If the Turkish press cannot criticise Erdoğan, then foreign media must speak out

For the media in this country to give Erdoğan a free pass would be a gross failing, not least in the eyes of independent Turkish journalists whose work has been hampered by the serious erosion of press freedom in their homeland

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The Independent Online

As news broke on Friday evening of a nascent military coup in Turkey, media organisations in the UK struggled to work out what on earth was happening. With Turkish state TV seemingly under the control of unknown forces, and President Erdoğan addressing the nation via FaceTime, journalists here sought answers from people on the ground and via social media.

Twitter was alive with rumours: the coup d’état was said to have been brilliantly successful and Erdoğan was on his way to Germany to seek political asylum; then he was apparently London-bound. Explosions were heard across Turkey, then it emerged they might be sonic booms. The army plotters faced no opposition; then suddenly it appeared they represented a small minority of the military and were ill-supported by other organs of the state.

As the dust settled and it became obvious that the attempt to overthrow the established order had failed, one point remained in dispute – was its failure a victory for democracy, or paradoxically a signifier of its likely retreat?

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An email which arrived in my inbox over the weekend argued that British journalists had failed to denounce a clearly illegal coup because they disapprove of Erdoğan’s dilution of Turkish secularism. In other words, Western criticism of the Turkish President is motivated not by concern for democracy but by religious discrimination.

Much of the Western media certainly appears conflicted when it comes to Turkey. The country is frequently cited with admiration as the prime example of democracy in an Islamic setting. Yet the regime of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been characterised as increasingly illiberal, with attacks on freedom of expression widely covered by journalists here. Then again, while Erdoğan’s party, the AKP, has never won a majority of the popular vote, it – and its leader – clearly have a high degree of public support, and a hefty majority of parliamentary seats.

For their part, politicians across Europe and the United States have called on Turkey’s government to show restraint amid reports that the death penalty may be reintroduced to punish the conspirators. Yet of greater importance to fellow Nato members is Turkey’s military role in the Middle East and its presence as a bulwark against Russian ambitions. And for the European Union, Turkey has provided a solution – of sorts – to the Syrian refugee crisis. Add to that a democratic mandate, and Erdoğan clearly has the upper hand when it comes to dealings with Western governments.

Moreover, it cannot be ignored that Turkey’s domestic security is imperilled both by regular attacks from supporters of Isis, and by the longstanding threat posed by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, the PKK. Turkey isn’t Britain, or Germany or the United States: wouldn’t it be rather presumptuous to preach to its leaders about how they should run the nation’s affairs? The West, after all, has been here before, with less than happy consequences.

And yet for the media in this country to give Erdoğan a free pass would be a gross failing, not least in the eyes of independent Turkish journalists whose work has been hampered by the serious erosion of press freedom in their homeland. Erdoğan, remember, has put critical media houses under the control of “trustees”, effectively shackling them to state-approved views.  He has also brought close to 2,000 prosecutions against people alleged to have insulted him.

These, ultimately, are not the acts of a democrat. Nor is talk of "cleansing" state organs of a “virus” – talk backed by swift action since Friday, with the arrest of thousands of police and military personnel and members of a judiciary which had already begun to be little more than a patsy for the President. Next will surely come moves to transfer parliamentary powers to Erdoğan’s presidential office. He is, after all, a politician who does not like to share authority – as former colleagues, including Ahmet Davutoglu who resigned as Prime Minister in May, and the AKP’s co-founder Abdullah Gül, would attest.

For the time being, Erdoğan’s control has only been tightened by the failed attempt to unseat him. Who in Turkey would oppose him now? And for as long as wars rage to Turkey’s south, Western governments will put political expediency ahead of moral qualms, and back their ally.

The foreign media, however, has no such need to equivocate. And let’s be clear, journalistic criticism of Erdoğan is not a denouncement of Islam, nor is it part of an invented narrative that seeks in and of itself to undermine a democratically elected government. Rather, it is about standing up for the kind of freedom of expression not permitted in Turkey; it is about reporting facts over propaganda; and it is ultimately about calling a spade a spade – in Erdoğan’s case, a president who would be king.