PROF. DR. VEDAT DEMİR
Freedom of expression, an essential human right, forms the basis of an open government and a well-informed society through public debate and independent media. Ensuring freedom of expression and a free, independent, and diverse media is a vital element for any healthy and strong democracy. Therefore, freedom of communication has its place in international documents as a human right.
The AKP came to power in the 2002 Elections and became the dominant party by establishing an electoral hegemony in the following elections. The personality of Erdoğan played an important role in the success of the AKP. He and his party gained the support of the mass of the population who identified
themselves with him due to his background.
The AKP rule since 2002 could be divided into more specific periods. The reform period was only limited to its first 3 years, ending in 2005. Between 2005 and 2007, the AKP government focused on strengthening its power and successfully demonstrated its power in the 2007 presidential election. In 2011, Erdoğan started to work to realize his ambition of a one-man rule.
THE PERIOD OF ERDOĞAN’S AUTHORITARIAN REGIME
Compared to the first period of the AKP, the EU process and democratization reforms lost momentum after the AKP’s second election victory in 2007. After the 2010 referendum on a number of changes to Turkish Constitution and 2011 General Elections victory, Erdoğan and the AKP started to follow their own agenda to establish an authoritarian one-man regime.
The AKP won three consecutive elections and had a stable majority in the parliament. The political challenges from the opposition, Kemalist civil society and organizations as well as the army which was the biggest threat at the time, had all been met successfully. As the AKP was gaining more and more power in the second period of the AKP, the system of the Turkish government had turned into the personal rule of Erdoğan. It was in this time that the first signs of monopolizing tendencies became more apparent and Erdoğan started to make religious references and morally patronizing comments in public.
FREEDOM OF THE MEDIA AFTER THE JULY 15 COUP ATTEMPT
Erdoğan and the AKP managed to break down a sclerotic semi authoritarian form of government, a regime of military tutelage, and the identity of the informal rulers of the regime. They, however, failed to break down the structure of the regime itself. In fact, once Erdoğan overcame the former regime and its instruments, he immediately started to build a new form of semi-authoritarian government by promoting a presidential system in which he would be
the sole ruler without checks and balances.
GIFT FROM GOD
The reasons behind the July 15th Coup Attempt and the details about it still remain a mystery to this day. What is known is the fact that it was defined as a “gift from God” by Erdoğan and it gave him an excuse to carry out a widespread purge and crackdown on all opposition while expanding his hold over the state. Shortly after the coup attempt, the government declared a state of emergency for 3 months which was expanded multiple times and eventually
ended long after in July 2018. With the State of Emergency, Erdoğan, bypassed Parliament and preventing them from being appealed at the Constitutional Court.
Although it was not clear who exactly was behind the coup attempt, Erdoğan, his government and the pro-government media pointed the finger at the Gülen Movement, referred by the government as the “Fethullahist Terrorist Organization (FETO),” as the only power behind the plot. As a result, a huge purge began targeting anyone who was suspicious of having the remotest link with the Gulenists.
WITCH HUNT TARGETED JOURNALISTS
The government issued decrees that undermined the foundations of the rule of law by claiming to fight threats to “national security and unity.” This opened the way to arbitrary arrests and dismissals as well as direct interference to the judicial system by the government. The witch-hunt targeted the allegedly pro-Gulen media and journalists but also the representatives of the Kurdish, secularist and left- wing media outlets.
MASS ARRESTS OF JOURNALISTS
In the first 2 months of the State of Emergency, dozens of renowned journalists, including leading reporters and editors of newspaper and magazines, were placed in detention or arrested and a total of 620 press credentials were canceled. The scale of the roundups of jailed journalists was astonishing. For instance, 42 arrest warrants were issued on journalists on July 25, and another 47 were issued 2 days later. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) analyzed
the attained interrogation records and stated that “many journalists are being targeted above all for working for media sympathetic to the Gülen Movement. Their work as journalists is equated to membership of the movement, and this in turn is equated to complicity in the coup attempt”.
