Freedom of press and the safety of journalists are central to good governance in a democratic nation. Only the free press and independent media, which are the fourth state of democracy, can ensure transparency, accountability and the rule of law promoting participation in public and political discourse. This is clearly stated in the Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in so many words.
In the conference of the International Association for Media and Communication Research at the University of Leicester, the director for Freedom of Expression and Media Development at Unesco, Guy Berger has rightly pointed out that “there should be growing momentum worldwide to secure safety for journalism”.
His remark should be underlined in the view of the pathetic plight of journalists and media persons in today’s Turkey. An independent research on this problem is highly relevant. A recent report by Freedom House ranked Turkey at the bottom of its European Press Freedom Index and classified the country’s news media as “not free”.
Regrettably, most Turkish journalists, with free thinking and fervent support for liberal democracy, have been put into jeopardy in their democratic country. After the takeover of the free press and almost all the independent media forums, there is a rapid increase in the government-controlled news outlets in the country curtailing the free voices and secular opinions.
According to a report by Unesco, more than 800 journalists and media workers have been killed in the past 10 years in different countries. Surprisingly enough, majority of them were not even war correspondents. But rather, they were attacked in non-conflict situations. Mediapersons and journalists have been among the most vulnerable facing the attacks including illegal arrests and detention, abductions, harassment and intimidation. All this has resulted into self-censorship of the journalists depriving society of free flow of knowledge and correct information and, thus, curbing the freedom of press.
The most recent and the gravest onslaught on the freedom of press has occurred in Turkey, a West Asian country which has emerged on the global scene with a dramatic economic growth. In the wake of the failed coup, the Turkish government has issued arrest warrants for 89 journalists this week. Consequently, 77 reporters, editors and columnists are under arrest, 42 of them are on coup charges as of 6 August, 2016. A Turkish journalist in exile, Mahir Zeynalov, has shared photos and bios of detained colleagues including fearless journalists, investigative reporters, free opinion makers, liberal democrats, excellent newsroom editors, marvelous novelists and top publishers.
The Turkish government’s blackout ban on the independent media outlets, free news agencies and its oppressive action against the journalists is a widespread phenomenon since the beginning of March 2016. This sorry state of affairs began with the government’s seizure of the largest and the most circulated newspaper in the country, Zaman, and the leading private news agency, Cihan.
Before the government’s seizure on 4 March, 2016, Zaman was the national daily newspaper with the largest circulation which was around 6,50,000. It is interesting to note that a large number of Zaman’s columnists previously extolled the ruling Turkish party the Justice and Development Party (AKP). But it was only after the AKP closed the 2013 December investigation into the government’s corruption that the newspaper gradually became critical of the party and its leader, the current Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan. As a result, the government of Erdogan seized the control of the Zaman along with all its sister publications like Today’s Zaman.
In an article, dated 8 March, 2016 published in New York Times, editor-in-chief of Today’s Zaman, Sevgi Akarcesme expressed his deepest concerns over the media seizure in the country, giving an account of his own newspaper:
“On Friday, with the zeal of its despotic leader, his government seized my paper, Today’s Zaman, and its parent, the Turkish-language Zaman, which is the highest-circulating daily in the country. Together, these titles were two of the few remaining independent voices inside Turkey — and Today’s Zaman, in particular, was a reliable English-language news source for diplomats, academics and expatriates…… a government-controlled court appointed trustees to take over the newspapers in what amounts to a politically motivated assault. At midnight, protesters faced tear gas and water cannons as riot police stormed our Istanbul headquarters….The following day, our Internet connection was cut off to stop staff members from working on a special edition about the takeover. Since then, the authorities have been unplugging the newspapers’ servers, destroying our digital archive”.
Many senior journalists, human rights activists and international media outlets despised this seizure as a clear violation of the freedom of press. But this violation continues unabated in Turkey. During the past two years, several newspapers and TV channels have been captured and some have even been shut down. Dozens of Kurdish and Turkish journalists have been jailed. More deplorably, there is no beam of hope for their freedom in the near future.
The only ‘crime’ they have committed is that these journalists have been critical of the Turkish government ever since its involvement in an alleged corruption. As a result, scores of reporters and journalists have lost their jobs due to exceedingly heavy pressure from the government.
More gruesome incident is the seizure of Cihan News Agency, the country’s largest international news agency which owned Zaman and many other monthly and weekly magazines and produced more or less 450 written news, 315 photos and 100 video news on a daily basis. But it has been closed down on 27 July, 2016 in a crackdown on all the opposition media. Since Cihan was the only private election reporting agency, now after its takeover, the elections will be reported only by the government-controlled news agencies.
Ironically, this entire crackdown on free media has been done with an accusation of their ties with the Turkish Islamic modernist Fethullah Gulen, the founder-ideologue of the Hizmet, which ran institutions of education, interfaith dialogue and peace activism both locally and globally. But Recep Tyyip Erdogan has accused Gulen of attempting to establish a parallel state in Turkey.
Notably, the two Turkish leaders — the first political and the latter spiritual — were allies until the police and prosecutors of the country who were sympathetic to Gulen, opened a corruption investigation into Erdogan’s inner circle in 2013. Thereafter, Gulen was accused of spreading a network of supporters in the judiciary, police and media hatching a conspiracy to overthrow the government. However, Gulen has denied all these charges in the unequivocal terms.
Worst of all, the democracy of Turkey is now turning into a political Islamist theory of statehood. Erdogan wants a state that runs alongside the political entity of Islamism which is detrimental to the cultural identity and pluralism of a democratic nation. Today’s self-styled Islamists aim to derive their political legitimacy to rule the roost with the help of the theocracy as opposed to the democratic theory of statehood.
Several analysts of Turkish politics and experts on current trends in radical Islamist Ideologies in West Asia have candidly exposed this aspect which is generally overlooked by many. Two associates of Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and Silk Road Studies Program, Svante E Cornell and M K Kaya have pinpointed it in an article dated 3 September, 2015. With the study of the policies of the Turkish government, they conducted an inquiry into the religious and ideological environment conducive to the political Islamism in Turkey. They argued: “Turkish political Islam, and with it Turkish politics, is increasingly based on powerful religious orders and brotherhoods, collectively termed tarikat and cemaat, respectively. These communities constitute the deep structure of Turkish power, and share a common ideological source.”
Thus, it is not difficult to find the reason why the government has blamed the failed Turkey coup on the Hizmet, a modernist and progressive Islamic movement with a humanitarian, secular and liberal worldview. The Hizmet derives its name from the Arabic-Persian word ‘Kihdmat’ meaning “service” and has established hundreds of educational, civic service organizations and institutions in over 160 countries, which are active in the areas of peace-building, conflict resolution, intercultural and interfaith dialogue, peace education, media activism and social work.
The fundamental problem that any political Islamist entity would have with the Hizmet is that it advocates separation of religion from politics, as enunciated in various writings of Gulen. Also, it engages in various initiatives that foster inclusiveness, build community capacity and create shared spaces and, thus, ultimately help in countering radicalization, faith-inspired violence and religious extremism in the Muslim societies. This does not augur well for the political Islamists in any part of the world. But as the consequence of this discrepancy between the political and progressive Islam, media persons and the journalists are the worst hit. They are living in trying times in Turkey.
The author is a scholar of Comparative Religion, Classical Arabic and Islamic sciences, cultural analyst and researcher in Media and Communication Studies. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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