Collective Psychological Torture: The Repression of Press Freedom and Dissent in Turkey

Erdoğan's government is taking advantage of security threats from the PKK and the Fethullah Gülen network in order to crush political dissent. The state is influencing media, with many journalists being fired and imprisoned based on state of emergency decrees, while the country is heading towards a referendum expected to create a constitutional dictatorship.

Ahmet Şık, a left-wing investigative journalist, was arrested on 30 December, 2016, due to a number of tweets he posted and articles he wrote. While many journalists are being detained in Turkey’s prisons, we begin this story with the case of Ahmet Şık, because it summarizes the recent political history of Turkey, and thus shows us how the current situation has unfolded.

Ahmet Şık was previously jailed in 2011 while he was working on a book titled The Imam’s Army and has since been seen as a symbol of press freedom in some circles in Turkey. The book tells the story of how members of the messianic cult led by US-based preacher Fethullah Gülen had been infiltrating the country’s state institutions, particularly the police. The book was banned before its publication, and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who was at the time the Prime Minister and a political ally of Fethullah Gülen, defended the arrest, saying “some books are more potent than bombs.” Other people who exposed the Gülenist network in the state suffered fates similar to Şık.

The failed takeover boosted Erdoğan’s popularity, giving him the justification to declare a state of emergency, enabling him to rule the country through issuing decrees.

On the evening of 15 July, 2016, Erdoğan turned out to be wrong about what was more dangerous. Shortly after Gülen and Erdoğan had completed their project of taking the state apparatus from the hands of the secularist-nationalist establishment, they started to work on eliminating each other. While Erdoğan seemed to be in the lead, Gülenists woke up their sleeper cells in the Turkish Armed Forces, killing 241 people, bombing the Parliament, and nearly captured Erdoğan. The failed takeover boosted Erdoğan’s popularity, giving him the justification to declare a state of emergency, enabling him to rule the country through issuing decrees. This resulted in his ability to speed up the purge of Gülen’s well-organized network from the state, and also for quickly implementing measures to repress the legitimate opposition and broaden his powers.

As a prominent investigator of the Gülen network, Ahmet Şık received increased publicity after the failed coup. He continued to voice his fierce opposition against the government, and kept reminding the public that Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) have been partners in Gülen’s crimes. He was eventually arrested on 30 December, 2016, for “publicly humiliating the Republic of Turkey, its judicial organs, military and police organizations,” and for spreading “terrorist propaganda,” two charges that have very broad and arbitrary applications in Turkey.

The merciless power of authority becomes more visible and intimidating when the accusation is particularly absurd and humiliating.

One of the terrorist organizations on behalf of which Şık allegedly spread propaganda was “Fethullah Gülen Terror Organization” (“FETÖ”), the very same organization which got him jailed a few years ago for the book he wrote, when Gülenists controlled important posts in the police and judiciary. This accusation was, of course, deemed by the public an absurdity, but the absurdity had a purpose. The merciless power of authority becomes more visible and intimidating when the accusation is particularly absurd and humiliating, especially being accused for something you have always stood against. Ahmet Şık’s case does not stand alone.

The Current State of Media Freedom in Turkey

In a few months a constitutional referendum will be held in Turkey on 16 April aimed at greatly expanding the powers of the president, a position currently held by Erdoğan. The referendum is seen by critics and law experts as a move to make the current state of emergency permanent, and to create a regime of constitutional dictatorship. Thus voters will be making their decisions at a time when media is under heavy pressure.

According to the latest press freedom index by Reporters without Borders, Turkey currently ranks 151st out of 180 countries. As of 3 February, 2017, 152 journalists are in prison. This number is more than the total number of all imprisoned journalists in the rest of the world. Since the failed coup attempt, around 170 media outlets have closed, and the press cards of at least 624 journalists cancelled.

