Which country in the world currently imprisons more journalists than any other? The People’s Republic of China? Nope. Iran? Wrong again. The rather depressing answer is the Republic of Turkey, where nearly 100 journalists are behind bars, according to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. Yes, that’s right: modern, secular, Western-oriented Turkey, with its democratically elected government, has locked away more members of the press than China and Iran combined.
However, this isn’t just about the press — students, academics, artists and opposition parliamentarians have all recently been targeted for daring to speak out against the government of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP).
There is a new climate of fear in Istanbul. When I visited the city last week to host a discussion show for al-Jazeera English, I found journalists speaking in hushed tones about the clampdown on free speech. Within 24 hours of our arrival, one of my al-Jazeera colleagues was detained by police officers, who went through his bag and rifled through one of my scripts. They loudly objected to a line referring to the country’s “increasingly authoritarian government.” Who says that Turks don’t do irony?
The stock response from members of the AKP government is to blame the imprisonment and intimidation on Turkey’s supposedly “independent” judiciary, but this will not do. For a start, ministers haven’t been afraid of interfering in high-profile prosecutions. In a speech at the Council of Europe in April last year, a defiant Erdogan, commenting on the controversial detention of the investigative journalist Ahmet Sik, compared Sik’s then unpublished book to a bomb: “It is a crime to use a bomb, but it is also a crime to use materials from which a bomb is made.”
Then there is the behind-the-scenes pressure that is exerted by the government on media organizations.
“People are afraid of criticizing Erdogan openly,” said Mehmet Karli, a lecturer at Galatasaray University in Istanbul and a campaigner for Kurdish rights. “They might not be arrested, but they will lose their jobs.”
In February, for example, Nuray Mert, a columnist for the Milliyet newspaper, was sacked and her TV show canceled after she was publicly singled out for criticism by the prime minister. Last month Ali Akel, a conservative columnist for the pro-government newspaper Yeni Safak, was fired for daring to write a rare, critical article about Erdogan’s handling of the Kurdish issue.
However, the restrictions on freedom of speech don’t stop with the media.
Exhibit A: Last week, two students were sentenced to eight years and five months in prison by a court in Istanbul for “membership of a terrorist organization,” while a third student was sentenced to two years and two months behind bars for spreading terrorist propaganda. Yet the students, Berna Yilmaz, Ferhat Tuzer and Utku Aykar, had merely unfurled a banner reading “We want free education, we will get it,” at a public meeting attended by Erdogan in March 2010.
Exhibit B: On June 1 Fazil Say, one of Turkey’s leading classical pianists, was charged with “publicly insulting religious values that are adopted by a part of the nation” after he retweeted a few lines from a poem by the 11th-century Persian poet Omar Khayyam that mocked the Islamic vision of heaven. Say’s trial is scheduled for October, and if convicted, the pianist faces up to 18 months in prison. The irony is not lost on those Turks who remember how Erdogan himself was imprisoned in 1998, when he was mayor of Istanbul, for reading out a provocative poem.