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Press Freedom in Turkey Threatened

Host Intro: For years, Turkey has been an important US ally, standing out in its region as a moderate Islamic democracy. But with recent crackdowns on the press freedom and dissent, some say Turkey’s once-promising democracy is in danger.

Host Intro II: One way to understand the conflict is through the rivalry between two men – current Turkish president Recep Tayip Erdogan and one his most vocal critics, Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen who lives in self-imposed exile in the U.S. He and his millions of followers represent a real threat to a president with increasingly authoritarian tendencies. As reporter Ariel Ritchin explains the fight is taking place on several fronts.

This round began back in December. When the Turkish government briefly jailed 32 journalists, TV producers and police associated with Gulen’s movement, and accused them of conspiring against the state. The director of Sam-AN-Yo-Loo, one of the country’s most popular TV channels, is still behind bars. Yuksel Alp Aslandogan, who heads US organizations linked to Gulen, says the dispute is more than political.

Yuksel Aslondaogan: This strategy of silencing the critics is not unique to the Gulen movement. But there appears to be some personal issue between Erdogan and Gulen.

Last week, Gulen wrote an op-ed in the New York Times about the crackdown. Gulen seldom speaks publicly, so Aslandogan read this excerpt from his piece:

Yuksel Aslandogan: By viewing every critical voice as an enemy — or worse, a traitor — they are leading the country toward totalitarianism.

Gulen and Erdogan were once close allies. They shared a vision of democracy led by moderate Islamist leaders. But in December 2013, reporters at Samanyolu and Zaman, both affiliated with Gulen, shined a spotlight on corruption in Erdogan’s government. The corruption scandal was the impetus for Turkey’s most recent media crackdown, says Columbia Professor Richard Bulliet. But he says that Erdogan is also threatened by the millions who support Gulen worldwide.

Richard Bulliet: And he charges them with seeking to be or being sort of a shadow government or threatening to overthrow the government. I think this is enough of a pretext to crack down on the press and particularly on Gulen-owned press entities like Zaman Newspaper, the biggest newspaper in Turkey.

Azerbaijani journalist Mahir Zeynalov wrote for Zaman in Turkey. During the 2013 government corruption scandal, he tweeted out a news report that was published by his paper. Despite holding a press card and being married to a Turkish citizen, Zeynalov was deported.

Mahir Zeynalov: My deportation was a signal – a warning to other foreign journalists that you are not safe here.

Nina Ognianova: Turkey’s press freedom and freedom of expression has reached a crisis point.

Nina Ognianova oversees Turkey for the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Nina Ognianova: Journalists in Turkey are being threatened, they are being harassed. And those kinds of smear campaigns and vilifications of reporters can translate into real danger – real physical danger.

Ognianova says the government now controls almost all traditional media. Social media, she says, is the last isle of freedom of expression, but that outlet is coming under increasing pressure as well. In the second half of 2014, Turkey asked Twitter to take down almost five times more content than any other country. Professor Bulliet says the situation calls into question the future of Turkey’s democracy.

Richard Bulliet: The problem is, for Mr. Erdogan, the more severe the crackdown, the more the international outcry against him and then that redounds upon the economic status of Turkey, the reputation of the country for democratic institutions and he personally comes to be thought of as a potential dictator.

After Gulen’s op-ed was published in the New York Times, the Turkish government revoked his passport. Two days later, Turkey made a new call for Washington to extradite Gulen. The State Department has yet to respond.

Ariel Ritchin, Columbia Radio News.


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