When new judges and public prosecutors were recently sworn in by Turkish President Erdogan, it once again became clear in which direction his new term of office will go: more restrictions on freedom of expression and freedom of the press. The large congress hall of the presidential palace in Ankara served as the theatre for a staging of the autocrat from the Bosphorus, who not only wanted to get his country’s judiciary on course, but also to arm himself for the coming local election campaigns. Erdogan knows that he will only be able to take back the big cities like Ankara and Istanbul from the opposition if he controls the press even more in his country.
In his speech to the prospective civil servants, Erdogan then described that there are dark forces that want to harm him again and again: Gezi protests, fraud investigations, coup attempts. The judges and prosecutors repeatedly applauded their leader, and when the Sultan then sharply attacked the leader of the main opposition party, the CHP, he received a standing ovation from them.
To a large extent, Erdogan has already succeeded in creating a judiciary in his country that protects and serves his rule – and how close his ruling practice has come to the tyranny of an autocratic state. There was almost no reaction from the political opposition, which makes it clear that such ceremonies for the amusement of the president are already considered normal and few critics in the media publicly commented on these absurd scenes, which stand for the almost complete erosion of the separation of powers. This is a clear sign of how widespread fear and self-censorship have become.
Once again, it is the Kurdish minority in Turkey and journalists that are openly standing up against the Sultan, also with regard to the judiciary being brought into line: Kurdish journalists are increasingly reporting on the judiciary and ongoing trials against colleagues.
A couple of weeks ago, Turkish police launched a new wave of purges, this time targeting Firat Can Arslan, a reporter for the pro-Kurdish Mezopotamya News Agency, who was arrested at his home in Ankara. The reason for this was investigations by the Attorney General’s Office into allegations that the journalist had “targeted people who are tasked with fighting terrorism”. As reported by the Committee for the Protection of Journalists (CPJ), “the investigation relates to a tweet that Arslan posted on July 18 (…)”. His Twitter message was about a judge and a prosecutor who are married to each other – and yet both are involved in an ongoing mass trial against journalists. However, Arslan’s arrest was not the end of it. Four other journalists were arrested in different cities for retweeting Arslan’s post. While Arslan is reportedly now in solitary confinement, the other four were released after interrogation. However, they have to report to the police regularly and are banned from leaving the country.
Because they reported on a marital relationship between the prosecutor and the judge in an ongoing trial against 18 of their colleagues, should the journalists have committed a criminal offence? Authorities are citing Article 6 of the Anti-Terror Law, a vaguely worded paragraph that criminalizes reporting on state officials “if it means they can be targeted by terrorist organizations.”
What gives the trial a new quality: By July 25, such allegations may have led to investigations, but never to arrests. In this case it is different – although the “crime” was only that the journalists tweeted and retweeted information from a public source, from a transcript on a judicial website. A new phase in the fight against a free press is emerging, in which the judiciary will interpret anti-terror laws even more broadly in order to block reporting even more.
“What is happening here is an absolute support of the government’s media strategy by the judiciary: all possible loopholes for reporting are closed by perverting the articles of the law and turning the rules of investigation upside down,” commented critical media in an appeal. “In this way, the flow of information is completely destroyed. From this point of view, the name of an official in Turkey can no longer be mentioned in any news report. No matter what he/she has done. Such an absurd and important investigation for freedom of the press and freedom of expression found no place on the opposition’s agenda. The journalists were alone in the courtroom, they did not receive even token support.”
While many in the opposition are still muttering “Turkey is a democracy” or using soothing rhetoric, President Erdogan continues to devour what is left of the judiciary. In the next ten months, three of the senior judges of Turkey’s constitutional court who were nominated by Erdogan’s predecessor and are considered moderate will step down. The sultan will make the new appointments, and by the summer of 2024 Turkey will have a constitutional court that is close to its executive.
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