Even before the current protests, Turkey was already “the world’s largest prison for journalists,” its press freedom ranking had plummeted, falling below even Russia, Iraq, the Palestinian Authority, and Burma. Since the protests erupted, however, Turkish authorities have grown increasingly aggressive toward the press. Not only have foreign journalists been attacked, but Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has turned his animus toward twitter, declaring the 140-character social network site to be “a menace to society.”
While I’ve written before about how Erdoğan has been confiscating television stations and media companies—including sending his Brownshirts to do the job as he stood next to President Obama in the Rose Garden last month—he appears intent to actually accelerate efforts to close any media companies that dare report critically about him, his increasingly unstable personality, or the brutal crackdown that Erdoğan appears ready to make the new normal.
He has, for example, used the media commission he controls to level outrageous fines against channels which reported events in Taksim Square or elsewhere as they were occurring. No longer is the sultan content to simply limit his jihad to Bart Simpson. The logic for the government fines was that the television channels showed violence which could harm children. The irony, of course, is that the violence was occurring on the street outside their homes, and children were breathing the gas that Erdoğan ordered fired. Fortunately, for those kids, Turkey has nearly exhausted its supply of tear gas, having fired well over 120,000 canisters, although the Turkish government has issued an emergency tender for 100,000 new gas canisters.
Now Turkish diplomats will insist that Turkey has a free press, and that is true so long as freedom is defined as being free to report all the news that Erdoğan approves and nothing more.
The question now, of course, is whether it is possible for Erdoğan to drive Turkey even lower in international press freedom rankings. It seems the answer is, unfortunately, yes. It is quite possible that, in the coming year, Turkey could find itself ranked below even Belarus, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain. Turkey will likely remain above Iran… for now. But after a few more years of Erdoğan, who knows? Erdoğan, however, will not care. His priority—it should be clear—is fealty to the sultan, not freedom or democracy.