There are many things that we in the West take granted for these days – the right to free speech is among them. So used are we to a free press, the ability to question and the right to demand transparency, that when such values are violated and forbidden elsewhere, it is all the more despicable.
A key measurement for free speech is the way in which journalists are treated. Specifically, indices such as Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index rank countries “according to the level of freedom available to journalists” (as reads its website). The annual list, which first began in 2002, provides a glimpse into a country’s media freedom, using as a framework the relevant legislation it has in place, the independence and pluralism of the media, and the safety of journalists.
In 2017, Norway topped the list of 180 countries, followed by neighbouring Sweden, Finland, Demark and the Netherlands. At the very bottom of the list, unsurprisingly, was North Korea.
At 155 is Turkey.
In recent years, Turkey has continued to receive a growing share of the West’s media spotlight for the way in which it treats journalists. Such criticism began long before the military’s attempted coup in 2016, but has since soared. During and as a result of the tumultuous episode, some 150 media outlets were shut down. Today, Turkey has the highest number of imprisoned journalists in the world, with more than 150 journalists believed to be behind bars. Of course, it is not their words that they are officially accused of, but instead they face various questionable terror charges.
Such accusations fall in with President Erdogan’s party line that there have only ever been two journalists imprisoned in the country. “The rest are either terrorists, or they were carrying guns, or they robbed ATM machines,” the BBC reports him saying.
The truth however, according to current suspect number one, Can Dundar – former editor-in-chief of Turkey’s oldest daily newspaper, Cumhuriyet – is that “Mr Erdogan hates criticism”. Cumhuriyet – often cited as the last free voice in Turkish media – is now facing the full brunt of the government’s disdain for freedom of speech. On 24 July, 19 of the paper’s journalists began their trial for apparently aiding terrorist groups.
Of the 19, twelve are already in prison, five have been released pending the trial’s outcome, while the last two, which includes Dundar, are being tried in absentia. Their sentences are expected to range between seven and 43 years.
As horrifying as this façade of a trial is, look closer and it becomes all the more politically motivated. In addition to his other charges, for example, Dundar is also accused of publishing state secrets. One such incident includes publishing photographic evidence of military equipment being smuggled from Turkey to Syria, disguised among humanitarian supplies. The cover story thus directly contradicted government assurances that Turkey does not transport weapons to Syria: “These are the weapons Erdogan claims do not exist,” read the headline.
To those outside of Turkey, Erdogan’s motivations are clear.
Despite a grave level of personal risk, the 19 journalists currently on trial have spoken freely. They have highlighted inconsistencies told by the incumbent government, doing nothing more than their duty of providing information to the masses. Erdogan, however, is not in the business of truth.
Through each passing year and piece of legislation, he strives to increase his grip on power and the Turkish people. He masks his corruption by blaming innocent parties, striking down on anyone who dares uncovers his lies.
What is happening now in Turkey is a crisis in freedom. To question our world and how we are governed is a fundamental right of any citizen; it is in our very nature as human beings. And when those in charge are corrupt and despotic, it becomes imperative for us to do so. To strike us down for merely questioning highly dubious behaviour is thus an act against civilisation.
Turkey’s disregard for the freedom of speech has gone on for far too long –150 people too long. And yet Turkey remains a major trade partner for numerous countries around the world and has considerable political sway on the international stage. Until it is ostracised from the international community, it will continue to commit atrocious crimes against its people with impunity.
Naturally, such a move would come at a high price, as often threatened by Erdogan. Western states would lose a key importer and their so-called “democratic bridge to the Middle East”, among many more political pawns. But what will it take for such sacrifices to be made? How many more rights violated and lives lost? Indeed, should the West continue to ignore the atrocities that occur in Turkey, and they in turn continue to worsen, then it is not just the Turkish government that is to blame for its crimes, but the West’s also for continuing its cooperation for the sake of political and economic favour.