How I Became Another Victim of Erdogan’s Press Crackdown

I used to think I couldn’t be affected by Turkey’s shrinking press freedom. I just discovered how wrong I was.

A week has passed since I was denied entry to Turkey, and as I sit working in a Chicago café, I find myself imagining ways to sneak back into Turkey and make my way to Istanbul, my endlessly fascinating home for more than three years.

My favorite is paying a salty Greek fisherman to ferry me across the seven miles of sea separating the Greek island of Lesbos from Turkey’s Aegean coast. Making the journey under the cover of night in a rickety wooden skiff, my boatman and I spy a dinghy crowded with refugees heading in the opposite direction. Bobbing in the waves, the two vessels pass each other in the moonlight — a few refugees shake their heads at the silly American, a glutton for punishment — in a moment that seems to encapsulate just how inside-out our world has become.

The migrants that have been streaming across the Aegean seem to have grasped more quickly than journalists, or at least more quickly than this one, just how forbidding a place Turkey has become. In March, I wrote about Turkey’s shrinking press freedom with what now seems an almost serene distance, as if I were above the fray. I now realize I’d been the frog in the pot of slow-boiling water, making myself at home amid the tumult, blissfully unaware of the bubbles forming at my feet.

Speech in Turkey is far from free — in fact, it’s often terribly costly. The state has seized major news outlets, transforming them overnight from fierce critics into docile supporters of the government line. In early March, a Turkish court approved the state seizure of Feza Media, which includes Zaman, Turkey’s most widely circulated newspaper and formerly one of the few remaining critical news outlets. Meanwhile, the list of people punished for criticizing the government has grown beyond counting: Scholars and authors, pianists and artists, journalists, TV hosts, students, activists, and politicians have all faced Ankara’s wrath. More than 1,800 people have been charged with insulting the president, along with dozens of others for promoting terrorist propaganda.

Foreign journalists are increasingly feeling the pressure. Last September, authorities arrested and then deported two British reporters for Vice News. A week later, Turkey deported Frederike Geerdink, the only foreign journalist living in the country’s mainly Kurdish southeast. All were charged with spreading propaganda for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which Turkey, the United States, and the European Union have designated as a terrorist group. The group has fought an off-and-on conflict with Turkey for decades. Last July, the Islamic State’s bombing in the town of Suruc killed more than 30 people, mostly Kurdish youth; days later, Kurdish militants assassinated two Turkish policemen in their sleep, and the tit-for-tat attacks between Ankara and the PKK have only escalated since then.

In February, Turkey refused to credential the correspondent of Norway’s Aftenposten. The next month, Germany’s Der Spiegel pulled its correspondent after his accreditation was denied. A Greek photographer, a German TV journalist, and a Russian reporter have all been refused entry to Turkey in recent weeks. On April 24, a prominent Dutch journalist of Turkish origin was briefly detained while on holiday along the Mediterranean.

Last week, Turkey added my name to the list. I should be clear: I was not deported, nor was I banned from the country. Upon arriving at Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport, I was stopped and asked to await word from Ankara on whether I would be allowed to enter the country. After almost 20 hours, I decided to continue my vigil somewhere other than the airport’s immigration waiting area and took a flight to Chicago. Today, I am still awaiting word from Ankara. The government has given me no confirmation of the ban and no reason for denying my entry.

Already, I’m no longer the most recent victim. Last Wednesday, the government accused a Finnish writer living in eastern Van province of “spy activities” and deported her.

The boundaries of expression in Turkey appear to be shrinking by the day. A veteran journalist friend says he’s reminded of Iran in the early 1980s, when the still new Islamic regime strengthened its position with great purges of critics. That’s probably going too far. But we don’t really need Freedom House, which released its annual press freedom rankings last week, to tell us that media freedom in Turkey “deteriorated at an alarming rate in 2015.”

The increased pressure coincides with the rekindling of violence between Ankara and the PKK. In years past, as Turkey voted four times over a 20-month span, I’d linked the curbs on free speech to the approaching election. Now, though many observers believe the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) will soon float a referendum to alter Turkey’s constitution and install a French-style presidential system, it’s clear Ankara needs no election campaign to silence the media.

The crackdown has concentrated on those reporting on the conflict with the Kurdish group, which the government views as part of its fight against terrorism. Of the 30 journalists under arrest in Turkey, 10 are from the pro-Kurdish Dicle News Agency. Most of the foreign journalists jailed, deported, or charged by Ankara of late had worked or were planning to work on the Kurdish issue. And I’ve just heard from a friend with senior government contacts that I may — though I must stress that I still have heard no official word on this — be charged with meeting with “terrorist” PKK members during a January reporting trip to the de facto Kurdish capital of Diyarbakir. (For the record: I did meet Kurds who sympathized with the PKK, as many do, but I neither spoke to nor met any members of the PKK or related groups.)

It might come as a surprise, but I’ve been a fan of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan since I arrived in Turkey. Not a supporter, mind you: a fan. He’s a gift to journalists — always ready with a jaw-dropper of a quote, a surprisingly brilliant political move, or another moral outrage. “Whether the EU accepts us as members or not, we have no concern,” he said last year in response to criticism of Turkey’s record on press freedom. “Please keep your wisdom to yourself.”

He’s apparently no fan of journalists like me. In Erdogan’s bifurcated world, one either supports the AKP — and, by extension, the glorious rise of Turkey — or is a critic, terrorist, and Turkey-hater. There’s no in between.

Truth is, many Turks, perhaps even a majority, harbor a deep-seated distrust of Kurds. One could see this as racism or prejudice, but it’s somewhat understandable, considering the bloody, long-running conflict. Kurds have killed thousands of Turks in recent decades, and vice versa. Particularly damning for the PKK has been a string of major bombings and suicide attacks in recent months — including two in Ankara, claimed by the PKK-linked Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK), that killed nearly 70 civilians and soldiers.

As a result, many Turks support Ankara’s war against the PKK and have a distaste for coverage that puts the campaign in a bad light.

This is why the government’s plan to strip “terrorist sympathizers” of citizenship is so troubling. Considering how broadly Ankara could interpret the term — applying it to anyone who shows any sympathy for the plight of Kurds, journalists, activists, and politicians included — Turkey could soon be free of government critics.

Erdogan and the AKP are, of course, the prime movers behind Turkey’s unbridled muzzling of free speech. But Turks must shoulder some of the blame. Sure, many have done their part, fighting against the government crackdown by penning statements and editorials, taking to the streets, and reaching out to international bodies. But the vast majority seem to have accepted their lot. Now their silence is damning them to a world, much like Vladimir Putin’s Russia, in which the state gains full control of the media and the truth evaporates.

Look down, Turkey — the pot is set to boil.

OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images

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