With Turkey, the shame game isn’t enough

The town of Cizre, in Southeastern Turkey, has been under 24-hour curfew for two months. As conflict rages between Turkish security forces and militants of the banned Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, news emerges in fragments, captured by local journalists operating in  extraordinary risk.

Rohat AktaƟ, a reporter for a regional Kurdish newspaper, was shot in the arm last month and has been pinned down in Cizre for weeks, unable to get medical help. Another reporter, Refik Tekin, was shot in the leg while filming the gruesome massacre of civilians evacuating the dead and wounded. The incident prompted U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein to declare, “Filming an atrocity is not a crime, but shooting unarmed civilians most certainly is.”

Through curfews, detentions, restrictions on movement, and violent attacks, the Turkish government has imposed effective censorship on coverage of an escalating conflict with national, regional, and global implications.

But this is only one aspect of Turkish media crackdown that has reached unprecedented proportions.

Government pressure has led to the dismissal of the country’s most critical editors and reporters from major news outlets. Many of these leading media organizations are controlled by business groups with ties to the government; others are intimidated into submission. Online speech is increasingly restricted; leading editors have been jailed; criticism of the president is outlawed; international correspondents are subjected to harassment, vilification, and expulsion. Take, for example, Dutch freelancer Frederike Geerdink, who was deported last September after being detained on terrorism-related charges in retaliation for her coverage of the Kurdish conflict.

These attacks on the press are directly correlated to the evisceration of Turkey’s once vital civil society. Not long ago, the Turkish economy was booming and the country was on the verge of consolidating its democracy. Today, it is struggling to maintain stability and keep its economy from imploding. 

The escalating media repression in Turkey also shows the “name and shame” strategies that are the mainstay of human rights advocacy are no longer effective. This approach requires systematic documentation of the abuses being committed, then relentless and sustained pressure on the local government to address them. It’s a strategy that works well when officials care about what the rest of the world thinks. In Turkey, that no longer appears to be the case. 

The endless press conferences, international delegations, solidarity visits to newsrooms, and meetings with Turkish government officials may have tempered some of the worst abuses, but they have failed to shift the balance. As President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has transformed Turkey into a neo-authoritarian state, the time has come for a radical new approach.

I’ve reached this conclusion reluctantly after years of advocating for press freedom in Turkey. I became involved there in 2011, when a wave of media repression hit. At that time Turkey was being touted by the Obama administration as a model for the Middle East, an example of how to reconcile Islam with democracy. But beneath the veneer, cracks were appearing.

A sweeping crackdown on the media led to the arrests of dozens of journalists—most working for leftist and Kurdish outlets. In October 2012, the Committee  to Protect Journalists detailed in a report, Turkey’s Press Freedom Crisis that the country was the world’s worst jailer of journalists, with at least 61 behind bars in direct retaliation for their work. The report garnered significant international attention, and prompted a furious reaction from the Turkish government. Turkish diplomats around the world were given specific instructions to challenge the findings and attack CPJ’s credibility.

Even while seeking to discredit the report’s findings, Turkey started releasing journalists, many of whom had never been convicted of a crime. By the time President Erdogan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu agreed to meet with a CPJ delegation in October 2014, only seven journalists remained in jail.

The meetings were contentious—Erdogan claimed to be against Internet and lashed out at The New York Times and CNN. But the government also made some meaningful commitments. The Justice Ministry pledged to facilitate access to the case files of the seven journalists, all of them Turkish, who remained behind bars. Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu promised to intervene in the cases of threatened reporters.

But when Turkey’s political environment began to shift, the dialogue ended. The factions that made up the governing coalition were feuding openly; the once promising peace talks with Kurdish militant groups were collapsing; the conflict in neighboring Syria was escalating, with arms flowing through Turkey and refugees fleeing the violence. After voters punished the governing party in Parliamentary elections last summer, Erdogan adopted a strategy of escalation and polarization in an effort to retain power.

Once again, journalists were caught in the crossfire. In September 2015, a team of reporters from Vice News operating in the Kurdish areas of Southeastern Turkey were detained on anti-terror charges. While two British journalists were eventually released, their stringer, Mohammed Rasool, was held more than four months. Today, he is out jail but still facing charges. A letter from CPJ to Davutoglu reminding him of the commitments he made was never answered. Meanwhile, CPJ contracted a Turkish lawyer to follow up the offer made by the Justice Minister to open up the case files of imprisoned journalists. She was never given access.

In November 2015, Turkish authorities jailed two leading journalists, Can Dundar and Erdem Gül, of the daily newspaper Cumhuriyet, and later charged them with exposing state secrets and aiding a terrorist group, which carries a life sentence. What the newspaper actually exposed—using video evidence—was that the Turkish government was clandestinely shipping weapons to Syrian rebels, weapons which presumably ended up in the hands of the Islamic State.

When it comes to fighting for press freedom in Turkey, there is no longer much point in engaging directly with the government.  A more effective strategy is to apply pressure externally and to orient the United States and Europe to take a more confrontational approach. Turkey will respond to the heightened pressure by continuing to utilize its strategic leverage, as it did recently with Germany. Chancellor Angela Merkel has felt compelled to pledge support for Turkey’s stalled EU bid in order to secure Ankara’s commitment to stem the flow of Syrian refugees into Europe.

But Turkey’s loses that leverage when its EU bid is off the table, as it should be when a country is gunning people down and brutally suppressing the media. Meanwhile, the US needs to link military cooperation with Turkey’s compliance with international human rights standards. Press freedom should be high on the list. If the crisis continues to escalate, economic sanctions and travel bans to the US for high officials should be considered.

At the moment, Turkey is not acting like a democratic ally that has lost its way. It’s acting like a threat to regional and global stability. Changing that will require the country’s leadership to create a more inclusive and tolerant society that can be a beacon for the region. But so long Turkey continues its relentless press freedom crackdown, that potential will never be realized.

Joel Simon is a CJR columnist and the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. His second book, The New Censorship: Inside the Global Battle for Media Freedom, was published by Columbia University Press in November 2014.