The reason why the numbers are so high is mainly due to the ongoing large-scale operations to completely crush two political forces: one is the armed organization PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) along with legal organizations that follow a similar ideological inclination, and the other is the aforementioned Fethullah Gülen Movement and its affiliates. Moreover, many people who are unrelated, or only loosely related, to both organizations have been tarnished with the same paintbrush throughout these operations. A few journalists are under detention on the suspicion of aiding the hacker group RedHack. At least five other journalists are in prison for their alleged links to various  armed organizations within the far-left underground.

The Case of Pro-Kurdish Media

A two-and-a-half year peace process between the Turkish state and PKK collapsed in the summer of 2015, opening a new and brutal phase in the conflict that started in 1984, claiming an estimated 40,000 lives. On 24 July, 2015, Turkish warplanes carried out a surprise bombing, targeting the PKK headquarters in the Qandil Mountains in Iraq, ending the ceasefire, which was followed by police operations against PKK around the country. Inspired by developments in the Kurdish-majority region of Syria, a new generation of the PKK-affiliated youth took up arms in demand for regional autonomy. The disproportionate military response from the government led to the near-complete destruction of many towns and neighbourhoods in the country’s Kurdish-majority southeast, which has been described by many political observers as a collective punishment. PKK’s answer to the operations was to carry out bombings in urban areas around the country; the terror inflicted only increased public support for the heavy-handed measures of the government.

The complete annihilation strategy against PKK has included not only military and police operations, but also the closure of all NGOs perceived to be linked to PKK, jailing pro-Kurdish politicians on charges of links to PKK and terrorist propaganda (currently 11 members of Parliament and 80 co-mayors of Kurdish-majority municipalities are under arrest). Anyone demanding a return to the peace process is demonized; thousands of left-wing schoolteachers in Kurdish-majority provinces have been fired; access to pro-Kurdish websites has been blocked; and nearly all pro-Kurdish media is closed. Around one-fourth of imprisoned journalists in Turkey’s prisons face PKK-related charges.

The restart of the conflict in urban areas has led to large-scale human rights violations, and now with the majority of local Kurdish media being shut down, there remains almost no professional media on the ground to report on these violations.

PKK is a very large organization, so it is not unimaginable that some of the arrested journalists are members of the organization or have made propagandistic news ordered by it. However, looking at the circumstances, the main motivation of the arrests and media closures seem to be political and strategic, given that most of these journalists and media organs were not targeted before the collapse of the peace process. The 1990s were challenging times for pro-Kurdish journalists; their arrests and assassinations were common. But recently, throughout the peace process and even before, pro-Kurdish media has operated much more freely. However, the restart of the conflict in urban areas has led to large-scale human rights violations, and now with the majority of local Kurdish media being shut down, there remains almost no professional media on the ground to report on these violations. The government has also been criticized for aggravating the conflict with this massive crackdown, given that banishing pro-Kurdish voices from politics and media alienates and marginalizes much of the Kurdish population, which results in a further exacerbation of the Kurdish’s socio-political issues, rather than solving them in ways to include the Kurds as equal citizens.

The case with the now-closed Özgür Gündem newspaper clearly demonstrates the political aspect of the crackdown. The newspaper might have had some links with PKK, but the legal actions taken against it have not only targeted its staff, but also dozens of people who are merely symbolic editors or advisors. Many are Turkish intellectuals who wanted to stand in solidarity with the newspaper, with the hope of making a contribution towards solving the Kurdish issue through dialogue rather than armed conflict. The legal process launched against them has been interpreted by many as a warning from the state to Turkish intellectuals, so as to prevent them from standing in solidarity with Kurdish demands. A similar warning was also given to the academic world through legal processes, disciplinary harassment, and a smear campaign that targeted over a thousand academics who signed a petition calling on the government to re-instantiate the peace process and punish those responsible for human rights violations. So far 312 of them have been expelled from their jobs by state emergency decrees, and 75 others were sacked by university authorities, while the rest are condemned to a life of waiting for their turn.

