Seventeen journalists from Cumhuriyet, the last independent newspaper in Turkey, have been put on trial in Istanbul and have been accused of aiding and abetting terrorist organizations by the government. This trial follows a long period of government superstition after the attempted coup in 2016, with more than 50,000 people being arrested in the last year.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been widely criticized by the Western media for his attack on press freedom. It is believed that 120 journalists are currently being detained in Turkey, but in a recent interview Mr. Erdogan stated that they had only arrested two journalists and that the rest were terrorists.
Chief Executive of Cumhuriyet, Akin Atalay, argued that the aims of the government were to ‘silence or seize’ Cumhuriyet, and, ‘to show other journalists their fate and in practice what will happen if they write what the government does not like.’
One of the main reasons the government has attacked Cumhuriyet is because it believes it supports U.S-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, who is accused of being responsible for the 2016 coup. Gulen denies any involvement and vehemently condemned both Erdogan’s regime and those responsible saying, “even if at the helm of the country there are people who would like to replace me and suppress me and oppress me at the level of blood-sucking vampires, even then I do not want to remove them with anti-democratic means.”
Mr. Gulen then went on to imply that the coup may have been staged by Erdogan himself, pointing to the wave of arrests that followed. A third of high ranking military officials among thousands of other civil servants and officers were imprisoned implying that Erdogan had a hidden agenda.
Other recent events such as the 2017 referendum has again made commentators anxious about the future of Turkey. The referendum asked voters if they wanted to alter the constitution of Turkey so that the position of Prime Minister and the parliamentary system would be replaced by a President who, among other things, would have control over the selection of Judges and prosecutors. The referendum was voted through by the public, and liberal analysts worry that this could result in a decline in democracy as the judiciary is no longer truly independent of the government.
Erdogan, who was Prime Minister from 2001 to 2014 and has served as President from 2014 to the present day, looks as though he is cementing his position as sole ruler of Turkey.
Autocracy is regarded with disdain in the West, with critics reeling off hundreds of ideological reasons why it would be awful to live under such a constitution. Condemning journalists for writing something that does not align with Erdogan’s policies is an affront against the freedom of speech, which is a truly abhorrent thought, whether you are a journalist in London or Paris.
But the loss of some democratic rights in Turkey is something that many Turks would be happy to sacrifice when they see what has happened to their neighbours. Since the capture of Saddam Hussein in 2003, Iraq has been a warzone that has become a breeding ground for lawlessness and extremism. In 2011, when the Arab Spring reached Syria, people hoped that it would lead to the formation of a new democratic state but instead six years on the country is still ravaged by war in which an estimated 400,000 people have been killed.
Today, the fissures in Turkey’s growing population are clear to see with people becoming more polarized either towards an Islamic form of government or a secular democracy. On top of this 15-20 percent of the population are Kurdish who culturally have more ties to areas in Syria, Iraq and Iran than the rest of Turkey and if given the chance may try and establish a semi-autonomous region, as has already happened in Iraqi Kurdistan. Whilst the increase in Erdogan’s power is met with tears by many, it does offer a level of security that democracy has not provided in the region.