Not even a month has passed since Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was inaugurated as Turkey’s first elected president. During his campaign, he repeated the mantra that with his victory, a dawn of a ‘new’ Turkey would emerge. Unfortunately, for journalists who are critical of Turkish government policy, it is the same country it was exactly a month ago; a place where they are seen as the enemy from within, and are subject to threats, curses, and public shaming.
Just last week, a New York Times reporter, Ceylan Yeginsu, issued an in-depth investigative report on an Islamic State recruitment center in Turkey’s capital Ankara. The article was a fascinating read, which was based on Yenginsu’s entering “Hacibayram, a ramshackle neighborhood in the heart of Ankara’s tourist district,” which has “morphed into an ISIS recruitment hub over the past year.” In short, the article was a well-balanced look at how one-time drug addicts are attracted to join the ranks of Islamic State fighters in Syria.
My first thought after reading the article was that this was a brave piece of journalism. However, I also thought to myself that the author was just as brave for publishing the article, as clearly she was placing herself at risk of sparking an onslaught of hate and contempt among Turkey’s pro-Erdogan factions. Especially since just days before, Erdogan had complained to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, for what he described as a campaign against Turkey by the American media, in reference to a previous New York Times article about the illegal export to Turkey of oil coming from Islamic State-controlled territories.
It took no time at all after Yeginsu’s article was published that President Erdogan expressed his anger, especially outraged that the report had featured a photo taken of him and his newly appointed Prime Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, leaving a mosque, which was in the same neighborhood, as if it was incriminating him personally with the content of the story. Importantly, as a reader, I never made that connection. Nevertheless, Erdogan described the article as “despicable, shameless, and vile,” which in turn led the New York Times admitting error andremoving the photo, and the journalist Yeginsu rightly stating in a tweet, “to all those that have targeted me personally, neither the photo nor the caption was my responsibility.”
Despite the New York Times' correction, Yeginsu was bombarded by threats, and had her photo splashed across the front page of staunchly pro-government newspaper, Takvim, which highlighted that the author of the article was a “Turkish girl.” In other words, this was not an act of a foreigner being unfair to Turkey, but an act of betrayal committed by a Turk, one whom – no less – has been raised abroad and belonged to a distinguished family. In no time at all, the executive editor of the New York Times, Dean Banquet, published a statement condemning the campaign against Yeginsu, calling on Turkey to protect their staff in light of the high number of threats.
Unfortunately, the campaign against the NYT’s Yeginsu is not a lone incident. Following last year’s Gezi Park protests, Erdogan regularly blames the international media as leading an unjust campaign against Turkey, with journalists often targeted in public forums and on social media, which could be described as a well-oiled smear machine. If it is not Erdogan who is accusing them on stage, then it is his allies, often within the high echelons of the AKP, who set into motion this machine, beginning on Twitter, where many Turkish political debates are played out. Once out in the Twittersphere, AKP trolls seize opportune moments to attack anyone they deem as anti-government. This is often followed by the pro-government press jumping in, publishing names, personal details, and photographs, on their front pages and Internet sites.
A disproportionate number of Turkish women journalists working for foreign news agencies have been aggressively trolled in this way, not only those working for the NYT. During the Gezi protests, Melih Gocek, the mayor of Ankara and an Erdogan loyalist, started a twitter campaign against Selin Girit, a reporter for the BBC, whom he accused of being an “English agent.”
Last May, Erdogan targeted Rengin Arslan, who works for the same news agency, claiming that she had paid actors to portray themselves as mourning family members who expressed their opposition to the government. It seems Erdogan had been fed this false story by the pro-government media, who initiated the smear campaign against her.
And last August, a campaign was lodged against Amberin Zaman, a correspondent for the Economist and writer at Turkey’s Taraf, an opposition newspaper. In response to a remark she made in an interview, Erdogan referred to her as a “shameless militant disguised under the name of a journalist,” who should “know her place.” However, the intimidation is not reserved only for women working for the foreign press. Ceyda Karan, a critical voice within Turkey, also was taught a lesson about knowing her place, suffering a campaign against her during the past summer as well.
While the misogynistic undertones of attacking female journalists are clear, some male foreign correspondents have also been verbally attacked. The Turkish government’s targeting of journalists is becoming dangerously commonplace. Ivan Watson, a CNN correspondent was publically shamed by Erdogan, following his brief detainment by Turkish police while covering a story in Taksim Square, on the first anniversary of the Gezi Park protests. Der Spiegel removed their correspondent from Turkey, Hasnain Kazim, after receiving “hundreds of death threats” following his critical report of the above mentioned Soma Mine disaster.
Needless to say, the attack on journalists by President Erdogan and his close allies is just another sign of Turkey straying away from its democratic values towards a more authoritarian system. It adds to the already serious state of journalism in the country, where between 2011-2013, Turkey held the dismal world record for the most jailed journalists.
Furthermore, with much of the pro-government press, and the state’s Anadolu News Agency, serving as a mouthpiece of the government, it seems that Turkey will continue to work at taming the foreign press, regardless of the danger it might cause journalists or what it does to the reputation of the country. This is even more worrying since Turkey has a history of violence against journalists. In fact, over seven years ago, the Armenian Turkish journalist, Hrant Dink was assassinated; while the gunman was caught, the case still hasn’t established a verdict of who was behind it.
It is for this reason that like the recent case with Yeginsu, the threats against journalists must be taken seriously. For once and for all, Erdogan needs to put an end to the campaign and refuse both personally and through media outlets he influences to take part in such orchestrated attacks.
There is a fine line between promoting hate speech for political gains and that moment that someone decides to take matters in their own hands. If this is the “New Turkey,” I for one find it hard to find signs of hope for the future. For now, let us hope that with the daily news agenda changing, with the 49 Turkish hostages released by the Islamic State, Yeginsu will be able to get back to her own crucial work without the extra pressures of the Turkish government that sees her and other critical voices as enemies of the state.