When Vice News journalist Mohammed Ismael Rasool was detained by Turkish authorities last August, I wrote to a friend in Turkey to ask for his help. I remarked in passing on the worsening situation for press freedom in the country: ‘Yes, getting much worse,’ he replied. ‘At some stage they will come after us, too. Then we will need your help.’ This prediction of darker times ahead proved right much more quickly than any of us foresaw. On Friday, after months of arrests and detentions of prominent journalists, the country hit a new low: courts seized control of opposition newspaper Zaman, one of Turkey’s leading media outlets. Police fired teargas and used water cannon on protestors gathered outside the paper’s building. This morning, Zaman’s editor-in-chief was fired. Journalists have been locked out of their email accounts.
— Abdullah Bozkurt (@abdbozkurt) 5 March 2016
These are the actions of a dictatorship, not a democracy – and the writing has been on the wall for some time. For months, we have protested as the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan stepped up the arrest of journalists whose work was deemed a threat to his rule. Last year, Can Dündar, the editor-in-chief of the Turkish daily Cumhuriyet, and his Ankara bureau chief, Gül, were arrested and charged with spying and terrorism for publishing evidence of arms deliveries by the Turkish intelligence services to Islamist groups in Syria. Others have been charged with ‘insulting the President’ – a crime that can land you up to four years in jail. Last week, it was revealed that almost 2,000 people had been prosecuted for presidential insults since Erdogan took office in 2014. All this from a country seeking membership of the European Union.
Most people who want to get into a club try to abide by its rules. But Erdogan has been able to get away with his squeeze on the media precisely because his EU counterparts have been voluble in their silence over this slide to authoritarianism. This needs to stop. A free press is, as Nelson Mandela termed it, the ‘lifeblood’ of democracy – without it, democracy is simply a façade. No press can operate freely if a journalist or editor must weigh, each day, the possibility of jail or sacking for reporting the news. No commentator should have to mull the possibility of four years in jail for criticising the government. It seems so self evident as to be almost fatuous to restate, but it is something we have taken for granted too long and at our peril.
The sight of Turkish police using tear gas and water cannon on the Zaman protestors should be a wake up call for all of those who thought press freedom was a battle fought and won long ago in our own democracies. Because the warning signs were all there in Turkey and few paid attention. We must not make the same mistake elsewhere. Poland, for example, has just announced new restrictive media laws that have so far garnered little popular attention. Hungary is already well down that path. We need to be far more outspoken on these apparent smaller attacks on the press, otherwise the closure of Zaman will not be an isolated case – neither in Turkey, nor elsewhere in this region. We can start by making it clear to Erdogan that the wider world condemns utterly this action.
Jodie Ginsberg is the CEO of Index on Censorship, a campaigning organisation for freedom of expression.