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Mechanisms of Control: How Turkey is Criminalizing Dissent and Muzzling the Press

Through its mounting campaign of arrests, financial pressure, online censorship, outright seizure, and violent intimidation, Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has been increasingly successful in muzzling Turkey’s outspoken press. This assault on media freedom has been most visible over the course of the last two years, during which Turkey held four elections. But the AKP’s attempts to control the press cannot simply be chalked up to heavy-handed electoral tactics. The Bipartisan Policy Center’s analysis of the mechanisms—both legal and extralegal—that the AKP regime has used to control the media shows an interest in controlling the press going back to at least 2008. Furthermore, it shows how the government has perfected new, increasingly aggressive means to pressure the press, with a chilling effect on the willingness of both Turkish media and society to dissent from the official government line.

Turkish government attacks on the media are part of a larger strategy of dismantling any institutions—the military, the judiciary, and now the media—capable of acting as a check on the AKP’s power. With its increasingly tight grip on the formerly independent institutions of the state and the media, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the AKP are creating an autocratic society— but they are not buying stability. Biased reporting—and, in some cases, deliberate misinformation—are used to build support for Turkey’s destabilizing civil war with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey’s southeast, as well as a Syria policy increasingly at odds with U.S. interests. Indeed, in recent years U.S.-Turkish disagreement over confronting ISIS reached the point where an exasperated Vice President Joe Biden declared, “Our biggest problem is our allies.”

American policymakers concerned about the direction of Turkish foreign policy must pay greater attention to the health of Turkey’s democracy and, in particular, the state of its media. A change in Turkish policy cannot come absent the expression of dissatisfaction at the country’s current direction from a majority of voters. But how are they to know what is happening inside Turkey, let alone on its periphery, if the government is preventing the media from reporting on sensitive subjects and silencing any voice that is critical of its policies? Also troubling is recent evidence that Turkey’s approach to managing its own media—by peddling disinformation through cowed and compliant channels—has spilled over into its diplomatic relations with the United States, corroding much needed trust between the two countries.

“If you do not have the ability to express your own opinion, to criticize policy, offer competing ideas without fear of intimidation or retribution,” as Biden put it on a January 2016 visit to Turkey, “then your country is being robbed of opportunity.” And if the United States does not express its opinions about the suppression of media freedom in Turkey, it is robbing itself of the opportunity to repair what once was, and should again be, a close alliance and productive partnership.

The State of Turkey’s Media

While the AKP’s early years in power were marked by slowly improving press freedom, as shown by Freedom House’s yearly Freedom of the Press rankings, press freedom began to drop precipitously after 2008, until Turkey’s press was demoted from “partly free” to “not free” in 2014.

When the AKP began its tenure in 2002, it released journalists imprisoned by Turkey’s previous rulers, consistent with the image the AKP promoted of itself as liberal, democratic reformers intent on European Union membership and integration with the West. However, the legal framework used by Turkey’s past leaders to imprison journalists was not dismantled, only temporarily unused. Intent on transforming Turkish society as part of what he calls the “New Turkey” project, Erdoğan and the AKP began to abandon their image as reformers, and to use these repressive laws to prosecute their opponents, instead of reforming or repealing them. The numbers are startling: in 2012 and 2013, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) ranked Turkey as the world’s worst jailer of journalists.

The number of journalists released in 2014 and 2015 are not an indication, however, that Turkey has abandoned this practice. Legal changes in 2014 reduced the maximum period of pretrial detention for terrorism-related crimes from ten years to five years, necessitating the release of many journalists previously held in detention. It also shows that, even without scores of journalists behind bars, the government has achieved its goal: widespread intimidation of the press and self-censorship among its ranks. Additionally, estimates of the number of journalists imprisoned vary. While CPJ counted 14 journalists in jail as of December 2015, other estimates place the total closer to 30. In January 2016, an AKP deputy prime minister said 67 journalists were imprisoned, but he disputed that they were imprisoned for their journalistic activities.

