ISTANBUL – “Gul approves law subordinating judiciary to gov’t, draws criticism.”
That headline in Monday’s edition of the Zaman newspaper neatly summed up the major difference between ostensibly democratic Turkey and Western democracies like the United States.
In the States, we prize the tradition of an independent judiciary that’s beyond party control.
In Turkey, however, the word of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan — in this case carried out by President Abdullah Gul — is the law, constitutional safeguards be damned. (The Turkish presidency is a less-powerful institution than the office of the prime minister.)
That fact of life weighs heavily on Turkish journalists, especially at Zaman, a 25-year-old daily and the country’s largest newspaper.
It’s not easy doing aggressive, independent journalism in Turkey, where most news organizations are owned by business men with close ties to the Erdogan government. Flatter the government with your news coverage and commentary – or withhold negative stories – and your fortunes may may soar thanks to lucrative government construction contracts, for example.
Critical coverage carries no such reward – just a ticket to the prime minister’s enemies list.
Sometimes the control by government isn’t even subtle. After news of a corruption scandal broke late last year, for instance, Erdogan and his son ordered friendly newspapers to run specific headlines.
Zaman columnist Sevgi Akarcesme, who holds a master’s degree from Temple University in Philadelphia and worked for a time for a Washington think tank, said her newspaper’s pro-democracy, pro-diversity and pro-European Union stances had put it in the Erdogan government’s crosshairs. Criticism of the newspaper is “a useful political tool” for the prime minister, she said – a web used to shored up Erdogan’s political base among Turkey’s lower classes, rural residents and pious Muslims.
It’s interesting to note that Turkey’s constitution officially guarantees a free press. That’s where things get dicey.
“On paper, we have all the rights granted to media – freedom of expression,” Akarcesme said. “The problem is enforcement.”
The confrontation between the Turkish government and media came to a boil after news broke in December about the corruption scandal. The story exploded on social media, prompting the government to shut down Twitter.
Turkey’s constitutional court overturned the Twitter ban, with an almost predictable result.
“The prime minister said the court was not patriotic enough, Akarcesme said. “He said he will not respect the decision of the constitutional court.”
One Zaman journalist was deported after posting negative tweets about the government, on grounds that he didn’t have a Turkish passport, Akarcesme said. The man now works in Washington, D.C.
I asked Akarcesme whether she worried that the government might resort to jailing news professionals considered unfriendly.
“I don’t think so, ” she said. “At least for the time being.”
Small comfort, don’t you think?
Mark Baldwin is executive editor of the Register Star and Journal-Standard. He is in Turkey with the Niagara Foundation, which promotes intercultural dialogue.