Turkey has one of the worst freedom of press indices in the world. International human rights activists call it “the biggest prison for journalists.” And in late 2017, Turkey confirmed this image.
On Dec 25, the Turkish authorities restarted the trial of 17 current and former employees of Cumhuriyet (the oldest newspaper in Turkey). Those people are accused of “supporting armed terrorist organizations,” including PKK (Kurdish Workers’ Party), DHKP-C (Revolutionary People's Liberation Party/Front) and Fethullah Gulen’s FETO.
The accusations can send the accused to jail for a total of 43 years. Four of them are already behind the bars: Director General Akin Atalay, Editor-in-Chief Murat Sabuncu, journalists Ahmet Sik and accountant Emre Iper.
Today Cumhuriyet opposes President Erdogan and supports Turkey’s major opposition force, the Republican People’s Party.
For international and Turkish human rights activists, this trial is one more proof of Erdogan’s authoritarianism. After the coup attempt of 2016, the Turkish president has imprisoned lots of journalists. Erdogan is already preparing for the presidential and parliamentary elections to be held simultaneously on Nov 3, 2019, so, he does not need any dissidence or criticism.
Cumhuriyet had been on Erdogan’s blacklist long before the July coup for its constant criticism of his Justice and Development Party.
In Nov 2015, Cumhuriyet’s Editor-in-Chief Can Dundar and head of the newspaper’s Ankara Bureau Erdem Gul were arrested for high treason after publishing photos and videos of a “humanitarian convoy” carrying arms to fighters in Syria. Dundar and Gul claimed that that “delivery” was organized by Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization and approved by Erdogan.
On May 6, 2016, Dundar and Gul were sentenced to five years in jail for divulging state secret. The prosecutors insisted on live in jail but the judge dismissed their “high treason” charge.
The pressure continued and in May 2016, the authorities detained Editor of cumhuriyet.com.tr Oguz Guven for his article about the murder of the prosecutor general of Turkey’s Denizli Province Mustafa Alper.
On June 14, the Istanbul court sentenced MP from the Republican People’s Party Enis Berberoglu to 25 years in prison for his “scandalous” interview to Cumhuriyet, where he said that the Turkish special services were supplying arms to Syria.
The Republican People’s Party reacted by organizing a protest action: on June 15, the party’s leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu and his supporters marched from Ankara to Istanbul.
The next day, Turkey’s Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag said that it was a provocation, while Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said that marching from Ankara to Istanbul were mostly the people who stayed at home during the coup attempt in July 2016.
The demarche had no serious consequences as the key activists of the Republican People’s Party are all in prison. The party was beheaded in Nov 2016, when its two co-leaders were detained for “propaganda of terrorism.”
A new political force emerged in Turkey last autumn: İYİ Parti (Good Party), led by Meral Aksener (Turkey’s Interior Minister in 1996-1997). But no matter how “good” this party is, neither it nor any other force in Turkey can curb Erdogan’s plans to reproduce his regime in 2019.
But the growing pressure coming from NATO and the EU is keeping the Turkish President on alert as this may have very negative consequences for the Turkish economy. Today TRY rate is all time low, while prices and unemployment are growing. In 2017, Erdogan expects an economic growth of 7% but high inflation (13% in 2016) will make it useless.
The military campaigns in Syria and Iraq and the anti-terror operation at home are draining more and more money from the budget, while the 150,000-strong army of those fired from the public and private sectors after the coup attempt of 2016 is looming large as a big potential threat for the regime.
Now that all key oppositionists are in jail, the risk of a new coup is low, but the regime has long passed the point of no return and will hardly stop its repressive policy. In any case, Erdogan will have to keep balance so as not to enrage the West and his own people.
The latest events in Iran have become a warning for Turkey that those in the West can shatter any regime no matter how strong and popular it may be.
So, Erdogan cannot afford ignoring his EU and NATO partners. He perfectly knew that during his Jan 5 visit to France he would face Macron’s criticism and urgent calls to go back to democratic values, but he still went to Paris as he needs to improve his relations with Europe.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavucoglu had the same goal in mind when meeting his German colleague on Jan 6.
The EU will hardly admit Turkey any time soon, but it is not going to brush it off either. Even though that country will remain “the biggest prison for journalists” till 2019 at shortest, the West is forced to accept the fact of Erdogan’s dominance as today his party is very popular among local businessmen, clergymen and villagers.
EADaily’s Middle East Bureau