In 2002, Reporters without Frontiers ranked Turkey 99th in the world in terms of press freedom. That was a poor showing for a country aspiring to join the European Union, but it still placed Turkey well above countries like Burma, Russia, Ethiopia, and Iraq. No longer. Over his more than decade-long premiership, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has used a number of tools to constrain press freedom.
After replacing technocrats on Turkey’s banking and tax boards with political loyalists, Erdoğan levelled ever-increasing tax liens against media organizations that criticized him or his agenda. If his targets did not forfeit their media outlets, Erdoğan would confiscate them. While, in theory, these media companies would come up for auction, Erdoğan would ensure that the only permissible bidders would be loyalists to his political party and, preferably, members of his own family.
Erdoğan would simultaneously employ other strategies as well. Turkey imprisons more journalists than Iran and China. It harasses female journalists and has recently begun targeting journalists working for foreign outlets as well. (I have not been immune; after I criticized Turkish corruption, Erdoğan aide Cuneyd Zapsu and (now disgraced and fired) EU Minister Egemen Bağış sued me in a Turkish court). He targeted authors to confiscate unpublished manuscripts; Turkey now prosecutes thought-crime rather than actual crime.
Now, alas, Turkey is no longer willing to simply go after traditional outlets. While Erdoğan’s jihad against social media is long standing, Erdoğan increasingly seeks to control what can be published online. Quite simply, the Internet—and, more broadly, free discourse—frustrates Erdoğan, who would much rather crush dissent than accept the accountability and transparency a free media encourages or address the merits of his opponents’ arguments. As journalists have moved to online outlets to escape Erdoğan’s authoritarian ambitions, the number of Turkish news portals has exploded online.
It is these that Erdoğan now targets. According to “the radical democrat,” a Turkish blog which closely follows free speech, Internet freedom, and individual liberty issues in Turkey:
Today, surprisingly access to Karsi‘s newsportal online was blocked… The portal continues to use a proxy newsportal for now “uncensored news” (sansursuz haber) until it also gets subjected to same treatment. Another surprise news of the day is that newly established “Gri Hat” (Grey Line) newsportal is also taken to court and blocking access is declared, for potential to distribute critical news material which has published the corruption records on the newsportal. Gri Hat was established not more than a month ago by unemployed/fired journalists and it was going to leak more news pieces regarding all kinds of corruption… If alternative/opposed news portals continue getting raided or subjected to threats and give in to such pressure, the future of democracy hangs on spikes in Turkey.
Turkey was never a beacon of freedom. But with Erdoğan’s latest move against Internet portals, it seems determined to fall further in international press freedom rankings, below even Iran, Belarus, and China.