Much has been written here at COMMENTARY about the slow unraveling of Turkey’s democratic hopes as Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, first as prime minister and then as president, has consolidated power and rolled back press freedom. Against the backdrop events in Iran, Yemen, and Syria, however, how much of a self-parody Turkey has become has passed largely unnoticed in the West.
Turkey, of course, isn’t North Korea and never will be, but the aftermath of the Kabataş incident might give pause. Basically, the background was that during the 2013 Gezi protests, a pro-regime journalist tweeted that he had witnessed more than one hundred men dressed in leather fetish outfits harassing a conservatively dressed religious woman in the central Istanbul district of Kabataş. This became a rallying call for Erdoğan, who proceeded to depict everyone protesting for their rights and against dictatorship as hooligans and terrorists.
The only problem with such a narrative, however, was it rested on a complete fabrication. Turkey is a police state. There are closed circuit cameras everywhere. And a review of the footage showed the veiled woman crossing the street completely unmolested. No one accosts her. And, for that matter, no one in the neighborhood appears to be dressed in leather, sadomasochistic gear. That seems simply to have been a homoerotic fantasy dreamed up by Erdoğan, but the president’s psyche will be a topic for another day.
What is truly striking—and, credit where credit is due, what the Turkish blogger “The Radical Democrat” pointed out to me—is that Turkey’s pro-Erdoğan columnists not only rallied around a complete falsehood, but also did so utilizing almost the exact same headlines on the exact same day. Does Turkey have a free press? If the behavior of these 14 columnists and newspapers means anything, then the answer is no, although perhaps the incident does reveal why so many relatively young and new commentators suddenly find themselves hosting talk shows on state-run TV and buying multimillion dollar villas on the Bosporus.
Then again, this is just the tip of the iceberg in what is now occurring inside Turkey and its media environment. A Turkish court recently sentenced two journalists to prison for satirizing Erdoğan’s animus toward journalists; apparently, Erdoğan was so busy worrying about leather-clad, whip-wielding gangs that he missed the irony. But don’t expect to read any of this in Turkey soon, as the Erdoğan regime—which has already blocked 100,000 Internet sites—moves to shut down any political discussion which does not conform to Erdoğan’s narrow view.