Is Ankara becoming Tehran?

Photo Credits: Reuters

In the 1990s, Turkey faced a series of attacks and so-called “unsolved” murders, with all victims were political figures. Since the perpetrators and murderers could not be identified, it was believed that a “deep state” structure was behind most of these killings. There were clear indications that, in particular, people who had come into conflict with the government over the Kurdish question were being killed, others were pro-secular intellectuals. Behind these attacks were probably radical Islamist terrorist organizations that wanted to transform Turkey into a country governed by Sharia rules. As a result, the slogan chanted at the funerals of intellectuals murdered by fundamentalists became one of the most popular in recent Turkish history: “Turkey will not become Iran!”

Turkey did not mutate into the second Iran. However, the undisputed fact is that the country has become more conservative after the change of government in 2002, that the country has distanced itself from secular principles and values of western democracies.

With the new media and anti-disinformation law recently enacted by Parliament, freedom of expression and freedom of the press threatens to wither away to a much greater extent than has been purposefully pursued by the state in recent years. With the law, Erdoğan is continuing a long-standing strategy, at the end of which the plurality of opinions in the country will have the liveliness and diversity of a journalistic dead end.

What has been going on in Iran over the past couple of weeks suggests that the country is converging with the old Turkey, while Turkey becomes “Iranianized”: There were also protests in Istanbul against the murder of Mahsa Amini in Iran because she had not worn the headscarf properly. Iranian women living in Istanbul led the way in the first demonstration on Taksim Square in the heart of the city. Iranian women without headscarves wanted to demonstrate with banners in Persian and Turkish. And what happened with one of the brave Iranian women heading the protest march? A Turkish policewoman with a headscarf arrested her!

The second Turkish city with actions in support of the protests in Iran and condemning the regime’s brutal response was Ankara. There, Iranian women chose the mausoleum of Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey, who laid the foundations for the secular way of life, as the centre of protests.

While brave Iranians risk their lives for freedom, women’s rights and pluralism, commemorations are being held in Turkey’s mosques on the anniversary of Khomeini’s death. Small children are allowed to sing the march “Greetings to my commander” for Khomeini. In Iran there is a religious police force that controls morals on the streets and is responsible for the death of Mahsa Amini. Turkey’s leaders are talking about going even one step further. “An Imam for every household,” suggested a man in the leadership of the AKP recently. In a TV broadcast back in 2013, Erdoğan shed tears for 17-year-old Asma, who died in the military coup in Egypt; he said not a word to the more than 100 young people who have now died in Iran!

Hadn’t Erdoğan blamed the Saudi regime for the gruesome murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate General in Istanbul? Hadn’t he published an article in the Washington Post telling the whole world that the highest echelons of the Saudi government were to blame? Hadn’t he stormed in Parliament with the words “Of course we will investigate all aspects of this crime committed within our borders, investigate and do what is necessary, nobody should even think that the matter will be shelved until all questions have been answered”? In Erdoğan’s Turkey, the file was closed and handed over to the Saudis.

With the upcoming elections next year in sight, the economic crisis shakes the Turkish ruling elite and prompts Erdoğan to zigzag again. But all his actions cannot reverse the facts. Unemployment and poverty worsen, 1,1 million people lost their jobs in the first eight months of 2022, the number of companies that went bankrupt during the same period has increased by 70 percent compared to the previous year and has risen to almost 14,000, the poverty line is four times the minimum wage. According to official figures, the annual inflation rate is 83,45 percent, in reality probably at least twice as high. In the 99 year history of Turkey, there was only one period in which inflation rose even more rapidly: during the Second World War. Poverty is just around the corner here, the architects of misery continue to squander the country’s resources. According to official figures from the Court of Auditors, the daily expenditure of the Erdoğan palace is 550,000 euros!

While the Ministry of Tourism of Turkey advises its own population, getting poorer and poorer, to go on vacation in winter, Erdoğan jetted to the US for three days in a custom-made Boeing 777 given to him by the Emir of Qatar. And an army cargo plane took off from Ankara to transport Erdoğan’s Maybach official car. Back from his vacation, Erdoğan insulted his citizens who are leaving the country for a better life: “I regret to see that people, for the sake of base desires, just to drive a better car, just to be able to buy a newer phone, just to be able to attend more concerts, to strive for the gates of other countries.” A few days later he increased the cost of leaving the country by 100 percent. To punish those leaving Turkey one last time.

The most recent new media regulation means that journalists and social media users can be sentenced to up to three years in prison if they “spread or further spread” “fake news” – i.e. false or largely untrue news. Not only the authors of texts, films or tweets are affected, but also the Internet portals and messenger services themselves. They are obliged to hand over the names and data of the users who are allegedly spreading fake news to the authorities.

The opposition is therefore talking about a “censorship law” and wants to appeal to the constitutional court. But the chances that the new regulations can be overturned are slim. They are not yet in force, but Erdoğan only has to sign the law. In any case, there is no doubt about his initials: his governing party, the AKP, introduced the law to parliament.

The new law continues the longstanding media policy. The most important broadcasters and newspaper publishers have been bought up step by step by pro-government entrepreneurs for a long time, opposition publishers have been forced to sell or go bankrupt through the deletion of state advertisements, editorial departments and journalists have been massively harassed. In this climate, social media developed into a stage for a kind of digital extra-parliamentary opposition.

These media still form a parallel, often freer and more up-to-date media landscape – of course often enough accompanied by the unbridled intentional or unintentional outliers that are inherent in digital and social media. The Turkish government has been trying to eliminate this for a long time with a variety of legal measures: The new law now affects a number of existing laws and regulations. Internet portals and messenger services, for example, have had to have a branch and representative in Turkey for a good year now. Most of these internationally active companies gave up their resistance surprisingly quickly. They are therefore subject to Turkish law and are liable.

Above all, however, Turkish opposition politicians, journalists and messenger users have been and are being accused and often imprisoned for tweets that are in some cases many years old. The reasons are usually similar: calling for or supporting terrorist activity, insulting the President, hurting religious feelings, alleged violations of personal rights.

But the central wording of the new law sets the framework much further: “Anyone who publicly disseminates false information that endangers internal or external security, public order or general health and doing so with the aim of creating tension, fear or panic in the public is punishable by imprisonment for between one and three years.”

Turkey is Europe’s number two prisoner after Russia? One in 269 people is behind bars. However, those in power seem to think that we don’t deserve second place: a few days ago they pulled the social media law out of the drawer. This means that anyone, not just journalists, can go to jail for three years for “disinformation”. Now it’s up to Erdoğan’s friend Putin to come up with something.

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