Playing with fire: Journalism in Turkey

The release of four Turkish journalists by the government this week may please human rights advocates but raises yet again the issue of freedom of the press and just how tenuous this right has become under the Islamist AKP. Photo: AP Images

WASHINGTON, March 17, 2012 – Members of the Turkish press rejoiced when four of their colleagues, incarcerated for over a year, were released by the government.

The crime? Writing. No, wait. How silly of me. Writing isn’t a crime in secular, NATO-member, democratic societies governed by the rule of law. Let me rephrase that.

The crime was writing against the regime. The key word in that last sentence is, of course, the one before the period. Regime.

In modern parlance, regime is simply the sort of government attended by all the negative nuances of oppression we expect in places like Iran or Saudi Arabia. But, Turkey? There must be some mistake. Are we talking about the same country? The emerging market darling of the Middle East? The candidate for membership in the EU? The land of fun-filled affordable Mediterranean vacations with topless beaches that boast thousands of cavorting German and Russian beauties? The enchanting and tolerant world of Mevlana Celalledin Rumi we have read about in Elif Şafak’s novel The Forty Rules of Love?

This nation of boundless hospitality to foreigners, flowing with tea and honey and, yes, even copious rivers of raki and Efes Pilsen beer?

Yes. Unfortunately, that land of promise, (not to be confused with the “Promised Land”) is the same Turkey jailing reporters for dissent. The land of the Blue Cruise, the Blue Mosque, and blue people, who deserve far more freedom than their ruling class will allow.

Four reporters have been released, but dozens more are still being detained.

Turkish journalists not behind literal bars of iron still know that the omniscient police state, firmly controlled by the Islamist party’s decade-long rule, could terminate their “freedom of movement” at any time, especially if their stories happen to touch a raw nerve, which seems to be the only kind the regime has.

The next question is why? Why hasn’t the “progressive” secular republic bequeathed to the Turks after WWI been purged of such repression? The answer to this question far exceeds the scope of this article. We shall merely gloss over the broader question of why by positing that the land is haunted by a cruel spirit of tyranny constantly seeking embodiment, as it has for millennia, in a long string of Anatolian despots.

One of the reporters released pending trial was Ahmet Şık, the author of a book whose prepublication title was The Imam’s Army. In this book, Şık describes in great detail how religious elements closely connected with Fethullah Gülen, a popular Muslim preacher, have finally succeeded in taking over the nation’s police force and bureaucracy. However, before Şık could publish his exposé, he was arrested and thrown in jail. Somehow, the unedited version was smuggled out of the country and published on the internet in Turkish. The name of the book was changed to The One Who Touches Gets Burned (Dokunan Yanar), to communicate more clearly the hazards of the profession.

To put this in perspective, imagine, if you can, an American journalist in the 1980s writing a damning critique of the late Jerry Falwell’s political objectives and his network of political connections and then getting busted by the FBI and thrown in jail. It’s hard to even conceive of such a possibility in America.

That a Turkish journalist who writes about a popular Muslim preacher’s political connections can be jailed and his unpublished work seized amply demonstrates the “secular” veneer of democracy a la Türk.

Şık’s book is an interesting read and contains a healthy dose of the sort of leftist conspiracy anyone who has lived long in the country will recognize at once, and yet there is enough bald-faced fact to make one sit up and take notice. Whatever the political leanings of the author, it obviously came a little too close to home, landing the author in a high security prison for over a year.

In his book, Şık describes how Islamists in Turkey were “used” by the modern state starting in the early 70s as a counter-weight to leftists and Kurdish separatists. However, in a majority Muslim country like Turkey, it is not hard to imagine how this might backfire and Islamic elements might turn on their “masters” to seize power for themselves. This is exactly what Şık claims has taken place.

He sees the Justice and Development Party (AKP), the Islamist ruling party in Turkey, as evidence of a power shift.

