‘Any journalist who directs criticism at President Recep Tayyip Erdogan or his ruling Justice and Development Party is taking a high risk’, wrote Ahmet Sik, an investigative journalist at Turkish daily Cumhuriyet, in March 2016. In the same month, Turkey’s largest newspaper, Zaman, was brutally shut down by police, who barged into its offices with bolt cutters and tear gas. The newspaper, which was fiercely critical of Erdogan, has since been reopened with new, government-sourced owners. Its anti-Erdogan stance has been reversed.
Sik himself has now fallen foul of Turkey’s draconian restrictions on free speech. In December last year, he was jailed after tweeting about the government’s crusade against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The government conflated reporting on the PKK, which is designated a terrorist group, with terrorist activity, and consequently labelled his comments ‘terrorist propaganda’. Sik was placed in solitary confinement and wasn’t given water for three days. He is yet to be released.
When it comes to press censorship, Turkey is fast becoming a world leader. According to figures compiled by the Stockholm Centre for Freedom, 228 journalists are currently imprisoned in Turkey – twice that of any other nation. Of those in jail, 194 are still awaiting trial, and most of them haven’t even been charged with a crime.
Last month, many thought Turkey’s descent into the depths of censorship had finally relented when 21 journalists were suddenly released from custody. Unfortunately, they were re-arrested just hours later. Turkey’s criminal-justice bureaucracy seems to be both deeply authoritarian and utterly chaotic. The government has now stopped publishing data on prison figures. Write one suspect article in Turkey and you could find yourself locked up.
After the failed coup against President Erdogan’s government last July, Erdogan declared a state of emergency and closed down thousands of organisations for their alleged links to US-based cleric Muhammed Fethullah Gulen, the political opponent whom Erdogan blamed for the coup. As a result, 12 columnists, cartoonists and reporters from the centre-left Cumhuriyet are currently in prison. According to the paper, they are no longer allowed to receive letters from the outside world.