Freedom of speech in Turkey is deteriorating at a rate of knots. This week, a British academic was deported from the country with no trial and three academics were arrested, all accused of disseminating terrorist material. Earlier this month, Zaman — a widely-read newspaper critical of the regime — was seized and placed under control of a board of trustees by an Istanbul court.
Index on Censorship has recorded more than 10 press freedom violations over the past month alone, and 203 verified violations since May 2014. Along with the European Federation of Journalists and Reporters Without Borders, they have been mapping violations of press freedom over the past two years. Their findings make uncomfortable reading. In 2015, Turkey was ranked 149th out of 180 countries in the press freedom index.
Social media censorship
It is not only in the mainstream media where the Turkish authorities are able to clamp down on freedom of expression. During the Gezi Park uprising in 2013, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was famously recorded saying that: “To me, social media is the worst menace to society.”
The regime then briefly banned Twitter and YouTube in March 2014, though the two websites have been less supine than Facebook, who seem to be implementing the government's demands for censorship with no complaint.
Thanks to the work of a poorly-paid employee of a company to whom Facebook outsources its content moderation, we know the degree to which Facebook has acquiesced to the Turkish government's censorship requirements.
The document instructing Facebook's moderators on the banning of illicit content specifically forbids posts with the following: attacks on the Turkish Republic's founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, maps of Kurdistan, burning of Turkish flags, PKK support and Öcalan-related content.
The only other restricted content in this section of international compliance relates to Holocaust denial.
Incredibly, this policy is implemented internationally.
This heightened sensitivity displayed by Facebook — including deleting a photo of a piece of graffiti — is just one element in a worrying escalation in Turkey's ability to clamp down on free speech, with the protection from international condemnation that EU and NATO friendship affords.
Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Christophe Deloire commented in relation to the March 4 takeover of Zaman, a paper aligned with the opposition Islamist Gülen movement: “It is absolutely illegitimate and intolerable that Erdoğan has used the judicial system to take control of a great newspaper in order to eliminate the Gülen community's political base. This ideological and unlawful operation shows how Erdoğan is now moving from authoritarianism to all-out despotism.”
In a clear sign of this increasing despotism, simply insulting President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has led to prosecution and imprisonment. In Amnesty International's annual report on Turkey, it states: “In the six months to March, the Minister of Justice gave permission for 105 criminal prosecutions for insulting President Erdoğan under Article 299 of the Penal Code. Eight people were remanded in pre-trial detention ...
“In September, a 17-year-old student was convicted of “insult” for calling the President 'the thieving owner of the illegal palace'. He received a suspended sentence of 11 months and 20 days by a children's court in the central Anatolian city of Konya.”
According to the same report, Cumhuriyet journalist Canan Coşkun faces up to 23 years and four months in prison for insulting state prosecutors in her investigation into corruption.
Remarkably, two of the newspaper's senior staff have been charged with “espionage, revealing state secrets and assisting a terrorist organisation” after alleging that the Turkish intelligence services transferred weapons to an armed group in Syria in 2014 (Erdoğan originally claimed the trucks were delivering humanitarian aid).
More recently, Bans Ince, the former editor of the left-leaning Birgün newspaper, was sentenced to 21 months in prison for the “crime” of insulting the President.
Censorship and the war on Kurds
For Erdoğan's regime, limiting the spread of information about the bloody war it is conducting against the Kurdish people and the revolutionary leftist organisations is a keystone of its military strategy. Too much information about its bloody ethnic cleansing in the area could spark even more protests all over Europe, where more than 1.5 million Kurds live.
Given the popularity of the left-wing, pro-Kurdish Peoples Democratic Party (HDP), the negative attention drawn to Erdoğan's regime by 2013's Gezi Park protests, and the role of traditional and new media in both phenomena, media manipulation is a crucial component of Turkey's domestic policies of repressing internal dissent.
During the 79-day-long curfew imposed since December 14 on the Kurdish city of Cizre, a town of 132,000 near the banks of the Tigris river and the borders of Syria and Iraq, the Turkish army claims to have killed more than 700 Kurdish militants — widely believed to be a highly exaggerated number. Furthermore, 92 civilians were killed, according to human rights groups, and since hostilities ended another 171 bodies were found.
Turkey launched its military operation in the south-eastern part of the country in July 2015, breaking a ceasefire signed with the PKK in 2013. Turkish security forces entered a number of Kurdish settlements in armored vehicles to take on the Kurdish movement. Hundreds of Kurdish militants and civilians, including children, have been killed and more than 200,000 lives have been put at risk.
Erdoğan's war against the Kurdish people is not only carried out by the Turkish army and in Turkish Kurdistan, but is also conducted with the use of the Turkish-backed Islamist groups in Turkey and Syria. The images of the bomb attacks of Suruç and Ankara are still vivid in our memory.
On July 20, 2015, 33 people were killed in a suicide attack attributed to ISIS. The victims were mainly members of a pro-Kurdish leftist youth organisation giving a press conference on their planned trip to help reconstruct Kobanê after its fierce resistance against the ISIS siege.
On October 10, another suicide attack hit the pro-Kurdish left movement, during a peace rally organised by the HDP and other leftist groups outside Ankara Central railway station. The death toll reached 102 and more than 400 people were injured. The brother of the Suruç attack was identified as the bomber; both were suspected to be linked to ISIS.
Due to Ankara's size, and the high level of security, it seems unlikely that the attack could have happened without at least the knowledge of the Turkish security services.
The Turkish regime's connections with Islamist groups active in the Syrian conflict have been well established.
Turkey's geopolitical position
There is little need to wonder why Erdoğan's regime is conducting this all-out war against the Kurdish people.
Their movement and the pro-Kurdish left represent an existential threat to Erdoğan's regime and the political and social alliance which has supported his rise to power, providing a vessel for strong political and social opposition both inside and beyond the national borders. .
Turkish growth is stagnating, the Turkish lira is in freefall against the dollar and Russian sanctions are hitting Turkish industrial and agricultural production hard.
Facing the current deadlock in his almost 20-year regime, Erdoğan's strategy is appropriately summed up by a former politician for the opposition party CHP: “It is as if Erdoğan is saying: If you vote for me, I will bring peace and stability. If you don't, I will make your life a living hell.”
While the Kurdish diaspora and international alliances are a potential sticking point for the regime's international clout, Turkey's geopolitical position has developed over the last year due to the EU's desire to strengthen its external borders.
Turkey represents a key ally for the EU, absorbing migrants displaced by the civil war in Syria and enforcing harsh border controls. The impetus for strengthening such an alliance following last summer's refugee crisis has coincided with Turkey's increasing repression with impunity.
On the timing of the state's takeover of the Zaman newspaper, when EU officials and heads of state were on official visits, Mapping Media Freedom commented: “Turkey now calibrates its place in the world not as a democratic standard bearer in a troubled part of the globe but as a buffer zone between Fortress Europe and a tide of Syrian refugees.
“This, it believes, gives it licence to get away with the murder of a newspaper.”
The gravity of importance placed on Turkey as a way to repel refugees from the European continent has allowed it to shed any semblance of free expression, while the European Union is on the verge of crossing Erdoğan's palm with €6 billion worth of silver.
As long as European politicians prioritise being tough on refugees over the rights of political dissidents in Turkey, constraints on freedom of speech, both in Turkey and abroad, will only increase.
[Abridged from Roar Magazine.]