Today, much of the media landscape in the country is dominated by the government’s “allied” media, which function as propaganda organs for the AKP. Ongoing government attacks, meanwhile, are geared toward curbing the country’s remaining independent news and commentary outlets. The AKP has been largely successful in creating a widespread attitude of fear and self-censorship among journalists, in which once-independent publications now appear eager to accommodate the government’s demands.

Tools of Control

Despite having won a major victory in the November 2015 general election, the AKP has shown little evidence of relaxing its antagonistic stance toward the media. Indeed, Turkey appears likely to head to the polls again in 2016, either for yet another parliamentary election or for a referendum on a new constitution. The AKP’s hold on the media has been, and will continue to be, an essential part of its electoral strategy: denying citizens the unbiased information necessary to make informed decisions at the voting booth and preventing the opposition from disseminating their messages and competing in the marketplace of ideas.

The AKP government relies on a diverse set of legal and extralegal methods to control the press. These include laws that criminalize “Denigrating Turkishness,” “Inflaming Hatred and Hostility,” “Membership in a Criminal Organization,” “Civil and Criminal Defamation,” “Promoting Terrorism,” and “Insulting the President of the Turkish Republic.” Of the legal mechanisms examined in this report, only two—laws regulating Internet content and allowing the government to appoint trustees to take over a company’s business—were passed by the AKP. The vast majority has existed, in various forms, prior to the AKP’s ascension to power in 2002. However, while most of these mechanisms were not invented by the AKP, the AKP government has applied them aggressively.

The tactics employed by the government to silence its critics have evolved during the AKP’s tenure: shifting from retaliatory measures against individual journalists to attacks on the very institution of journalism. The Turkish government now regularly imposes media blackouts on topics that might paint it in a bad light and, even more alarmingly, has shown a new willingness to take over entire news outlets, seizing them outright and transforming them into pro-government mouthpieces almost overnight. This practice was best displayed in early March 2016, when the AKP government seized control of one of Turkey’s highest circulated daily newspapers, Zaman, as well as other media outlets owned by the Feza Media Group, on the grounds that the media outlets supported terrorism based on their affiliation with the AKP’s enemy, the Fethullah Gülen Movement.

In addition to using the vast legal tools at its disposal, the AKP government has also used financial pressure, intimidation, and physical violence against media offices and individual journalists.

The best example of the severity of the government’s recent crackdown on critical speech is the application of one particular law, Article 299 of the Turkish Penal Code, which criminalizes insulting the president of the Turkish Republic.

According to data compiled by a Turkish daily, Article 299 was not used at all by the three presidents prior to the AKP’s capture of the post—and only once under AKP President Abdullah Gül. Under Erdoğan, however, use of Article 299 has skyrocketed, targeting journalists, authors, academics, students, and others for offenses from tweets deemed offensive to the president to mocking Facebook posts.

A free press is an essential component of a functioning democracy: it informs the public of crucial issues, promotes debate of politics and policies, and holds leaders to account for their decisions. Widely deployed, the tools of censorship create a culture of obedience, facilitating repeated electoral victories for the AKP and a broader transformation of Turkish society. Indeed, obedience to Erdoğan and persecution of his critics has been so internalized by at least some segments of Turkish society that a husband recently sued his own wife for expressing doubts about the president within the privacy of her own home.

Alarmingly, many of the AKP’s attacks on the press enjoy considerable support from the Turkish public. Indeed, in arresting opposition journalists, the government has reinforced the idea that its critics are criminals, motivated not by honest disagreement but by support for terrorism or military coups. But even if the number of legal cases against the press should subside or Turkish prisons be emptied of the journalists they currently contain, significant damage will already have been done to Turkey’s freedom of press and expression that will be difficult to undo.

Ultimately, the persistence of an un-free press corrodes public trust, and the lack of reliable news prevents critical thought. In the absence of both of these, democracy becomes unworkable. And without democracy, Turkey’s trajectory is unlikely to change.

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