When I told the guy at my neighborhood grocery store in the Turkish city of Istanbul that I was traveling abroad, he said, "Don’t come back. Not if you can."
I told him I have a life here. "They will arrest us all, one day," he responded.
I’d never previously discussed politics with my grocer. He does not know that I’m a journalist. He’s not politically active as far as I know. He’s the guy who works the cash register in the store. One person among the tens of millions who feel like hostages in their own country.
After a failed coup attempt in Turkey on July 15, we’ve been under a state of emergency that includes a crackdown on press freedom. So what’s new, you may ask. Chances are you’ve heard of media clampdowns in Turkey before. Journalists are routinely jailed, media outlets are shut down, prosecutors equate pens with guns, state officials compare books to bombs. The concept of due process itself is often a myth.
But this time the repression is different. It’s larger in scope, deeper in severity, more definitive. Yes, previous crises were damaging too. But I promise that what comes next is not a "Turkey at a crossroads" cliché.
I have been a vocal critic of previous administrations in Turkey, which were largely controlled by the military. Today I’m glad that the military is no longer the deciding political force in the country and I’m even more pleased that this summer’s coup attempt failed. What I’m now worried about is that the fate of Turkey is now tied to the political career of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party, or AKP.
Even when Turkey did things by the book, I used to complain because it was a terrible book. Still, there was a book. Today, there is no guide for what happens next. The state is liberal when it is politically advantageous to make peace with the Kurds, and ultra-nationalist when it is not. Turkey may be the mortal enemy of country X today. Tomorrow, we become best friends with that same country. Rules and procedures are applied only when it’s beneficial for the AKP to do so on a given day.
Newsstand in Istanbul — Photo: Marius Becker/DPA/ZUMA
The failed coup and the state of emergency have enhanced the authority of Erdogan and offered a veneer of legitimacy to his fickle policies. In terms of press freedom, a crisis has now turned catastrophic. This is not just another free speech issue for Turkey. The current situation will destroy independent publications and will leave none intact to survive the next fight with the administration.
The government and its devoted media and trolls may twist facts about press freedom and imprisoned journalists as much as they like. But facts do not lie. You can’t count with both hands the number of independent media outlets that remain on the national level today. Publications critical of the government have been shut down and their assets confiscated. This is a fact. Working at an unbiased publication is sufficient to be labeled a traitor and prosecuted as a terrorist. This is a fact. It is also a fact that supposedly independent Turkish judiciary consists of judges and prosecutors whose entire careers are at the mercy of the justice minister.
The government and its apologists can pick and choose facts to further their arguments. When they say that the journalists behind bars do not have official press credentials, it’s partly true. The whole story is that those credentials, the "yellow press cards," are granted arbitrarily by the press desk of the prime minister’s office, and only if the journalist is hired with a certain insurance that’s too expensive for many newsrooms to afford. Fewer than 10% of active journalists in Turkey have them. Even at a pro-government newsroom in the country (except for maybe the capital), nine out of 10 people don’t have these yellow cards. That’s the whole truth. Turkey is now the world’s leading jailer of journalists. That too is an undeniable fact.
As I’ve said before, Turkey is not at a crossroads. Turkey is on a one-way road to a one-party system, which is going to be glorified by an obedient media. Turkey is about to arrive at a place where not being affiliated with the ruling party will be considered a transgression, and where speaking outside the officially-approved script can be criminalized. All journalists who are not jailed or condemned to unemployment will only have one option left — to become PR agents for the government. Turkey is heading full-speed toward this dark new place, with no sign of detours anywhere along the road.
*Ozgur Ogret is a freelance journalist in Istanbul, the Turkey Representative for the CPJ and a regular Worldcrunch contributor.
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