of turning a blind eye to radicals crossing Turkey’s long land border with the conflict-ridden country to its south.
A former U.S. ambassador to Ankara also has claimed Turkey cooperated with al Qaeda in Syria in the past, in an effort to speed up the ousting of Assad. Ambassador Francis Ricciardone said last year that Turkish officials expressed confidence that they could handle those groups.
The prosecutors and gendarmes involved in the interception have been removed from their posts, and 19 security officials involved in the case are currently on trial on spying charges.
The latest moves against the press and threats to close down social media sites are likely to have international repercussions. Last week the European Parliament rebuked Ankara for the December sweep of journalists. Not that it will be likely to deter Erdoğan, who has told European leaders in the past to mind their own business when they complain, and bragged “there is no freer press, either in Europe or anywhere in the world, than in Turkey.”
That isn’t a position shared by Haluk Koc, a leading member of the secularist Republican People’s Party (CHP), the biggest opposition group in parliament, who notes that 217 journalists were beaten, close to 900 were fired and 21 were jailed last year alone. “You even have a journalist detained for putting out tweets,” he said in reference to Kabas, the TV presenter. (In France, it should be said, a controversial comedian has been arrested for a tweet that showed vague sympathy for one of the terrorists who attacked a kosher grocery.)
“Raiding a printing press or launching criminal investigations into journalists because of what a newspaper has published are a drastic limitation on freedom of expression and amount to state censorship,” warns Andrew Gardner, Amnesty International’s Turkey researcher.
Equally alarming for press watchdogs and reporters is the image of a government seemingly justifying mob justice against journalists. The day before Erdoğan delivered his tirade, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu fresh from his Paris trip appeared to excuse religious-inspired violence suggesting the victims are responsible for the consequences of causing offense. “If you publish an insulting caricature, it is like you are openly saying, ‘Come and attack us,” he remarked. (Pope Francis, it might be noted, said something similar about insulting religion, but was much more careful to distance himself from the terrorist atrocities.)
A pro-government Islamist tabloid took the hint last week, publishing a caricature depicting a person reading Cumhuriyet with a target drawn on the cover of the newspaper. Cumhuriyet staffers say they are now receiving death threats.