Argument

It Is, By Far, The Worst Time to Be a Turkish Journalist

A doctor on trial for comparing President Erodgan to Gollum is only the most visible example of Ankara's growing crackdown on freedom of expression.

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Gollum, the loathsome creature from the Lord of the Rings series, may no longer be Frodo’s problem, but he certainly is Bilgin Ciftci’s. Ciftci, a Turkish physician, faces up to two years in prison if convicted of insulting President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The drama began when he posted images comparing the president to Gollum on his personal Facebook account. First he lost his job at the Turkey’s Public Health Institution. Now he’s on trial. The judge was not familiar with the grotesque Gollum as Erdogan’s lawyers, so the court has declared that a panel consisting of two academics, two psychologists, and a film expert must assess whether the comparison in fact constitutes an insult.

According to an AP report, Ciftci’s lawyer at first tried to mount a defense (as one might expect) based on the right to freedom of expression. When the court didn’t allow that, though, she had to settle for arguing that “Gollum is not a bad character.” Since the case made international news, both Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson and Elijah Wood, the actor who portrayed Frodo in the films, have joined the discussion. Wood tweeted, quite correctly, that the prospect of facing jail time for such a “crime” is appalling regardless of the value judgment one might make about the nature of Gollum’s character.

The case may sound merely ridiculous to most westerners, but for Turkish people it’s deadly serious. In Turkey, insulting public officials is a crime punishable by time in prison. The absurdity of the Gollum case should not distract anyone from the fact that the government crackdown on journalists, activists, and ordinary citizens is intensifying by the day. Recently, two of Turkey’s prominent journalists — editor-in-chief Can Dundar of the daily newspaper Cumhuriyet as well as its Ankara bureau chief Erdem Gul — were arrested on spying charges. The journalists stand accused of espionage and aiding a terrorist organization, based on reports published in the paper that Turkish security forces had intercepted trucks dispatched by Turkish intelligence carrying illegal arms shipments to Syria. Turkey has often been accused of supporting Islamist Syrian rebels fighting the Syrian president Bashar al Assad. The government vehemently denies such claims, and insisted that the trucks were carrying “humanitarian aid” for the Syrian Turkmens despite contradictory witness statements.

The spying charges may have been baseless, but they were certainly no surprise. During an interview with the state-owned TRT network in May, President Erdogan publicly threatened Dundar, saying that the editor will “pay a heavy price” for publishing leaked video footage purporting to show the National Intelligence Agency sending weapons to Syria. “I will not let go of him,” Erdogan declared. The Committee to Protect Journalists, a New York-based media watchdog, condemned President Erdogan’s threats, warning (prophetically, as it turned out) that his “statements have often served as cues for Turkish prosecutors to initiate punitive legal action against the government’s critics.” Dundar and Gul were arrested six months after Erdogan’s remarks.

In a letter from prison, Dundar ridicules the case against him. Recalling a court-appointed psychologist who asked him who encouraged him “to commit his crime,” he responds that the guilty parties were his mother, who read to him as a baby, and his elementary school teacher, who taught him how to write.

Turkey’s worsening record on freedom of expression is no secret. Courthouses have become regular gathering places for journalists. On December 1, four more journalists appeared in court, one testifying and three facing up to four years in prison on charges of “insulting the Turkish president.” Between Erdogan’s election to the presidency in August 2014 and March of this year, 236 people have been investigated for “insulting the head of state,” according to the BBC. 105 have been indicted, eight of them arrested. During Erdogan’s time in office as both prime minister and president, 63 journalists received a total of 32 years in prison.

Arrests and mass firings are not the only methods used to silence the opposition. Digiturk, Turkcell TV, and Tivibu — the major satellite TV subscription services in Turkey — no longer carry seven channels that were deemed to be critical of the government. A judge who agreed to review a case against Digiturk for removing the channels has been replaced by the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors in retaliation.

By now, persecution of journalists is old news for Turkey’s trusted Western allies. Many believe that the EU has shelved its criticism of Turkey’s violations of freedoms and human rights in return for a major new agreement on the refugee crisis that will entail Turkey tightening its borders. The EU refutes such allegations, but Erdogan’s adviser Burhan Kuzu tweeted that EU has “bowed to Turkey’s threat on refugees.”

The United States, too, doesn’t seem to be making a priority of the issue. The State Department has repeatedly noted its “concern” about the arrests of Turkish journalists, but, according to Turkish officials, the subject has rarely come up in bilateral meetings between Presidents Obama and Erdogan. Can Dundar and Erdem Gul were arrested only days after the G20 meeting where the two leaders posed for the cameras together. A State Department official contacted by FP refused to comment on the record, but pointed out that the U.S. ambassador had visited the Cumhuriyet offices to express support for the jailed journalists. But a source close to the Obama administration said that the U.S. administration’s priority is bolstering Turkey’s support for the war against the Islamic State. “The administration is well aware of the freedom of press issues,” he said, “but no one wants to make the security negotiations more complicated than they already are.”

Abandoned by both the U.S. and EU, Turks who care about freedom of expression in their country are feeling as lonely as poor Gollum.

In the photo, demonstrators protest the arrest of journalists Can Dundar and Erdem Gul in Ankara on November 27, 2015.

Photo credit: ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images

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