When The Economist endorsed his opponent in Turkey’s 2011 general election, Recep Tayyip Erdogan ignited the campaign trail in righteous indignation. At a rally in Konya the day its editorial appeared, tens of thousands of his supporters roared in adoration as the prime minister riffed on the insolence of the magazine, which he insinuated was in cahoots not just with Turkey’s secular opposition, but Israel. Glowering like a prizefighter, he used the endorsement to jab at his enemies. Since that third consecutive victory at the polls and, above all, since June’s nationwide civic uprising against his intrusive and authoritarian behaviour, Erdogan has taken the gloves off.
Two years ago some of his outbursts were manufactured to galvanise his neo-Islamist Justice and Development party, or AKP, and fasten its grip on the conservative Anatolian heartland, typified by Konya. Now, the prime minister’s aggression appears to know no bounds, as he treats the mixture of mockery and anger that radiated out from Istanbul’s Taksim Square in June as an existential threat. In particular, Erdogan’s already acute intolerance of criticism is in danger of destroying what is left of the independence of Turkish media.
The prime minister’s hostility to the press is not new. After more than a decade in power, he and the AKP still cannot shake off the mindset of opposition. This is understandable, up to a point. As they supplanted the secular elites created by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, father of the Turkish republic, they fought epic battles with power centres such as the army and the judiciary — and media that acted as Kemalist cheerleaders in past coups. The domestication of the press gathered pace in 2007, the year of Erdogan’s second election victory, when his son-in-law took over the best-selling Sabah newspaper. Then, after defeating challenges by the army and courts that tried to close them down, Erdogan and the AKP went on the offensive.
Scores of generals, politicians, academics and not a few journalists were arrested in a baroque series of alleged plots to bring down an AKP government that, spurred by its ambition to enter the EU, had expanded Turkish freedoms. Sentences were finally handed down in the so-called Ergenekon case yesterday, jailing former army chief Ilker Basbug for life and acquitting only 21 of 275 of those charged. Even dispassionate observers believe what started ostensibly as an attempt to impose the rule of law on the “deep state” developed into a witch hunt against troublesome opponents.
That impression hardened when, in 2009, the Dogan media group, publishers of the leading Hurriyet daily, were hit with a $2.5 billion (Dh9.1 billion) fine for alleged tax offences. That penalty obliged Dogan to sell other titles, such as the Milliyet daily. But even under its new owners, Milliyet is not compliant enough. In February it published the minutes of government-authorised meetings with Abdullah Ocalan, jailed leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ party, or PKK — an attempt to negotiate an end to the 30-year Kurdish insurgency in southeast Turkey that has killed more than 40,000 people.
Furious at the leak, Erdogan told a public meeting: “This kind of journalism should go to hell.” To be fair, a 2011 leak recording a meeting between the PKK and Hakan Fidan, Erdogan’s spy chief, scuppered secret talks between the two sides in Oslo — as it was probably intended to. But in this case Milliyet ended up forcing out leading columnist Hassan Cemal, for decades a lone voice in Turkey backing an accommodation with its Kurdish minority.
But it took the Taksim rebellion to expose the depths to which the media had sunk. As central Istanbul choked on teargas, private broadcasters aired features on penguins, schizophrenia and radiation from Mars. Sabah’s weekend front page was devoted to Erdogan’s thoughts on smoking. Since then, the AKP has affected to discern a new coup conspiracy of international reach, linking: the press; a disembodied and ill-defined “interest rate lobby”; local business conglomerates; and even the Ergenekon network, purportedly a decade old.
Last month, Yavuz Baydar, a prominent columnist and the ombudsman at Sabah, was fired, one of 22 journalists sacked and 37 forced to resign since the Taksim events, according to the Turkish Union of Journalists. Turkey is not just “the world’s worst jailer” of journalists, to quote the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, beating China and Iran. As Baydar explained in a New York Times article that enraged the government, most Turkish media are either muzzled or used as attack dogs by their owners, in hock to the state for juicy contracts in construction, banking and telecoms.
Koc, an off-message conglomerate that accounts for almost a 10th of Turkey’s economy, was raided by tax auditors last month in what is seen as a reprisal by a prime minister who brooks no challenge. He cannot stand irreverence, from that diverse half of a youthful society that simply will not accept the suffocating embrace of his pious paternalism. Sure, their media of choice such as Twitter — described by Erdogan as a “menace to society” — can run rings around news blockades. But the Twitterati of Istanbul do not amount to much in deepest Anatolia. That is one thing Erdogan knows, as his paranoid intolerance takes the shine off a Turkey he once helped turn into a beacon of democracy in the Muslim world.