Turkish crackdown on dissent claims fresh victims

Half a dozen journalists in Turkey have faced arrests, detentions and lawsuits filed in the past week alone.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan spoke on Feb. 22 for the first time of Turkish military losses in Libya, where Turkey backs the U.N.-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) against General Khalifa Haftar’s eastern forces, which are supported by Egypt, the UAE, France, and helped by Russian mercenaries.

“Of course, we have a few martyrs. But in return for those few martyrs, we have neutralised close to 100 legionnaires there,” Erdoğan said.

Critics accuse the Turkish government of hiding the real number of soldiers and security personnel killed in Libya.

Yeniçağ newspaper columnist Murat Ağırel and security expert Abdullah Ağar published the identities and photos of the troops killed in Libya. It was later discovered those killed were associated with Turkey's intelligence agency, MİT.

Opposition Good Party lawmaker Ümit Özdağ also revealed in parliament that these troops were buried without the usual ceremony for troops killed in combat.

Two weeks later, a Turkish online news site, OdaTV, published a report on personnel killed in Libya being buried in a ceremony without the participation of high-ranking officials, as is usually the case.

The public prosecutor's office took action when government-linked media said the articles violated a law banning the disclosure of the intelligence agents’ identities.

Authorities immediately arrested OdaTV news director Barış Terkoğlu and reporter Hülya Kılınç. OdaTV chief editor Barış Pehlivan was also arrested after speaking out on the issue. Other arrests over reports on the funerals include Yeniçağ columnist Ağırel and Yeni Yaşam newspaper’s news director Aydın Keser, and its chief editor Ferhat Çelik.

Prosecutors have also demanded Engin Özkoç, a senior member of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), have his parliamentary immunity lifted to face charges of insulting the president. Meanwhile, the CHP mayor of the western town of Yalova, Vefa Salman, was removed from his post. Erdoğan’s party and its far-right allies in parliament voted for a member of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) to replace him.

Several mayors from the pro-Kurdish opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) were also dismissed and arrested, as well as a provincial co-chair, Perihan Ağaoğlu, who was accused of terrorist links.

Such moves have sparked a debate over the government’s use of legal pressure to punish and shut down opposition.

"They are trying to maximize fear, and silence and intimidate everyone. As if preparing for an early election," CHP member of parliament Atilla Sertel told Ahval.

“The AKP set off to win the Nov. 1 (2015 general) elections by instilling fear into the public with terrorist attacks, violence and massacres. They even found success in this method. People got scared and withdrew. Now, they are doing the same thing by accusing journalists over incidents in Idlib. They are prohibiting protest of the war,’’ Sertel said.

Sertel said Yeniçağ newspaper, an idealistic-nationalist paper, and Odatv, which favours Kemalism, had become the latest victims of an AKP campaign to silence dissent.

“These are specifically chosen opposition media outlets. These signs point towards an early election. On the one hand, the AKP is exerting efforts to hold high-pressure elections during an atmosphere of war in Syria-Libya and the silencing of the opposition media. While on the other hand, they are calculating their votes based on the fear they've created,” Sertel said.

Journalist Şevket Bülent Yahnici, a former spokesman for the far-right party allied to the AKP, said the government was targeting those who do not share its views.

"The government’s social media has set up an organisation called the Media Monitoring Centre, which follows all social media shares and messages. There is something known as procedural law. However, it has been discovered that the courts have issued fines on individuals, even if they haven't been sharing news, notifications, or defence statements,” Yahnici said.

"I see it as very difficult to normalise this situation and for this country to find neutral ground,” Yahnici added.