ON WEDNESDAY MORNING, Turkish riot police stormed the offices of Koza Ipek Holding, a media group in Istanbul housing the Bugun TV channel and the Bugun and Millet newspapers.
“Dear viewers,” a Bugun TV anchor casually announced during the early morning broadcast, “do not be surprised if you see police in our studio in the upcoming minutes.” Outside, police were leading journalists away in handcuffs, while citizens — many of them journalists who worked in the building — protested the dawn raid as police attempted to disperse the growing crowd with tear gas and water cannons.
Scenes of riot police suddenly and forcefully storming media outlets perceived to be critical of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan have become increasingly common in Turkey. In June the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) won 13 percent of the vote in the Parliamentary election, thereby surpassing the 10 percent electoral threshold needed for Parliamentary representation and taking away seats from President Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Since then, Turkey has experienced a significant uptick in attacks on media outlets viewed as sympathetic to the opposition parties, in particular the pro-Kurdish parties. The Koza Ipek Holding media group is affiliated with Fetullah Gulen, a U.S.-based moderate Islamic cleric and arch-rival of President Erdogan.
As the November 1 elections approach — a “snap” election called by the AKP in hopes of regaining a Parliamentary majority — press freedom advocates are concerned that the increasing raids on media outlets and attacks on journalists represent a dire threat to Turkish democracy.
“This pressure and attacks have significantly impacted journalists’ ability to report on matters of public interest freely and independently,” said Muzaffar Suleymanov, a researcher for the Committee to Protect Journalists Europe and Central Asia Program, at a recent press conference hosted by an emergency press freedom mission to Turkey. “In a practical sense, attacks on journalists compromise their work and affect the public’s ability to make an informed decision to vote.”
Since the June elections, 40 journalists have been detained while working — a sixfold increase from last year. Twenty of these journalists, mostly Kurdish, remain behind bars — including Iraqi-Kurdish VICE News fixer Mohammed Rasool, who has spent more than 60 days in a high-security prison following his arrest with two foreign journalists in the Kurdish province of Diyarbakir. In Istanbul, the offices of Hürriyet — the paper often seen as the flagship of Turkish media — were raided and twice vandalized after the paper was accused of being sympathetic to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Soon afterward, Ahmet Hakan, a senior editor at Hürriyet, was attacked by armed thugs outside his home.
In addition to targeted attacks silencing journalists, the Erdogan government has issued media gag orders, which many in Turkey see as attempts to distort public discourse. Following the twin bombings on October 10 that exploded at a peace rally in Ankara, leaving 102 dead in the worst terrorist attack in Turkish history, President Erdogan ordered a complete media ban on all “news, reports, criticism, and similar publications in print, visual, social media and the Internet pertaining to the investigation of the bombing.” Although the Turkish government attempted to blame the PKK for the bombing, Turkish newspapers have confirmed that one of the bombers was Yunus Emre Alagöz, the brother of Sheikh Abdulrahman Alagöz who killed 34 people in a similar attack in the border town of Suruç earlier this year. Official records state that both brothers had been under police surveillance since 2013, when their families contacted the authorities expressing fears that their sons had joined the Islamic State.
The media blackout on all information pertaining to the attacks helped create a narrative that PKK and HDP groups were behind the attack, despite the fact that they were in fact the groups targeted at the rally. “It created a sort of alternative information flow that actually convinced the public that HDP had attacked its own rally,” said Deniz Sayman, a student and HDP supporter.
At least one of the bombers has been confirmed to be a member of the Islamic State, adding to the evidence that ISIS is at least partially responsible for the attack. Yet according to a survey by the Gezici Research Company, a greater percentage of the Turkish public believes that the PKK was behind the deadly bombings than blames ISIS. By demonizing the Kurdish parties and steering public attention away from the negligence of the Turkish government in preventing the attacks, the press ban served the interests of the Erdogan government.
Despite its position as a U.S. ally and its reputation as one of the only longstanding democracies in the Middle East, Turkey remains — with or without upcoming elections — one of the most hostile environments for journalists.
“Journalism is one of the most traumatizing professions in Turkey,” Sarphan Uzunoglu, a lecturer at Istanbul’s Kadir Has University, told The Intercept. “If you are not providing your journalistic services to the pro-government media,” Uzunoglu continued, “you should be hiding like an activist.”
In addition to attacks on reporters and media outlets, over the past five years Turkey has passed a series of anti-defamation and anti-terrorism laws that have been used to criminalize freedom of speech, both online and in the press. Under anti-defamation laws, journalists can be sued — and in some cases, convicted and imprisoned — for insulting President Erdogan. This month alone, Bülent Kenes, editor-in-chief of Today’s Zaman, Turkey’s leading English-language newspaper, was arrested for insulting the president in a series of tweets.
Similar anti-terrorism laws frequently criminalize Kurdish media, accusing outlets of being affiliated with the PKK, a banned organization in Turkey. Mohammed Rasool was imprisoned under an anti-terrorism law for allegedly using encrypted hard drives, which according to Turkish authorities constitutes “aiding a terrorist organization.”
In the current environment, if journalists wish to remain unscathed by the media crackdown, they must refrain from reporting on certain subject matters, particularly the Kurdish issue and Turkey’s foreign policy with Syria.
“Most journalists who have to feed their families simply keep their heads down and obey the rules,” Mustafa Kuleli, a journalist-turned-organizer for the Turkish Journalists Syndicate, told The Intercept.
As the environment becomes worse and the censorship becomes increasingly absurd, many journalists have been forced to leave the profession. Some leave of their own accord, out of either concern for their safety or frustration with limitations on their reporting. Others are fired for toeing the government line on a particular subject matter.
“In Turkey it is becoming more and more difficult to do this profession,” said Gülsin Harman, a Turkish journalist who until last week worked for the Turkish Milliyet newspaper. After the newspaper was bought by a media conglomerate with close ties to the Erdogan government, the coverage changed and she no longer felt she could produce quality journalism. “At the end of the day, you are doing it for the public. So if the public is not informed about the Kurdish issue, or the gag orders, or the blocking of websites, what are you doing it for?”
Although some hope that a new coalition government — particularly one involving HDP, or at least reducing the control of the AKP — could usher in a new era for press freedom in Turkey, journalists like Harman believe that the problem with journalism and media freedom in Turkey runs deeper than politics. “Even if something really magical happens, if overnight AKP disappears, it won’t solve our problem, because people have lost all of their confidence in the media in Turkey.”