Notice I said “power shift”, not “paradigm shift” because the majority of people in Turkey have long shown a strong preference for governments that embrace their Islamic values. Since the founding of the Republic, it has been the secular army which has kept these sentiments in check, safeguarding the constitutional Republic and happily replacing any administration they felt was a threat, e.g. the coup against populist and Islamist Menderes on May 27th 1960.

The difference now is that the “paradigm of the people” has ensconced itself in positions of power.

The internal power struggle between “secularists” and “Islamists” is not new. It has defined Turkish politics, domestic and foreign, ever since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk established the Republic in 1923. The difference is that now the Islamists have the upper-hand, thanks to decades of patient infiltration of government agencies, particularly the country’s ubiquitous police force, and generous help from Western democracies.

By insisting on less military involvement in civilian affairs, the West has, primarily through the EU accession process, sidelined the Turkish army, thus emboldening religious elements throughout the country, elements long suppressed by the “secular” regime.

This would normally be cause for celebration. After all, restraints on the “will of the people” have been removed, and military power curbed. The citizens can now exercise political power through representative rule. Isn’t this what the West champions? Isn’t this the holy grail of US foreign policy? Freedom and democratically elected governments that pursue self-determination?

The trouble is that Erdoğan is proving just as repressive as the secular Army he criticized for restricting religious freedom. Journalists are jailed with impunity and dozens of lawsuits have been filed against cartoonists for unfavorable caricatures of the thin-skinned Prime Minister. Nelson Mandela is clearly not among his role models. Late-night comedians like Jay Leno, who mercilessly hammer US administrations, would undoubtedly find themselves in front of a firing squad if they were to practice their trade in Turkey. This is not new. Turkish governments have always been thin-skinned. It is a country in which there is no market for political bumper stickers.

According to Reporters Without Borders, Turkey currently ranks 148th in the world when it comes to freedom of the press. This puts it just a few notches above Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq, not something any modern Turk is proud of. Nor is this likely to inspire confidence in Europe, where its bid for membership is a hotly contested issue. Freedom of speech has never fared well in Turkey. One of the Turkish terms used to describe this basic freedom translates literally as “freedom of thought.”

My Turkish friends would sometimes joke that they were free to think anything. It is only verbalization that gets anyone in trouble.

Luke Montgomery, author of A Deceit to Die For, lived in the Middle East for over a decade. He holds an MA in Linguistics, speaks fluent Turkish and writes on foreign policy, religion and culture. You can follow his work at, or find him on Twitter at @LookingFor_Luke and on Facebook.

This article is the copyrighted property of the writer and Communities @ Written permission must be obtained before reprint in online or print media. REPRINTING TWTC CONTENT WITHOUT PERMISSION AND/OR PAYMENT IS THEFT AND PUNISHABLE BY LAW.

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Luke Montgomery

Author and researcher Luke Montgomery grew up on the ancient hunting grounds of the Mescalero Apaches, where he cut his teeth on tales of Geronimo’s exploits, supped with Viking heroes in Valhalla and embarked on exhilarating voyages with Odysseus. Somewhere along the way, he grew older, but he didn't grow up. After obtaining his MA in Linguistics, he set a course for adventure in Europe and the Middle East, where he lived for over a decade combing Hittite, Phrygian, Lycian, Greek and Roman ruins on the shores of the Mediterranean and Aegean.   Eventually, he returned to the land of liberty at what he considers its most crucial hour to take up his post in the defense of individual liberty. When he is not consulting private and public institutions with interests and operations in the Middle East, he tends grapes, raises Longhorn cattle and researches public policy, especially as it relates to culture. As an expert on Islam, he spends much of his time researching and writing about religious politics. Some of the people and works that have shaped his worldview are Emily Dickinson, Rudyard Kipling, Atlas Shrugged, C. S. Lewis, Anton Chekhov, Omar Khayyam, LOTR, the Torah, O. Henry, The Ballad of the White Horse, Bruce Cockburn, George Orwell, Yaşar Kemal, Aziz Nesin, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Yeshua... You can follow his work at , or find him on Twitter at LukeM_author and on Facebook



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