LETTER FROM ISTANBUL
Journalists locked up for life, half the country’s judges fired, Wikipedia blocked, social media frequently suspended — and on it goes in President Erdogan’s continuing crackdown after 2016’s abortive coup.
By William J. Furney
Here in Istanbul, the pre-dawn call to prayer washes over the tightly packed city like an airborne balm that soothes and gently rouses. It wafts on low-level, undulating waves into every place in this two-continent city of 15 million souls that in recent times has been suffering seismic political upheavals that have yet to subside; and it greets you from your sleep like a sultry, subservient lover who knows they have an innate and greater power and who blithely gets what they want, always and with a demure smile that broadcasts: “You are mine”.
Like in other Islamic cities and towns around the world, the call to prayer reverberates and ripples out from loudspeakers of the minarets of mosques throughout the day, but in Turkey it seems ethereal and soothing and with none of the brash and blaring urgency heard in places like Jakarta and elsewhere. Here, it’s an audible and spiritual splendour.
Turkey, however, is no place for reporters. I arrived in Istanbul a day before six of the country’s journalists were jailed for life for what the court in Ankara said were their roles in an attempted coup in 2016 to topple President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has been in power since 2002. While the severity of the sentences drew gasps around the world — “an unacceptable and unprecedented assault on freedom of expression and on the media in Turkey,” said the UN — they were not altogether surprising.
Since almost being forced from office, Erdogan has bounced back with all guns blazing. Half the judiciary has been fired, along with tens of thousands of civil servants, police officers, teachers and anyone else deemed to have had a hand in the military-led coup d’état that left 250 protesters dead. Estimates say a furious Erdogan rounded up around 60,000 people and dismissed 150,000 from their posts.
If you’re in Turkey and wanted to look up some facts about the tumultuous events in the summer of 2016, on, say, Wikipedia, you’d have a hard time. The global online encyclopedia has been blocked in Turkey since last year, for what the authorities said was “content creating a perception that Turkey is supporting terrorist organizations”. Of course, that’s not really a problem, because you do as I did, and people all over the Great Firewall of China do, and turn on your virtual private network app to get access.
It’s not just Wikipedia either. PayPal has been forced to suspend operations in Turkey after the country’s financial regulator denied the global payments giant a license; and social media and local news sites are frequently blocked when the government doesn’t like what it’s hearing. Under a post-coup-attempt emergency decree that remains in effect, Erdogan has ordered the closure of a grand total of 45 newspapers, 29 publishing houses, 23 radio stations, 15 magazines and 16 TV stations — making it abundantly clear that freedom of speech and opinion are all but dead in the land of the former Ottoman Empire.
And if all that weren’t enough, the hard-headed president, whose beliefs are deeply rooted in his Muslim faith, has also shuttered over 2,200 private schools, 15 universities and 19 labour unions, and some 160 journalists are languishing in jail, according to the Turkish Journalists’ Association.
The watchdog Reporters without Borders lists Turkey near the bottom of its press freedom index —155 out of 180 — and says the “state of emergency has allowed [the government] to eliminate dozens of media outlets at the stroke of a pen, reducing pluralism to a handful of low-circulation publications. Dozens of journalists have been imprisoned without trial, turning Turkey into the world’s biggest prison for media personnel.”
Meanwhile, Amnesty International notes in its new human rights report that in the deteriorating climate in Turkey, its own staff have been arrested and jailed “on entirely baseless charges”. Amnesty’s country director, Idil Eser, was released last October but the organisation’s chief in Turkey, Taner Kilic, remains behind bars for alleged terrorism activities.
Yet in the midst of this increasingly authoritarian fury, Erdogan, it appears, is still insistent on his dream of European Union membership. If accession talks were frosty before Erdogan’s recent strongarm tactics, however, they are positively glacial now. French President Emmanuel Macron, whose popularity at home and abroad is increasingly positioning him as the conscience of Europe and a regional leader with more clout than Germany’s Angela Merkel, has warned it would be “hypocrisy” to let Ankara join the bloc due to ongoing human rights concerns.
