No wonder Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan is working hard to improve ties with the Arab world. No nosey reporters there ask him embarrassing questions about Turkey’s diminishing freedom of the press or rights of religious minorities – or any other minority for that matter – or the increasingly autocratic nature of his government. Basically, reporters in the Middle East don’t ask too many questions in the first place, let alone any that might challenge the particular leader’s view of the world.
Contrast this with his experience in Europe where he is constantly badgered about all the contradictions between words and reality in Turkey, and where he responds with all the defensive bluster and insults of a school yard bully. .
When a French member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe asked Erdogan during a meeting in Strasbourg how he would guarantee religious freedom in Turkey he criticized the questioner instead of answering the question. He said she was obviously French and knew nothing of Turkey. Wrong target Mr. Erdogan. The French questioner, Muriel Marland-Militello is of Turkish-Armenian descent and her mother is from Turkey. She travels to Istanbul frequently.
Questioned about jailing two journalists and banning a book that had not even been published yet he responded with a straight face that this action was similar to arresting someone with bomb-making components in his possession. The fact that this action might be inconsistent with his repeated claims about greater democracy and openness in Turkey was never mentioned.
This type of aggressive, defensive behaviour plays very well at home and could be considered the opening salvo of the election campaign before the vote on June 12. Erdogan knows full well that honestly engaging the European Union about Turkey’s membership is not a vote-winning tactic. Constant EU demands for additional reforms annoy the proud and prickly Turks, and they feel insulted by things like visa restrictions and the general condescension from Europeans about all things Turkish. The way things are going right now, neither side – especially French President Nicholas Sarkozy – seems particularly interested in realistically pursuing Turkey’s bid to join the European Union. Therefore Erdogan is free to bluster at will and rail against perceived European injustice and hypocrisy with nothing to lose and the chance to score valuable points at home for standing up for Turkey’s ‘image’.
This behaviour merely reflects the increasing tension in Turkey where many journalists are either cowed into submission, fired, or thrown in jail. The lame official response that the jailings have nothing to do with press freedom but are related to unspecified ‘anti-democratic’ actions ring very hollow. Reporters who ask embarrassing questions at meetings with the prime minister tend not to be asked back. One of the prime minister’s minions often calls the editor of the offending reporter who is then fired or sent on a special mission to cover school openings on the Iranian border. But then, journalists are not alone. Hardly anyone in Erdogan’s very small inner circle dares to oppose the prime minister or ask difficult questions.
The latest victim of the journalist firings was Andrew Finkel who used to write a column for Today’s Zaman a paper that is supported by a organization of Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish Moslem leader now living in the United States who spreads the soft side of Islam by building schools and hospitals around the world. While not always close to Prime Minister Erdogan, the Gulen organization generally supports the aims of Turkey’s ruling AKP party.
Finkel’s sin was to write a column that criticized jailing the two journalists involved in writing a book called The Imam’s Army that was allegedly critical of the Gulen movement. I say ‘allegedly’ because no one has seen the book since the authorities confiscated the electronic version before publication. Finkel is not just any foreign correspondent. He and his historian wife Caroline have been living in Turkey for years, he speaks Turkish fluently, and has encyclopaedic knowledge of the country.
His final column was never published in Today’s Zaman, and included this paragraph. “I have already expressed my concern that the fight against anti-democratic forces in Turkey has resorted to self-defeating anti-democratic methods . . . I am referring to the aggressive prosecution of people who write books. They may be bad books, they may be books which are written with ulterior motives, they may be books which contain assertions which are not true. But at the end of the day, they are books – and there are libel courts – not criminal courts – designed to protect individuals from malicious falsehood. In short, writing a book offensive to the Gulen community is not a crime.” Finkel was gone the next day, and this column was published by a rival paper.
His editor published a justification of the firing that would make George Orwell’s fictional descriptions of official double-speak seem quite mild. “It is obvious that we are making publications to expose bloody gangs despite several risks. So what is it that has changed? What has changed is that some of our writers have come under the influence of the strong and dark propaganda that is at play and have started to stagger. Unfortunately, I feel the same way about Finkel, who I know does not have ill intentions in any way.” Unfortunately it is no longer very clear who in Turkey is wielding the ‘strong and dark propaganda.’