Two high-profile people who have been jailed in relation to Özgür Gündem were Necmiye Alpay, a 70 year old linguist, and Aslı Erdoğan, an internationally praised novelist. Both were kept under tough conditions in prison for more than four months, before being released, facing trial without arrest. Even though they have not received sentences yet, the very process of the arrest and imprisonment is a form of punishment itself, not only for the individuals who are imprisoned, but also for many other dissidents, as it functions as a form of psychological torture. Arresting peaceful activists for “terrorist propaganda,” rounding up well-respected people who only have a symbolic connection to Özgür Gündem, treating them like dangerous criminals, and doing this despite the fact that they are not in the best physical condition to endure imprisonment, demonstrates what cruel and disproportionate measures the authorities can take to intimidate dissidents.

The Case of Gülen-linked Media

More than half of journalists imprisoned are alleged Gülenists, while more than half of the media shut down has been linked to Gülen’s organization. To better understand the case of Gülen-linked media we should first take a look at the general nature of the war between the government and its former allies, the Gülenists. The massive crackdown on Gülen’s network following the failed coup attempt poses various political, legal and ethical questions that are not easy to answer due to the uniqueness of this specific case.

The purge has been carried out by a power no more democratically-minded than Gülen’s network.

Over a hundred thousand suspected Gülenists have so far been purged from state institutions, with tens of thousands even jailed. Gülen-linked businesses have been seized by the government, and all Gülen-linked media and other associations have been closed. On the one hand, Gülenist infiltration has posed a serious threat to democracy in Turkey as an illegitimate and fraudulent attempt to control the state apparatus by an opaque religious group with its own internal chain of command. Therefore, some strict measures against the Gülen network are legitimate and were called for by the opposition long before Erdoğan and Gülen turned against each other. On the other hand, the purge has been carried out by a power no more democratically-minded than Gülen’s network. Countless people who are members of the cult but haven’t been involved in any other criminal activity, and others who only have superficial connections to Gülenists have been affected by the purge, leaving them unemployed without proper investigation or trial, leading to their social marginalization.

Due to the very complex and non-transparent nature of the organization, it is often hard to say from the outset when the prosecution of an alleged Gülenist is legitimate and when it is not. This applies to the case of Gülen-linked media. As noted previously, the Gülen-Erdoğan war is a battle within the state itself, and Gülen’s media can be seen as a form of state media. And like Erdoğan-controlled media, Gülen’s media doesn’t serve as a desirable model of the freedom of press. For instance, the main Gülenist newspaper, Zaman, according to defectors and leaked phone conversations, has been tightly controlled by Gülen himself. The newspaper often targeted anti-Gülenist journalists and defended their imprisonment, as with the case of Ahmet Şık in 2011. Zaman and other related news outlets served as a misleading propaganda machine to advance Gülen’s illegitimate political endeavours. They are best known for their systematic attempts at legitimizing controversial operations carried out by Gülen-controlled police and the judiciary, most famously the mass trials that purged secularist officers from the army a few years ago.

So in some way, Gülen-controlled media can be viewed as a tool of an illegal organization. However, it is not always easy to decide whether a media outlet is merely “Gülen-linked” or an essential part of the Gülenist machinery. It is an open question when criminal and political concerns should outweigh principles of press freedom, and when it is legitimate to shut these media outlets down, which also leaves countless people jobless.

These are not easy questions. All that we know for sure is that the government is not in any way interested in these questions, and thus has been mercilessly and lawlessly cracking down on anyone and anything that can be seen as linked to Gülen. People have therefore shied away from asking critical questions like the ones above in order not to be perceived as crypto-Gülenists. Another thing we know is that, for the dozens of journalists jailed for Gülen links, who have had all their money and property confiscated, in many cases it is hard to see what wrong they have done other than writing for Gülen-linked media.

