The Fourth Estate is increasingly fearful as Erdoğan targets media critics
[ISTANBUL] — An attack on one of Turkey’s most famous columnists marks the latest stage in the campaign of intimidation against journalists by the Erdoğan regime.
Ahmet Hakan Coşkun (commonly known simply as Ahmet Hakan), a writer for Hürriyet newspaper and host of the political commentary show, “The Neutral Zone” on CNNTürk, was hospitalized with a broken nose and ribs after being attacked by four men outside his home late Wednesday night.
Of four suspects detained by police, three were members of a local branch of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), although they were expelled following the incident. Hürriyet editor-in-chief Sedat Ergin told local media that it was “an organized, planned attack.” Coşkun had applied for police protection 17 days before the attack, but it wasn’t given.
“There’s been such an escalation against journalists for a long time that this came as no surprise to us,” said Yavuz Baydar, a Turkish journalist and recipient of the 2014 European Press Prize Special Award for his work promoting media freedom.
“We all feel targeted,” Baydar tells The Media Line. “A sense of encirclement, a sense of siege and helplessness is pretty widespread.”
“My husband text messaged me this morning, telling me ‘honey, just be careful,’” says journalist Sedef Kabaş, herself on trial for a tweet. “Many journalists are very scared.”
Erkan Saka, a media studies professor at Istanbul Bilgi University, says the attack was political.
“The attackers’ intention is to intimidate journalists,” he tells The Media Line. “[President] Erdoğan and [his party] the AKP’s discourse is really pro-vigilante justice.”
Andrew Finkel, a journalist based in Turkey for over two decades and co-founder of press freedom organization P24, agrees the AKP, which recently lost its majority and is fighting a vicious campaign for the snap election on November 1, has fostered a polarized, politically charged environment where no kind of criticism is tolerated.
“At the moment the government is fighting for its life in the general election, and it’s taking off the gloves,” he says. “Even if it didn’t directly order the attack, it can’t claim to be totally innocent of people taking the hint.”
Before the attack on Coşkun, pro-government writer Cem Küçük threatened him in a column, warning “we could crush you like a fly if we wanted. We have been merciful until today and you are still alive.”
“Küçük clearly sees himself as not just some hack who’s selling influence on behalf of his proprietor, but as a politburo enforcer,” says Finkel. “He sees himself as having real political power which he is exercising. That degree of commitment to a political party and a political cause is unusual.”
Finkel says Coşkun’s background is as a religious conservative, but he gradually became more liberal and critical of the AKP, which makes him a special target. “Ahmet Hakan is guilty of apostasy as it were and therefore is more hated by the pro-government side.”
He says there’s always been censorship and lack of objectivity in the Turkish press, but now there’s “an intensification of the very worst habits and tendencies of the past.” In the pro-government press, this has reached the level of “pure propaganda, where the president or prime minister can phone the editor-in-chief and dictate this headline or that headline.”
Finkel says many pro-government writers don’t just seem themselves as journalists, but as warriors engaged in an ideological struggle. “You have a pro-government press that doesn’t simply do the bidding of the government for its proprietors’ interests, but feels this ideological commitment to support the government.”
Journalist Baydar is very critical of media owners, accusing them of selling out the values of their profession. “Their greed and temptation for only money has caused them to turn their media outlets and newsrooms into open air prisons of self-censorship, subservience and subordination.”
Baydar himself was fired from the pro-government Sabah newspaper in 2013 for his columns defending freedom of the press and is now under investigation for articles allegedly insulting President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
Coşkun’s paper Hürriyet, one of Turkey’s most popular and influential, neither pro-government nor particularly critical or oppositional, had its offices attacked twice in early September by angry pro-government mobs chanting “God is great” and saying the paper misquoted Erdoğan in a tweet.
One of those mobs was led by AKP parliamentarian and leader of the party’s youth movement Abdurrahim Boynukalın, who vowed to make Erdoğan an all-powerful president regardless of the upcoming election. Boynukalın had been previously filmed saying he regretted not having beaten Hürriyet’s journalists in the past. He was soon thereafter promoted to the AKP’s high council, and all suspects detained for attacking Hürriyet were released.
The paper’s owner, the Doğan Media Group, is now the subject of an investigation into “promoting terrorism.” Hürriyet was also targeted with massive tax fines in 2009 after writing an article connecting Erdoğan and the AKP to a charity scandal in Germany.
“I think in general, this is the worst time [for journalism in Turkey],” Professor Saka says. “Nearly every week something happens that I couldn’t imagine happening before.”
He says he doesn’t know what to tell his journalism students in such an atmosphere. “It’s very hard to recommend them to find a job in the media at the moment if they aren’t connected to the AKP.” If they try to do real journalism, “their livelihood will be under threat all the time.”
Finkel, himself fired from two Turkish papers for political reasons, says it’s simply a matter of time before critical journalists lose their jobs or are targeted by the government. “It’s just a question of when. It’s like watching the vase on the mantelpiece move ever closer to the edge and wondering when it’s going to fall off and crash.”
Nearly every day in September journalists were detained, offices were raided, or investigations were opened against them.
On September 28 Dicle news agency (DİHA)’s offices in Diyarbakır were raided and 32 employees were temporarily detained. The agency extensively reports on the renewed conflict between the government and militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
On September 14 the magazine Nokta’s Istanbul office was raided and several journalists including chief news editor Murat Çapan were detained and charged with “insulting the Turkish president” and “making terrorist propaganda.” The magazine had prepared a cover featuring an altered image of Erdoğan taking a selfie in front of killed soldier’s coffin.
Columnists at daily Sözcü, staunchly secular and critical of the AKP, left their columns blank in the September 1 issue in protest of government intimidation, including 57 court cases and 67 criminal complaints, and 10 sued columnists over the past year.
In July Milliyet newspaper fired well-know columnist and press freedom advocate Kadri Gürsel over a critical tweet and in August let go six more journalists known for writing articles critical of the AKP. The daily fired several other very prominent writers in 2012 and 2013.
“I don’t know how many of us will be left in the end,” says journalist Kabaş.
Foreign journalists are also no longer immune in the crackdown.
Long-time correspondent Frederike Geerdink was detained on September 6 and deported three days later for her reporting on the Kurdish conflict.
British reporters Jake Hanrahan and Philip Pendlebury, working for Vice News, were accused of aiding a terrorist organisation and deported, also for their reporting on the Kurdish conflict. Their Iraqi fixer Mohammed Ismael Rasool remains in custody.
Professor Saka says going after foreign reporters scores domestic political points for the AKP. “It’s a sort of show of force for their own voters.”
He says past governments were concerned with Turkey’s reputation in the West, but that Erdoğan “really doesn’t care.”