Erdogan’s attitude towards the media is out of this era

By Claude Salhani

It is not difficult to acknowledge that we are living in precarious times. Around the world, men in prime positions of power are adopting policies that do not serve the collective good or the cause of democracy they pretend to represent.

Instead of seeking to unite people, these false prophets divide the countries they represent. They stroke their inflated egos, look to further empower themselves and solidify their seat of power.

Truth has become a casualty because these leaders feel no shame in lying to the world. They cannot bear to be portrayed negatively, so they attack the media as an “enemy of the people” and stamp any news item deemed unfavourable as “fake news.”

From Ankara to Washington and from Moscow to Pyongyang, not forgetting Damascus and Tehran, regimes adopted viewpoints that set back the cause of democracy and freedom. With the stroke of a pen and — in cases like Turkey — with repressive measures, decades of inching towards democracy have been undone.

What is frightening is that most people do not see what is happening or suspect that the changes are taking place, gradually eroding basic values of democracies. By the time they wake up, it is often too late.

Today’s threats to democracy come not only from its traditional enemies but from those who claim to be the West’s own allies.

Donald Trump in the United States, Vladimir Putin in Russia, Kim Jong-un in North Korea, Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela and Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey — what do these men have in common, given their diverse political leanings? They have all taken to calling media that dares criticise them the “enemy of the people” and referring to unfavourable articles as “fake news.”

This is not a novelty.

Joseph Stalin referred to anyone who opposed him — or was even suspected of opposing him — as an “enemy of the people.”

This focus recently has been on Erdogan, who, after having decimated the Turkish media that stood up to him, is now targeting international media. Erdogan occasionally cancels foreign journalists’ press credentials and sends them packing.

When Erdogan delivered his re-election victory speech, he spoke of “one nation, one flag, one state.” He could have taken it a step further and talked about one media and one voice — his. Because that’s the way the election campaign was reported.

The main state-owned TV channel TRT reported on the election like any state-run media channel in authoritarian countries would: devoting all coverage to a single candidate, Erdogan, of course. In the month leading up to the election, TRT devoted 67 hours of airtime to Erdogan. His rival received less than seven hours of coverage over the same period.

Since rising to power in 2003, Erdogan has orchestrated a restructuring of the country’s media space. Hundreds of journalists have been jailed and more than 100 media outlets have been shut down, accused of terrorism.

In some instances, Erdogan arranged to have prominent outlets, such as the Dogan Media Group, once the largest media conglomerate in Turkey, be bought out by the pro-government Demiroren family.

For many Turkish voters — especially the lower- and middle-class electorate, who are primarily concerned with making ends meet — press freedom remains somewhat of an abstract concept, a topic that matters more to the country’s intellectuals.

A free press is the cornerstone of a democracy but Erdogan said shortly after his re-election that the media and democracy are not compatible.

“You can’t have democracy alongside the media,” said Erdogan at an event marking the start of the academic year.

“Once the media were running our country, the fourth estate or what have you,” the Turkish president said, adding that he would rather take his cues from the public than the media.

“A politician can’t implement sound policies if he is in fear of the media,” he said as he slammed Western media, which he accused of running a misinformation campaign against his government.

Erdogan’s neo-Ottoman worldview, including his attitude towards the media, is terribly anachronistic and in need of an urgent update.

While observers may be taken aback by the president’s blunt admission of hostility towards the media, Turkey, under Justice and Development Party rule, has long been notorious for its heavy-handed approach to the media, earning it the title of the world’s leading jailer of journalists.

More than 100 media outlets have been shut down in Turkey under increased security measures since an attempted coup in July 2016. Many critical voices in the country’s media have been drowned out as businesses with links to the government took over the country’s major media outlets.

Reporters Without Borders ranked Turkey 157th out of 180 countries for press freedom in 2018. Freedom House declared Turkey as “not free” in its “Freedom in the World 2018” report.

The European parliament recently voted to cancel $70 million of pre-accession funding for Turkey due to its failure to meet requirements in seven areas, including freedom of the press.

Authoritarianism might be in the air but a lack of press freedom has Turks and everyone else choking.

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