No Freedom, No Speech

Yesterday afternoon, the AKP moved in on Turkey’s biggest selling daily newspaper group, Zaman and Today’s Zaman in English, calling in the administrators, placing the news outlet under the authority of the government. The silencing of so-called dissenting media voices has occurred systematically over the years, leading to charges of authoritarianism, the abuse of power and even post-Islamist fascism. The tear gas was back as the water tanks were out and police in riot gear marched slowly to the gates of the newspaper. The images shared all over the world will do little to help Turkey’s beleaguered international profile.

Of the last six years or so since I have lived and worked in this country, the nation has changed from being regarded as an ‘economic miracle’ with regards to its balancing of the capitalism, Islam and democracy to a place governed by a leadership that is arguably paranoid, delusional and deeply inward-looking. With approximately 90% of all the print outlets in the hands of pro-government management or leaning, the space to engage with Turkish politics has narrowed considerably. As part of the opening up of society during the 2000s, the greater participation of private capital in the media was part of the democratisation process, a reflection of confidence on the part of policymakers. But over the last few years, wave after wave of dissent and disillusion in relation to the AKP government, now firmly in place for a fourth term in succession, is leading to a fearful, muted and highly disappointed population, in spite of the fact that in November 2015 the AKP obtained nearly 50% of the national vote.

How can a country be this polarised? Partly, the answer is that there is limited opposition to the AKP, and what does exist is disparate and divisive. With the dramatic breakdown in the Kurdish peace process and the blowback from an ineffective approach to the Syrian crisis, the AKP leadership evokes the idea of Turkey defending itself from its enemies, within and without. Historically, the Kemalist elites were able to take advantage of this discourse to serve their own interests. There is also a considerable element of the wider country that has benefited from the neo-liberalisation of the Turkish economy and its politics over the last decade and a half, and these pious, conservative and religious Muslims are loyal to a party that is seen to have benefited them and society as a whole.

While Turkish politics is complex and fraught with inconsistencies, the reality of the recent closure of the Zaman group newspapers is a blow to freedom of speech, the freedom to critically engage in politics, and the freedom to discuss and debate openly and without fear. What is happening in Turkey is similar to elsewhere in Western Europe, such that its labelling is extremist, terrorist or treasonous. When states evoke the idea of terrorism, it creates an emotional response on the part of the wider population that leads to fear, then moulded at will.

Turkey is heading down a deeply dangerous path that is potentially destabilising for the whole Middle East. It faces isolation in the region. People in Turkey remember the dark days of the 1980s and 1990s, when ethnic and sectarian violence was the norm, with people sharply divided politically, culturally and economically, and when a dark and gloomy cloud hung over the nation without hope or opportunity.

The irony is that half of the nation regards anything the ruling party does as perfectly acceptable in the current climate of actual terrorism in the form of far left violence, Islamic State bombings and the perennial bogeyman, the PKK, resurfacing as Turkey’s most sinister enemy within. With an immense electoral mandate, the AKP leadership sees itself as untouchable. Such hubris is often the pride before the fall.