The Case of the Cumhuriyet Newspaper

“Cumhuriyet,” which translates as “The Republic,”is the oldest newspaper in the country, and has recently been the target of multiple operations. Besides the case of Ahmet Sik, who wrote for Cumhuriyet, another journalist from the newspaper is being put on trail for “insulting public officials,” while two other columnists recently received prison sentences for publishing Charlie Hedbo covers featuring Muhammad following the Charlie Hedbo massacre in Paris – though they haven’t been arrested yet. The newspaper’s former chief editor, Can Dündar, and the Ankara bureau chief, Erdem Gül, have been arrested, charged and put on trial for publishing photos which showed trucks belonging to the National Intelligence Organization carrying weapons to an unknown destination in Syria. They were later released, but were subsequently sentenced to more than 5 years in prison for revealing state secrets. Having survived an assassination attempt outside a courthouse, Dündar is currently in exile in Germany.

Dündar and Gül have been accused of publishing the photos in collaboration with Gülenists, as part of a plot to defame the Erdoğan government in the eyes of the international community. Dündar admits in his writings that the stopping of the trucks by security forces was a political move in the context of a rivalry between two groups within the state, but insists that he nevertheless has the right to publish the fact that the AKP government was secretly sending weapons to Syria and therefore committing an international crime.

Cumhuriyet is a staunchly secularist, left-wing newspaper, with some historical roots in Turkish nationalism.

In November 2016, ten further journalists and administrative staff from Cumhuriyet were arrested on suspicion of collaborating with both Gülen’s organization and the PKK. They were accused of allegedly assisting these two organizations with publishing news to manipulate public opinion. Cumhuriyet is a staunchly secularist, left-wing newspaper, with some historical roots in Turkish nationalism. It is therefore hard for many to imagine that these people have knowingly collaborated with either Gülen’s religious cult or Kurdish militants, even in a country like Turkey with its ocean of intrigues.

What forms the basis of these accusations are articles and headlines that are allegedly similar to the ones published on Gülenist or PKK-affiliated news outlets. However these headlines seem to be ordinary examples of journalism that can be found in many opposition newspapers. Columnist Kadri Gürsel, the Turkish Chair of the International Press Institute, was accused of “giving subliminal messages” to his readers in one of his columns in order to incite a public uprising. “Giving subliminal messages” is a brand new addition to Turkey’s penal discourse, a charge that is being abused for arbitrary legal harassment, similar to charges like “defaming state institutions” or “acting on behalf of a terrorist organization without being a member.”

On top of all this mess, the prosecutor in charge of the investigation into Cumhuriyet is a  defendant in a high-profile trial, facing charges of being a Gülenist collaborator who (previously) abused his position as a prosecutor. This led to the speculation that the prosecutor is a defector from Gülen’s network and brought Gülen-linked charges against Cumhuriyet in an attempt to prove to the government that he is now on the government’s side. When this scandal was made public, the government appointed three additional prosecutors to the case, but did not remove the original prosecutor, while thousands of other prosecutors and judges were sacked or arrested for the slightest Gülenist connection.

The Government’s Dominance over Print Media and Television

All journalists who were critical of the government were gradually fired from these media organs, and a few individuals who recently started to voice mild criticism are being targeted and demonized.

As of now, businessmen from Erdoğan’s circle have acquired much of the mainstream media in the country; in 2013, through leaked phone conversations, it was revealed that this takeover was coordinated by Erdoğan himself. All journalists who were critical of the government were gradually fired from these media organs, and a few individuals who recently started to voice mild criticism are being targeted and demonized by more devoted pro-Erdoğan columnists. Many other newspapers, though not directly controlled by the government, are on the government’s side, either because of a shared right-wing ideology or for the privileges of being on the side of the powerful.

There remain very few opposition newspapers distributed nation-wide in print. Among the aforementioned Cumhuriyet, there are three socialist newspapers that are uncompromisingly oppositional, but not widely read. There are also a few nationalist newspapers that staunchly oppose Erdoğan’s plans to switch to an executive presidency, but agree with many of the government’s draconian actions.