Following the coup attempt, 160 media outlets, allegedly associated with the Gülen Movement or Kurdish media, were shut down by government decrees. In mid-November, the number of journalists in pretrial detention on the basis of their writing and journalistic activities raised to 144, making Turkey the worldwide leader in jailing journalists. Many of these reporters and columnists were detained with no evidence.
DIRECT ORDERS FROM ERDOGAN
Although the state-owned media had always been a supporter of Erdoğan and taken direct orders from him, hundreds of employees of the state-owned news agency Anadolu and the state-owned broadcaster TRT were also dismissed from their positions and became victims of Erdoğan’s purge.
THE METHODS AND INSTRUMENTS TO SILENCE THE MEDIA
Turkey’s media was a clear example of the AKP’s domination in the public area. Pressuring private media bosses, using the laws against incitement, defamation, and the spread of terrorist propaganda were the methods of the AKP to eventually have a grip over the entirety of Turkish media excluding a few broadcasters and publishers.
The long-time assaults on independent media and crackdown on press freedom intensified by the government after the coup attempt in 2016. Censorship of jour- nalism had always been employed as a method for a long time, but President Erdoğan and the AKP government utilized more creative methods to silence critics
TRANSFERRING THE MEDIA OWNERSHIP
Many media conglomerates had already collapsed due to the 2001 Turkish Eco- nomic Crisis, and therefore the state was the largest media boss in Turkey when the AKP came to power in 2002.
Erdoğan used this situation in favor of his government and supporters. He handed over the state-owned media outlets to businessmen who had ties with him. Those transferred media corporations were gradually turned into propaganda organs of the AKP government, followed by the dismissal of critical columnists and journalists.
Turkey’s media played a significant role in maintaining public support for the AKP, and therefore it was crucial for Erdoğan to control the entire media. He and his party came to exercise control over all media by putting pressure on private owners who were not supporters of Erdoğan. They utilized state power to their advantage and made arbitrary laws against incitement, defamation and the spread of “terrorist propaganda.” Eventually, only a small number of broadcasters and news publishers were able to criticize Erdoğan’s actions in Turkey.
The exploitation of the criminal justice system is another one of Erdoğan’s methods to suppress free media. The core of all human rights problems in Turkey, including press freedom violations caused by the faulty rule of law, is a profound structural issue. Without addressing this problem, it is impossible to explain any issue regard- ing fundamental rights in Turkey. Constant abuse in the judiciary during the last decade turned the judiciary into a government instrument. After winning the 2010 constitutional referendum, the AKP took control of the High Council of Judges and Prosecutors.
After the December 2013 Corruption Probe, the editors, journalists, and columnists linked to the Gülen Movement and some other critical journalists were arrested and held in pretrial detention, joining the Kurdish and leftist journalists who used to be the main victims of lengthy pretrial detention on terrorism charges.
After the failed coup attempt, the prosecution of journalists who were associated with the Gülen Movement reached a zenith. Nearly 80 journalists were placed in pretrial detention for having ties to the Gülen Movement or the failed coup attempt. On October 2016, eleven senior staff members of Cumhuriyet newspaper along with its editor-in-chief were arrested on charges of being associated with both the PKK and the Gülen Movement.
VIOLENCE AGAINST JOURNALISTS
Many oppositional journalists and their families were threatened and attacked by Erdoğan supporters as well as Erdoğan himself. These attacks aimed to silence government critics and force them to self-exile. Another silencing method of the government was ordering the removal of oppositional television channels from satellite distribution and digital platforms which eventually led to the shutdown of those TV channels.
ERDOĞAN’S HATE SPEECH AND INTERFERING IN MEDIA CONTENT
The content of Turkish newspapers and television channels was constantly inter- vened by Erdoğan. This could be clearly seen in one of the leaked recordings between Erdoğan and a Habertürk senior executive, which spread on YouTube and Twitter. The recording demonstrates how Erdoğan controls the way the private Habertürk television channel covers its news. He insults and yells at the senior executive on the phone for broadcasting the views of an opposition politician on the news ticker. As a result of the phone call, the part about the opposition politician was quickly removed from the news ticker.