Even a proposal to allow Turks visa-free entry to the EU has been knocked back because of Erdogan’s massive purge. And if the embattled leader is worried about what the mandarins in Brussels are thinking, it’s certainly not affecting his policies — among the latest of which is a planto make adultery illegal and to foster a more “pious generation” in the ostensibly secular state. Signalling the growing divide between the EU and Ankara, Erdogan said in February that his government had “made a mistake” to listen to the EU about not criminalising adultery and that such a move “should be discussed”.
Earlier this year the EU said that “recently relations have turned frosty as concerns mount over the rule of law and the state of democracy in the country with media outlets being closed and journalists being jailed. There are also concerns about Turkey’s military intervention in Syria.
“These developments are all the more reason for MEPs to take another look at how the EU and Turkey are working together … After The Turkish government’s crackdown following the failed coup d’état on 15 July 2016 negotiations effectively ended and no new chapters have been opened since then.”
Hopes and Prayers
Among the ancient mosques, cranes dot the skyline in Istanbul, displaying renewed prosperity as office blocks and luxurious residences shoot upwards. Welders’ sparks fly as a grand, new mosque takes shape at the central Taksim Square, favourite of protesters and with heavy security all around. No one knows how much the latest Muslim place of worship is costing, only that a construction firm is footing the bill and the project, championed by Erdogan, a former mayor of the city, is going full-steam ahead as part of a wider mega-project scheme he hopes will put Europe’s largest city by population firmly on the global map.
Of their rapidly changing homelands, some Turks seem cautious, even suspicious. “Don’t trust anyone, especially the Arabs,” the host of my Airbnb apartment advised. “Why are you staying there? It’s a really bad area — full of transvestites on the streets. A bit like the Bronx in New York,” offered a young Turk born in Germany who I met on the Asian side of Istanbul.
I asked the young optician at a shop at Taksim Square where I was buying new frames what he thought of all the beefed-up security around town. Whereas before he had been perfectly chatty in his respectable English, now he went silent and walked away. A few moments later, I tried again, this time injecting an element of the political into my question. But once more it drew no response, and I gave up.
The episode reminded me of my time in Indonesia during the mid-1990s, when the dictator Suharto still had an almighty grip on the country and people were fearful of talking about him or discussing politics in such openly public places as cafes. You’d be told to hush, if you even dared such a bold conversation, for there may well be government agents sitting nearby and listening in.
Along the 1.4km-long Istiklal Street, the main shopping area that’s home to many Western brands, security is especially tight given that a suicide bomber killed five people there in 2016. Armoured police vehicles lurk at strategic points along the pedestrianised thoroughfare through which an historic tourist tram runs; many shops have X-Ray and bag-check security at their entrances; and some stores had their doors locked and would only open them upon inspection of the person attempting to gain entry. Even the teeming and cavernous Grand Bazaar, a hard-to-find tourist draw that was built in the 1400s and houses around 4,000 shops, now has modern-day security measures at each of its 21 gates.
Arriving at Sabiha Gokcen International Airport, named after the country’s — and perhaps even the world’s — first fighter pilot, early one morning for my flight out of Istanbul after a week in the oftentimes chaotic metropolis, it was hard not to think they were entirely overdoing their security measures. But then the city’s other airport, Ataturk, had been the scene of carnage in 2016, when suicide bombings and shootings resulted in the deaths of more than 40 people and hundreds were left injured.
Right inside the terminal’s doors were lines of people waiting to go through X-Ray security; and there was another dose just after immigration. It had slipped my mind that I had a sports water bottle containing more than the permitted 100mls in my backpack, as well as carton of juice that was quarter full. Both made it through the double security checks, however — but it didn’t stop there. In the departure lounge, passengers, including me, were frisked, and some had their luggage opened and inspected.
This is the new Turkey, one that a colleague of mine in England who grew up there told me would be unrecognisable to founding father Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who forged a nation that became strong, dynamic, open and, above all, secular and transparent. Many now view Turkey’s current elliptical course as far from viable, and that, at home and abroad, there is very little delight in where the once-proud nation is heading.