Hürriyet is the widest-read mainstream opposition newspaper in the country, but is kept under relative control by the government’s more indirect methods of manipulating the media. The newspaper belongs to the Doğan Media Group, owned by Aydın Doğan, a secularist media tycoon. Doğan has always had problems with the AKP government, but the media he owns cannot overstep the mark when criticizing it. There is an ongoing corruption investigation related to Doğan’s oil business that could potentially lead to his imprisonment, which presumably, to some extent, plays a role in keeping his media under control.

But the government’s attempt at interfering with Doğan Media Group goes even further. The leaked emails of Berat Albayrak, the Minister of Energy and Erdoğan’s son-in-law, are yet another example of governmental interference: Albayrak’s emails, which were given to Wikileaks by the Marxist hacker group RedHack, show that the Doğan Media Group chairman, Mehmet Ali Yalçındağ, was in contact with Albayrak, attempting to manipulate the newspaper in favour of the government. (Yalçındağ has claimed that the content of the emails were doctored, but nevertheless resigned from his position).

The Doğan Media Group fired a popular news anchor after he announced on Twitter that he will vote “no” in the upcoming constitutional referendum.

Another recent incident with Hürriyet was the removal of Tolga Tanış from his post as the newspaper’s Washington correspondent. Having worked for eight years in the US, Tanış was suddenly called back to Turkey to take up a lower-profile post. Some have pointed out that this happened soon after he published an article about Turkish-made substances used for making explosives that were discovered in the hands of the Islamic State. More recently, the Doğan Media Group fired a popular news anchor after he announced on Twitter that he will vote “no” in the upcoming constitutional referendum. And they refused to publish an interview with the Nobel Laureate novelist Orhan Pamuk after he, too, announced a “no” vote.

The State of Online Media and Social Media

The situation with online media is relatively better; there exists many news portals critical of the government, and most of them remain unblocked. However, like other journalists, many people who work for online media have their worries. Journalists, as well as ordinary social media users, are self-censoring due to fears of prosecution. Society is extremely polarized, with an army of pro-governmental trolls online (some even directed by the government itself); it is guaranteed that one who is oppositional will inevitably experience some level of harassment on Twitter and Facebook. The government is actively encouraging its citizens to report each other to the police, and at least 1500 people have so far been remanded in custody for their online posts, based on charges of supporting terrorism or insulting state officials. According to a claim from the opposition MP Barış Yarkadaş, authorities want to take legal action against 17,000 more people, but are postponing this, because there is no place left in detention facilities, and police are still trying to acquire the addresses of 45,000 more social media users.

There have also been at least 1,845 cases filed for “insulting the president,” with many of these cases having targeted ordinary people posting on social media, or even in some cases, for clicking the “like” button on someone else’s post. After the failed coup, Erdoğan dropped all “insulting the president” charges as a gesture of national solidarity (with the exception of charges filed against the pro-Kurdish members of Parliament and the German satirist Böhmermann). Despite this drop, new cases continue to appear, and as a result, the sharing of oppositional news – or even the expressing of one’s oppositional views in a post – has visibly decreased (comparably parallel to the decrease in the number of people talking about politics in public).

Perhaps the new generation will be able to find the things that remain unsaid, things that will convince their fellow citizens to follow a different path than that of tyrants.

Being intimidated is not the only cause for people to shy from speaking up. Another cause is desperation. Some of the saddest casualties of the repression are the columnists who have, on their own free will, ceased writing. The reason why they have stopped writing is not out of fear of prosecution; these are aging intellectuals from the liberal and left-wing circles who have spent their lives courageously struggling in similar times of oppression to make their country a more democratic and equal place. Instead, they are refraining from writing out of a feeling of bitterness; for them, continuing to write is a pointless endeavor, as there doesn’t seem to be anything left to say. Perhaps the new generation will be able to find the things that remain unsaid, things that will convince their fellow citizens to follow a different path than that of tyrants.


Işık Sarıhan is a philosopher, musician, and freelance journalist from Turkey, currently based in Hungary. He runs the Facebook news page ''We Need to Talk about Turkey.''