BOB GARFIELD: Calling something what it is, is what journalists should strive to do, and what Turkish journalists increasingly are unable to do. A government crackdown on free speech has reached new depths in Turkey. Under the pretext of fighting terrorism, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has muzzled or punished reporters and editors, shuttered newspapers or turned them into propaganda arms. This from a NATO ally and applicant for the European Union.
Istanbul-based journalist Asli Aydintasbas says this is the darkest period in her 20 years of journalism. She used to write a daily column for the Turkish paper Milliyet and hosts a daily television, but after the paper was bought by a crony of President Erdogan lasts year, she lost both of her jobs. Now she must be content to be a formidable presence on social media.
Asli, welcome to the show.
ASLI AYDINTASBAS: Good to be here, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: There have always been redlines in the Turkish media. It’s never been a full-blown democratic environment. But the redlines are getting thicker and thicker, more and more impregnable. Can you give me an example of what is simply off the table for discussion?
ASLI AYDINTASBAS: Sure. Number one, no corruption stories, number two, nothing about the president himself or his family and, of course, the big - big no-no-no is the Kurdish story. We have a major war going on Kurdish towns are now leveled. When I say leveled, I mean like Grozny was, the Chechnyan capital. None of the mainstream papers picked up on it. They don't have reporters over there. They don't report on anything except imbeds by the police or military forces. And if you look at the profile of journalists that have been fired over the past year or academics that are sent to jail, it's people who question the government's position on the Kurdish issue.
For many of us, this is not a winnable war for Turks or Kurds. A better idea is to get back to peace negotiations. This is not something you can say on mainstream television in Turkey. I used to be on the air pretty often as a commentator. I used to have my own TV show, as well. But I couldn’t even dream of being invited to a TV show these days.
BOB GARFIELD: I want to ask you about the shutting down and reopening of Zaman, the seizing of the newspaper by the government. First of all, what happened there?
ASLI AYDINTASBAS: Government expanded an ongoing terrorism investigation. The court appointed a caretaker in charge of the newspaper. The editor-in-chief was fired. All the editors and columnists were fired. Zaman used to be Turkey's highest selling newspaper. Today, I think the circulation is about 3,000, this from something like 650,000.
Zaman is an interesting case because up until recently those that felt the harsh treatments from the government were Kurdish journalists or leftists or lately secular opponents of the government. But Zaman happens to be a group of conservative Turks who have somehow found themselves at the receiving end of government’s authoritarian tactics, when they started questioning Erdogan on corruption charges.
BOB GARFIELD: And they are followers of?
ASLI AYDINTASBAS: Fethullah Gülen, who is a moderate preacher who’s been living in Pennsylvania since 1999, I believe. He was an early supporter of Erdogan but became increasingly critical, both in terms of Erdogan’s personalized and authoritarian style and because of corruption investigations here that the government has basically stifled and cracked down on.
BOB GARFIELD: And Erdogan, he represents almost an Ayatollah Khomeini in-exile-in-Paris figure. He may be in eastern Pennsylvania but he represents, to Erdogan’s mind, a threat to the regime.
ASLI AYDINTASBAS: So for President Erdogan, much of the criticism that's been levied against him is essentially either part of an international plot or a coup effort. For example, there was an urban secular uprising in 2013 around Gezi Park in Istanbul against government’s plans to build a shopping mall there, and it was a massive, massive street. And Erdogan called it a coup plot. Later that year, there were a string of corruption investigations. Again, it was a coup plot, so all the cops and judges and prosecutors involved in the whole thing were arrested and they are now in jail.
And now, people that are questioning Turkey's Kurdish policy, basically the sort of scorched-earth policy that’s been taking place in Eastern Turkey, are also part of a coup attempt to bring down the government. When you are willing to characterize all your opponents as coup mongers, you are de facto delegitimizing what they are saying.
BOB GARFIELD: So what is left? Is there real journalism taking place in Turkey right now?
ASLI AYDINTASBAS: Mainstream media is under a lot of pressure on a daily basis. What you have is, first of all, legal takeovers of investigations to suffocate either journalists or owners of publications. You have libel suits. Insulting the presidency or the president is a clause in the Turkish Penal Code, and it’s used very liberally. You have terrorism charges, particularly if you write about the Kurdish issue.
But more importantly, you have a change in ownership structure, and here is how it works. A media owner realizes he cannot go on like this. His other business interests are threatened, so he would go ahead and sell his publication or a network or a newspaper to a crony of the government, and then they would change the editorial line and everything. Particularly owners that have other business interests - it could be mining, it could be tourism, it could be energy, you name it - are very susceptible to government pressure.
BOB GARFIELD: If this were a different time, it seems to me that Erdogan, he would be under an enormous amount of pressure externally, particularly from the EU, for clearly repressive tactics, for clearly undemocratic action, and so forth. But we're at this moment of time where the West really needs a cooperative Turkey.
ASLI AYDINTASBAS: The paradox is ten years ago we were doing great in terms of reform and democracy, and Turkey was really leaping forward, and Europeans wanted to have nothing to do with us. And fast forward ten years, now our democracy is effectively [LAUGHS] in shambles but Europeans can't get enough of us because they feel they need Turkey to keep refugees out of Europe. Turkey is a candidate for European Union membership. The progress reports, just like the State Department human rights reports about Turkey, are terrible. But Europeans are willing to turn a blind eye to all of that.
There was recently a summit in which European Union pledged to re-energize its partnership with Turkey, no mention of human rights, no mention of the deterioration of the democratic situation here and instead, promised Turkey 3 billion in return for keeping refugees here in Turkey and admitting back refugees that have been going illegally to Europe. That’s a very shameful deal.
BOB GARFIELD: Asli, I want to ask you about you. Tell me about how precisely you lost your job.
ASLI AYDINTASBAS: I wrote a column criticizing the president's harsh language towards media, urging him to not see all his critics as enemies, not to crack down on media. That was my last column, ironically.
BOB GARFIELD: Are you at risk staying there?
ASLI AYDINTASBAS: I won’t say this is not an intimidating environment right now. I've seen friends go to jail. I have many friends who have indictments. A good friend, Can Dündar, editor-in-chief of Cumhuriyet, one of Turkey's oldest newspapers, has a trial this week. He was in jail. He is accused of espionage for exposing Turkey’s illegal arms shipments to Syria.
The fact that I’m not working for a mainstream newspaper anymore and the fact that I'm not on television anymore is actually something that’s saving me right now. And I’m very careful what I say on Twitter.
BOB GARFIELD: Where you have like a half a million followers.
ASLI AYDINTASBAS: Four-hundred and seventy-five thousand.
BOB GARFIELD: So you have not exactly been rendered into irrelevance, but I, I wonder how you pay the rent?
ASLI AYDINTASBAS: Well, the problem is you don't know when you'll ever have work again, and it’s not knowing that that's the problem. Everyone can put up with hardship and difficulty. And if this is a struggle for democracy, we can really pay a price. But what if it goes on for the rest of our lives?
BOB GARFIELD: Is there anything that, that holds out some hope for you?
ASLI AYDINTASBAS: Well, I think there are lots of young people who are struggling to become journalists, they’re writing for online publications but. But in my case, I feel like these should have been the best years of my career. I'm in my prime in many ways. And the fact that I cannot do my job is really – is really sad sometimes.
BOB GARFIELD: Asli, thank you very much.
ASLI AYDINTASBAS: Thank you, Bob.
Asli Aydintasbas is a journalist based in Istanbul. She spoke with us from Ankara via Skype.
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