Vedat Arik / Cumhuriyet / AP

Turkey’s long history of attacks on the press

By arresting journalists, Erdogan is continuing an age-old national tradition

December 18, 2015 2:00AM ET

On Nov. 26, the editor-in-chief and the Ankara bureau head of the Turkish newspaper Cumhuriyet — Can Dündar and Erdem Gül — were arrested and charged with belonging to a terrorist organization. Their arrests took place after their paper, Turkey’s longest running daily, published footage and articles that suggested that the Turkish security services were sending weapons to Syrian rebel groups — a charge the government denied. 

As of this writing, Dündar, who received this year’s Press Freedom Award from Reporters Without Borders, is in pretrial detention in Silivri Prison. Similar instances over the period between parliamentary elections on June 7 and Nov. 1 triggered an emergency investigation by the Committee to Protect Journalists, and a separate report, released Dec. 15, found that the number of imprisoned journalists in Turkey “rose dramatically” in 2015.

Many news outlets and journalism associations have jumped to criticize Erdogan’s personalization of his rule in Turkey as thin skinned or sensitive to insult. But the two men were not arrested for insulting Erdogan. It’s even more political: They had been reporting for more than a year on the surreptitious convoys to Syria, and Dündar’s coverage has been a consistent thorn in Erdogan’s side since he took over the paper in February. As some critics have suggested, this incident is thus much more closely tied to the overarching political transformation Erdogan is trying to effect in Turkey and in the region at large than it is about his personal paranoia.

Clamping down on press freedoms has practically become a tradition during prolonged periods of political upheaval in Turkey. After Mustafa Kemal Ataturk led Turkish forces to victory over European powers and established the Turkish Republic in 1923, he quickly began to tightly manage the press. Cumhuriyet came into existence only with Kemal’s assistance, when two veteran journalists and the director of the Press Ministry were presented with the paper with a gift from Ataturk himself. The paper was often referred to as an official organ, despite its nominally independent status, and after a series of revolts and a tussle with Britain over the Iraqi province of Mosul, Ataturk sentenced many of the paper’s journalists, including Zekeriya Sertel, one of the founders of Cumhuriyet, to hard labor or exile for espousing communist views or for tacitly supporting the ancien regime. Ataturk’s nation may have been founded on many liberal principles — but press freedom was not one of them. 

During World War II, Ismet İnönü’s government closed the top nine Istanbul dailies 44 times for printing articles deemed detrimental to Turkey’s precarious neutrality. Then, just after the war, on Dec. 4, 1945, as Stalin began to pressure Turkey over territory in the east, pro-government student protesters destroyed the offices of three newspapers — the left-leaning daily Tan, the weekly Yeni Dünya and the French-language La Turquie — along with several Russian-owned establishments that, in the view of the demonstrators, espoused a Soviet takeover of Turkey. Editors stood trial for articles they had written that accused the government of setting up clandestine propaganda newspapers and journals in the provinces — charges similar to the ones Dündar and Gül face today.

The crackdown on the press speaks to how Erdogan has, over the years, cultivated a populist, majoritarian wave of support to consolidate power and choke opposition.

The Democrat Party, elected in 1950, sentenced 79-year old Hüseyin Cahit Yalçın — the elder statesman of Turkish journalism — to 26 months in prison in 1954 for attacking the party in an editorial. It continued with cases opened against 866 more journalists before being deposed in a 1960 coup. Subsequently, Adnan Menderes’ administration raised alarm bells over a series of Soviet-friendly governments in Damascus and Cairo and attempted to use the potential crisis as an opportunity to flex their military muscle in the region. Much of the criticism Menderes drew in this period from journalists regarded the way in which his stance toward Syria and, by extension, the USSR was too aggressive even for Washington, thus endangering the special relationship formed between Turkey and the U.S. by signing onto NATO. Once again, attacks on journalists were viewed as a critical tool for managing the nation’s image at home and abroad.

These are merely a few examples of Turkey’s disregard for the press; one could just as easily go back to the Hamidian period or to the 1980 coup for similar examples. What unites these cases is that the Turkish Republic was in a moment of geopolitical crisis similar to the one it is facing today — often involving its historical rival to the north, Russia.

In this case, the crackdown speaks to how Erdogan — once seen as a major liberalizing force in the region — has, over the years, cultivated populist, majoritarian support to consolidate power and choke opposition. It’s clear that he wishes remake Turkish society in accordance with his conservative Sunni Muslim worldview; in foreign policy, this has translated to a new regional imperialism manifest through aid policies or militarily through a series of operations in Syria and Iraq. 

The latest round of attacks on the press is also a reaction to Turkey’s increasingly perilous position regarding Syria. Erdogan’s party has surmounted the most significant democratic challenge by bouncing back in snap elections in November. At the same time, Turkey has suffered a series of attacks sponsored by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), reignited its decades-long war with the Kurdish separatist PKK and, most recently, shot down a Russian fighter jet for briefly entering its airspace. Erdogan has consistently viewed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as the greater evil in the Syrian conflict, and Putin’s support of the Syrian regime has caused a perilous devolution in relations.

As troubling as these threats to press freedom are, Turkey is hardly unique in its neighborhood. In 2015, Reporters Without Borders ranked Turkey a dismal 149th out of 180 countries, but it did manage to place ahead of Egypt, Azerbaijan, a suite of Gulf states (including Saudi Arabia and Bahrain), war-torn Syria and Iraq. This is a particularly troubling situation because as Syria and Iraq sink further into crisis, governments, civil society organizations and individuals alike increasingly rely on reliable reporting from reporters on the ground in Turkey. 

Considering that Erdogan has recently taken unprecedented moves against foreign journalists, the critical job of reporting in dangerous places is becoming only more difficult. What remains to be seen is whether Erdogan’s heavy-handed policies can anchor his personal rule, a la Kemal through the mid-1920s, and evade further entanglement with Russia, as Inönü accomplished in World War II. Perhaps Erdogan’s attempts to meddle in Syria and stand tough against Russia will cause his demise, as Menderes learned in the late 1950s.

Whatever the outcome, the crackdown will exact a steep cost on press freedom in Turkey and make understanding an already confusing Syrian crisis more difficult. 

James Ryan is a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Pennsylvania. He studies the intellectual and press history of the late Ottoman Empire and the Turkish republic. 

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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