I have been a journalist for 37 years.
This is the hardest period of my professional career. I was a journalist under military rule too, but was not imprisoned, shot at, or forced into exile; nor did I see so many newspapers being shut down or so many journalists made unemployed or prisoned.
In the past five years, we have witnessed a politician seize the media one step at a time. Let me summarise how this was accomplished:
Erdoğan frequently says, ‘We came to power fighting against the headlines.’ This is true. When he did come to power 15 years ago, it was despite (and perhaps because of) opposition from nearly the entire body of the media. He convinced a section of Turkish liberals and of European public opinion that he was a ‘moderate Islamist’. In time and emboldened by his own power, the moderate varnish peeled away, leaving behind the Islamist identity. And he set about obliterating or seizing any and all obstacles in his way:
The army, parliament, the opposition, capital, academia, the judiciary and the media…That last one was the easiest.
Erdoğan seized control of the media in three moves:
His opening move was to bring the mainstream media down to its knees through punitive tax fines, thereby forcing them to sell their newspapers and TV channels. The Gülenist media were either closed down, or seized under appointed administration. These media outlets were then sold to crony businessmen under public tender. Ostensibly under public tender. Thereby creating a dedicated media army that first served as a shield, and now as a weapon.
He has then subjugated the few remaining opposition media outlets through heavy prison sentences and censorship. Currently 150 journalists are behind bars in Turkey. That the climate of fear created by the imprisonment of one journalist silences hundreds of others is also a fact.
This strategy made Erdoğan the biggest media mogul in Turkey. We now have to fight against not only him, but also his media.
In other words, ‘we are fighting against the headlines.’
At present, of the 10 most popular TV channels and newspapers, 7 belong to crony businessmen. The truth has become impossible either to write or to read. Investigate corruption files on Erdoğan… criticise his floundering foreign policy or march towards dictatorship… and you’re risking prison.
My newspaper had been doing just that, when the entire board of its Foundation, editor-in-chief, three columnists and even cartoonist were arrested in a morning raid.
The number one suspect in that case is me; I am accused of changing the editorial policy of the newspaper. We are talking of a country where a prosecutor defines editorial policy.
Churchill defines democracy as the regime that ‘when there’s a knock on the door at 3 am, it’s probably the milkman.’ In Turkey we know that it’s probably the police.
When freedom is part of your life like air or water, you take it for granted. It’s only when you see just how fragile it is, or how quickly it can be lost, that you realise you have to fight for it.
Today we fight for a country where it’s only the milkman who knocks at the door at dawn.