Hundreds of brave journalists in Turkey took to the streets of Istanbul this week to protest new laws tightening censorship of the Internet.
In early February, Azerbaijani journalist Mahir Zeynalov was expelled from Turkey for the crime of “insulting the prime minister” in a Twitter post, the first since 1995 to be expelled.
If banning insults to Prime Minister Tayip Erdogan, the head of the ruling Islamist Justice and Development Party, was not bad enough, a Turkish court ordered a ban on media investigations of a burgeoning weapons smuggling scandal involving Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization running convoys into Syria. This time, the censorship is in the name of national security.
“This blatant act of censorship violates the Turkish population’s right to be informed about a matter of public interest,” said Johann Bihr, the head of the Reporters Without Borders Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk.
But it is all par for the course of the Erdogan government. Turkey has one of the worst records on media freedom in the world. This is not a new phenomenon, but one greatly exacerbated since December 2013, when a massive scandal revealed corruption throughout the police, justice system, and government. Since then, the Erdogan government has frantically tried to crack down on journalists to contain the scandal. The prime minister himself regularly singles out individual reporters by name for attack.
In Turkey today, there are no fewer than 28 journalists and media workers in detention. This number is exceeded only by China, which has 30 journalists jail. In the new 2014 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index, Turkey ranks a dismal 154th out of 180 countries listed.
These findings by Reporters Without Borders are echoed in a new special report, also published in February, on Turkey’s “Democracy in Crisis: Corruption, Media and Power” by Freedom House. It details efforts by Turkey’s government to limit public debate, deepening the country’s political and social polarization. Since December, according to Freedom House, 59 reporters have been fired for doing their jobs.
“The government must recognize that its efforts to control a free debate are further alienating Turkey’s citizens and could potentially threaten the country’s stability,” the report says. “It could also put at risk Turkey’s integration with Europe and its strong alliance with the United States.”
Turkey’s current direction is nothing less than dangerous and deeply destructive for its democratic institutions.