Erdoğan using Khashoggi case to gloss over Turkey’s press freedom record


This week’s speech by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is likely to  have disappointed anyone who expected him to finally reveal bombshell evidence in the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi murder that Turkey claims, and likely does have, in its possession. What he did say clarified what will satisfy Turkey’s demand for justice in this case and obliquely hints at what it hopes to politically and diplomatically gain. Reading between the lines of his speech, we can see that one of his goals is to use the Khashoggi case to paper over Turkey’s own horrendous record on press freedom.

“The fact that Jamal Khashoggi is an internationally renowned journalist, aside from his Saudi identity, also puts an international responsibility on us. Turkey, as the representative of the world's common conscious along with its own sovereignty, is following up this issue,” President Erdogan told his international audience, as quoted by Al Jazeera.

The de facto government-controlled media have also been utilized in service of the government line. Not only were news organizations like Sabah the vehicle used by the Turkish government to leak details to the international press, thus giving them future credibility, they were showcased by Vice as an example how the press worked to “break” the details on the Khashoggi case.

This performative stance by Erdoğan and his government in the name of international press freedom and human rights is in stark contrast to its domestic record. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Turkey was the world’s biggest jailer of journalists in 2017. Gulnoza Said of the CPJ told Ahval that they are in the midst of putting together their annual report for 2018 and that “our preliminary research shows that Turkey will continue to be a #1 jailer of journalists.” Turkish media freedom organization Platform24 has documented the cases of 176 journalists who are currently imprisoned in Turkey in addition to 195 media outlets that have been closed down since the failed coup attempt in July of 216.

“I think it is fair [talk about Turkey’s own record on press freedom] because they are facts… It does matter what is happening inside of Turkey, and it matters for understanding why and how this administration in Turkey has instrumentalized Khashoggi and why they don’t do it with others,” Nate Schenkkan, Director of Special Research for Freedom House, told Ahval editor Ilhan Tanir in a recent interview.

“I think that the AKP, Erdogan at this point have a very instrumental view of the press. They see the media as being divided into those who are ‘good’ and those who are ‘bad,’ depending on what their viewpoints are, and Khashoggi would have been ‘good,’ he was a ‘good’ journalist. If this had happened to a ‘bad’ journalist, I don’t think there’s any question that they wouldn’t have spoken out in the same way,” Schenkkan added.



Since Khashoggi’s murder at the beginning of this month, dozens of Turkish journalists have been threatened, arrested, or sentenced to prison. For example, in just the last few weeks, journalist Can Dundar, who was  previously sentenced to 5 years in prison the same day as surviving an attempted assassination, had Turkey ask Interpol to issue a red notice against him and death threats directed at him. Adding insult to injury, “Murat Şahin, the man who tried to shoot Can Dündar in front of an Istanbul courthouse and wounded another journalist in 2016 walked away with a light sentence. An Istanbul Court sentenced him only to 10 months in prison, which he won’t serve because he already spent months in prison,” Said of the CPJ told Ahval.

The day after Khashoggi disappeared into the Saudi consulate, in stark contrast to the noble sentiments he expressed on Tuesday, as quoted by pro-government Hürriyet Daily News, Erdogan told those gathered for a ceremony marking the beginning of the academic year that “I have seen that these giant countries are being governed by the media and not by their leaders. Because whenever I spoke with them they were saying, ‘Our media says this, our media writes that,’” adding “Democracy is not possible with the media.”

Unsurprisingly, it seems unlikely that Erdogan’s attention to the Khashoggi case is a sign that he has a change of mind or heart on the issue of press freedom for Turkish journalists.

“I don't expect Erdogan's unfortunately negative and problematic attitude to media freedom and independent journalism to change as a result of this case. On the contrary, he has used the Khashoggi case to try to suggest he cares about these issues. That's just cynical,” Simon Tisdall, columnist at the Guardian, told Ahval.

“Erdoğan has been relentless in his pursuit of his critics, particularly after the attempted coup in July 2016. The Khashoggi case will only embolden him to crack down on those that criticize him, claiming that he must protect the Turkish nation from outside forces and terrorists,” Elmira Bayrasli, Professor at Bard College and co-founder of Foreign Policy Interrupted, told Ahval.

Erdoğan may not even be succeeding at distracting from his own press freedom record. The Washington Post and the Guardian have both also published pieces recently about the Khashoggi case and Turkey’s own press freedom record. Gulnoza from the CPJ believes that Erdogan’s championing of the Khashoggi case “puts his press freedom and human rights record under even a bigger scrutiny,” adding that “if the Erdogan government wants to convince the world it cares about the plight of killed or jailed journalists, it should start with releasing dozens of journalists unjustly thrown behind bars on some fabricated charges in Turkey.”

Experts also warn that Khashoggi’s death, and Turkey’s continued crackdown on press freedom while claiming to champion his case, is part of a larger, disturbing international trend that corresponds to the rise of more authoritarian leaders worldwide. “As authoritarian leaders, they are skeptical and suspicious of the press, threatened by any criticism or any challenge,” Bayrasli told Ahval. “Saudi Arabia's brutal actions only show how little value the Kingdom puts on journalists, and, more importantly, their belief that others don't value them either.”

Commenting on the relationship between violence against journalists abroad and the bomb which was sent to CNN this week, Schenkkan observed that “at the broadest level, there is a new environment, political environment that is solidifying around journalism, created by, really, our most important politicians in the United States, in parts of Europe, in Turkey, in which, again, journalists are seen as ‘good’ or as ‘bad.’ That’s becoming very normal.  It doesn’t always lead to violence, but it helps create an atmosphere in which violence becomes normalized.”

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.