Media freedom is under attack in Turkey, but this horrific newspaper is still in print

Ed Sykes

On 13 June, British media outlets jumped all over the story that a pro-government newspaper in Turkey had used the Orlando massacre as an opportunity to call its homosexual victims ‘perverts’. But few delved deeper into what this statement said about the current political situation in Turkey, and why it matters so much in the larger debate about defeating chauvinism and terrorism.

The headline released by the right-wing Yeni Akit newspaper read: “Death toll rises to 50 in bar where perverted homosexuals go”. The article also referred to the victims of the attack as “deviants“.

Referred to by Al-Monitor as ardent supporters of Turkey’s increasingly authoritarian President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Yeni Akit has previously:

  • Praised Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian branch of al-Qaida, in a sympathetic article.
  • Targeted Christian politicians for abuse, while making antisemitic generalisations about Jews.
  • Published the threatening headline after the 2015 Charlie Hebdo attacks: “You Should Be Afraid, France”. It said “do not expect condemnation from us”, and called those who condemned the attack “wicked… scum”.
  • Been responsible, according to the Hrant Dink Foundation think-tank, for writing 175 articles in just four months that included hate speech directed at minority groups.
  • Publicly published the names of 1,128 “treasonous” and ‘Armenian-loving’ academics from Turkey when they called for an end to crimes against Kurdish communities and a return to peace talks.
  • Called critics of the deteriorating state of press freedom in Turkey “terrorists”.

In other words, Yeni Akit is the very definition of a chauvinist organisation.

But all countries which respect freedom of expression have to allow hateful and unsavoury characters to publish, right? Some fundamentalist ‘Christians’ in the USA, for example, have acted since the Orlando massacre as though the victims had it coming because of their sexual preferences.

What’s so different about Turkey’s chauvinists?

The big difference with Turkey is not that it has media outlets which regularly deal in hate speech – many countries have that – but that these are the only outlets that are truly allowed free rein.

President Erdoğan is a man who started a war (and destroyed peace negotiations) solely to stay in power. He’s a man who consolidated this power by increasingly courting the votes of Turkish fascists and fundamentalists. And he’s a man who has manipulated and suppressed the media in order to hide the reality of military curfews in Kurdish communities – which are thought to have killed at least 310 civilians between August 2015 and March 2016. (The Canary has covered the war crimes and destruction in just two of these areas – Cizre and Nusaybin.)

To top all of this, Erdoğan has also served as a “mediator and ally” for Daesh (Isis/Isil) and other jihadis in Syria, either directly or indirectly.

In order to control his image at home and abroad, then, Erdoğan has effectively shut down any free or independent media outlets that would dare to criticise him. And this leaves outlets like Yeni Akit as the dominant conveyors of pro-government rhetoric.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) have called Turkey the “largest prison for journalists”, and Erdoğan has had almost 2,000 court cases filed against individuals for insulting him since he was promoted from Prime Minister to President in 2014.

The destruction of freedom of speech in Turkey

There have been a number of telling signs regarding the deterioration of media freedom in Turkey:

  • According to a report from May 2016 by the monitoring project Press For Freedom, 894 journalists in Turkey have been fired since the start of the year.
  • Left-wing and pro-Kurdish news sites have all but disappeared since Erdoğan reinitiated hostilities between the state and Kurdish rebels in July 2015. Birgun Editor, Baris Ince, was recently sentenced to 21 months in jail for insulting the president in 2013, and says: “journalists don’t believe they can win a court case, so they say, ‘I’ll spare myself the trouble and refrain from writing such stories’, which is extremely troublesome in terms of freedom of speech and press”.
  • In May 2016, two journalists were sent to jail for about five years each for publishing a story in 2014 about weapons sent from the Turkish intelligence agency (MİT) to jihadis in Syria. Joel Simon, from the Committee to Protect Journalists, said: “What was really on trial [in this case] was the Turkish criminal justice system, which is guilty of gross misconduct”.
  • A US-Lebanese correspondent was killed in a suspicious car accident in 2014 shortly after claiming to have proof that jihadis had been allowed to cross into Syria from Turkey.
  • In September 2015, pro-government protesters stormed the building of CNN Türk in Istanbul. The politician from the ruling AKP party who led the protest was not arrested, but promoted.
  • Former employees say that even mainstream outlets like Hürriyet and CNN Türk, owned by the powerful Doğan Media Group, have come under pressure from the government. The group, owned by billionaire Aydin Dogan, has now brought a prominent pro-government columnist on board at Hürriyet, while closing its liberal news website Radikal. According to Mirgun Cabas, a former CNN Türk presenter and government critic whose show was cancelled recently for “financial reasons”, says: “The group has taken certain steps to make a compromise with Erdogan… it has made changes in content”.
  • Fethullah Gülen, a Muslim preacher and advocate of intercultural dialogue, fell out of grace with the AKP regime in 2013. After this, the Gülen-linked Zaman daily became more critical of Erdoğan, and it was seized in March 2016. The paper’s editors either left voluntarily or were removed, and it was soon relaunched with a pro-government editorial line.

The likes of Yeni Akit, and the dangerously chauvinist views they promote, are essentially the main voices allowed to speak in the Turkish media today. Independent outlets are being killed off – along with media freedom. Pro-government outlets are gaining power and influence. And this situation has seen what little democracy Turkey had whither away with great speed.

Considering that Turkey is a powerful and heavily-armed member of NATO, and one of the west’s biggest allies in the Middle East, we cannot afford to ignore this reality.

Get involved!

– For more information and background on the situation in Turkey, see related Canary articles here.

– Write to David Cameron and your MP to ask them to encourage the Turkish regime to respect freedom of expression and resume peace talks with its Kurdish communities.

– In the meantime, join at least 400,000 Brits who have already cancelled holidays in Turkey, and support the boycott campaign here.

Featured image via Pixabay

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