When it comes to freedom of speech and freedom of journalism, Turkey is a train wreck. From his early days as prime minister, the venal and thin-skinned Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has sought to punish any criticism, no matter how mild. He prosecuted political cartoonist Musa Kart for depicting Erdoğan as a cat entangled in a ball of string in a 2004 political cartoon. Likewise, he sued a newspaper that published a cartoon showing him as a horse being driven by an advisor.
In hindsight, such attacks against free press and free expression were just warning shots across the bow. When Erdoğan realized that he would face no consequence for his outrage — U.S. diplomats insisted that Erdoğan was a reformer and considered criticisms overblown —
then he launched a full-scale war on the press. One of the first things he did when he assumed the premiership was to take over regulatory bodies that he then used to levy unreasonable and spurious tax liens against media companies that dared criticize him.
If editors did not take the hint that any criticism, however innocuous, was unacceptable, then the government might simply seize media companies and overnight take over opposition newspapers and television stations. In theory, there is a neutral, bureaucratic custodial process but, in practice, this too has been corrupt by Erdoğan. In 2007, for example, the government seized control of the Turkey’s second largest media group, ATV-Sabah, and sold it to a holding company managed by Erdoğan’s son-in-law. He purchased it only after Erdoğan pressed state banks and the Emir of Qatar to finance the sale. In recent days, Erdoğan did much the same thing without going through the motions of actually putting money down: He seized a news company affiliated with exiled Islamist thinker Fethullah Gülen, shut down two television stations mid-broadcast, and then changed the editorial stance of the seized newspaper 180 degrees just a days before today’s election.
While almost every serious diplomat, civil society activist, and foreign journalist now recognizes just how compromised the Turkish press is, most do not discuss the dark side of Erdoğan’s war on the press: the willing collaborators among favor-seeking journalists willing to sell the integrity and independence of their trade for political or material favor. Back in 2011, Cengiz Çandar, senior political columnist of the Turkish daily Radikal, penned an apologia for Erdoğan’s war on the press in The Guardian. Not only did he declare, “Freedom of speech is part of the daily routine in Turkey,” but he actually endorsed the government’s arrest of his journalistic colleagues, writing, “The journalists who’ve been arrested were not arrested because of their journalistic activities or for expressing their opinions: they are suspected of being part of a plot to topple the civilian government.” This was nonsense, of course: the evidence was an obvious forgery, written on a version of Microsoft Word that did not exist when the crimes were said to have occurred.
During a recent trip to Turkey to interview veteran and retired journalists, many cited incidents of journalists or amateur journalists who towed the party line winning rapid promotion in seized media companies, getting talk shows on television to tow the government line and, in more than a few incidents, somehow acquiring multi-million dollar properties along the Bosporus.
Few would argue that a sycophantic press trumps an independent, professional press. Indeed, the Fifth Estate is meant to be a check on government and the tendency of all governments to avoid accountability for poor decisions or public corruption.
Many countries — Eritrea and North Korea, for example — have never had a free press, but the real tragedy is when those countries that have, like Turkey or perhaps Hungary, seek to reverse press freedom. The United States sanctions human rights violators and tracks the money of corrupt autocrats. If the United States seeks to uphold press freedom and promote an independent press as a component of civil society, perhaps it’s time to sanction party hacks who manage or report for seized and confiscated independent press. No one can stop men like Erdoğan from seizing papers like Sabah and Millet, and no one can likewise muzzle those like Çandar who, apparently for favor and access, cheer him on as he incarcerates true journalists. But, these agents of repression posing as journalists should be treated as the former and not the latter. Take the job of independent journalists or editors when an autocrat seized a newspaper? Lose the right to enter the United States for business or pleasure. Autocrats like Erdoğan would not be able to undercut press freedom without collaborators. Perhaps, it’s time to recognize they hold equal guilt to the man whom they idolize or from whom they seek to profit.