Last week, just as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced that Turkey had the freest media in the world, Dutch journalist Frederike Geerdnik was being detained on charges of “terrorism propaganda”. Geerdnik moved to Turkey in 2006, and had been reporting on Kurdish issues, human rights and women’s rights from the southeastern city of Diyarbaır since 2012.
It is not surprising that Geerdnik, who three years ago tweeted that Turkey is not a place where people would live in fear, was now “invited” to a police station by eight heavily armed members of the special anti-terrorism force – because she was allegedly propagating terrorism and portraying the Turkish government in a negative light via her Twitter account.
It is not surprising that this month Sedef Kabaş, a Turkish journalist, was detained for posting a single tweet asking people not to forget the name and face of the judge that dropped a major corruption investigation. Moreover, she was accused of targeting people who are involved in anti-terror operations.
And neither is it surprising that, also this month, Mehmet Baransu, another Turkish journalist, was detained for posting a tweet that criticised President Erdoğan’s adviser Mustafa Varank.
These stories are not surprising because Reporters Without Borders’ press freedom index currently ranks Turkey 154th out of 180 countries, and obviously the arrest of journalists is not something that Turkey is unfamiliar with. Nevertheless, the above mentioned cases are very interesting in the sense, that these journalists were targeted not for what they have published, but for what they were tweeting.
It is well known in Turkey that President Erdoğan is not a great fan of social media. Six months ago he said: “There is now a scourge that is called Twitter, the best examples of lies can be found there. To me, social media is the worst menace to society.” This was not his first, nor his last statement regarding social media. In fact Twitter was even blocked briefly, just after Erdoğan promised to eradicate it.
Between March and June of last year, in the months preceding the Presidential elections, social media was the favourite topic of Erdo?an, however it no longer is. Maybe because he genuinely realised that blocking access to social media is in fact censorship, and a violation of numerous rights. Or because the government found ways to take advantage of social media on their own grounds – as Twitter might be a useful tool for an oldie but goodie suppression tactic.
During WWII, the Turkish government had the authority to shut down newspapers without a reason or a prior notice. Government press officials would call the newspaper and notify them of their decision. As newspapers didn’t know exactly why they were being shut down and couldn’t take any preventive steps, they started demanding actual censorship. When, for example, the owner of a newspaper called “Vatan” asked Prime Minister Sukru Saracoglu to exercise censorship so that the government could be held responsible for the suppression of the press, Saracoglu replied “I don’t overrule the constitution, I don’t censor. But you should know your place and if you overstep it, you will be punished”. (#tarih magazine, January 2015 issue)
So when President Erdoğan said “There is no national media either in Europe, or in other parts of world, where the media is as free as in Turkey. We all know this.” He might actually be telling the truth, at least as he sees it. These journalists are not censored or taken into custody for what they report but they are targeted for what they post on social media. Because, as the president said, the press in Turkey is not censored but “Try to attack the president or the prime minister in those countries if you can. No, you cannot. You cannot do this in the US, in Germany or in Russia,” and if you do, you will face the consequences.
Welcome to Turkey, a concrete jungle where the truth is made up, and there is nothing you can do about it.