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Autocrats Face Sharpened Pen

The old ways are definitely out for news reporting. The new normal is a news cycle measured in micro-seconds and defined by social media. Autocrats expect reporters to recite the press releases and dig no more. Those who dare challenge are banished, jail to follow. And it creeps across borders.

very sharpDiplomatic relations between Turkey and Germany plunged to a new low after the detention and arrest of major German daily newspaper Die Welt reporter Deniz Yucel, a dual German-Turkish national. The charge is spreading “terrorist propaganda” and “being a member of a terrorist organization.” An Istanbul prosecutor ordered him jailed pending indictment and trial. He had first been “detained” and questioned two weeks earlier, said Die Welt (February 14), after reporting the email account activity of Turkey’s Energy Minister Berat Albayrak had been hacked. Mr. Albayrak is the son-in-law of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

German politicians expressed concern, to put it lightly. "This measure is disproportionately harsh, especially given that Deniz Yucel presented himself to the Turkish justice system voluntarily and for the purpose of the investigation,” said Chancellor Angela Merkel, quoted by Deutsche Welle (February 28). Justice Minister Heiko Maas said the Erdogan government is “locking away journalists (they) don’t like.” Turkey’s ambassador to Germany Ali Kemal Aydın was invited to the German Foreign Ministry for a discussion of press freedom.

Diplomatic relations have been further complicated by senior Turkish politicians stumping across Germany ahead of an April referendum that would hand new and sweeping powers to president Erdogan. Resident in Germany are 3 million ethnic Turks, half eligible to vote. Several German cities have resisted those appearances, including rallies cancelled in Cologne with Economy Minister Nihat Zeybekci and Gaggenau, near Baden-Baden, with Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag, reported Der Stern (March 2). That caused a Turkish foreign ministry summons for Germany’s ambassador Martin Erdmann. Another appearance of Minister Zeybekci in Frechen, near Cologne, scheduled for Sunday (March 5) was also cancelled.

Foreign news outlets reporting from Turkey have reason to be worried. Last November French journalist Olivier Bertrand, founder of online news portal Les Jours, was picked up near the Syrian border, held for three days for not having “necessary accreditation” and expelled. In December Wall Street Journal reporter Dion Nissenbaum was detained with no outside contact for nearly three days. New York Times reporter Rod Nordland was denied entry in January on arrival at Istanbul Ataturk airport. He was told by border guards only that the Interior Ministry ordered the action.

“Deniz Yücel is in custody as a way to tease international journalists,” said Association of European Journalists (AEJ) president Otmar Lahodynsky at a forum of international press freedom advocates in Istanbul, reported Turkish daily BirGün (February 28).

That meeting was organized by the Turkish Journalists Association (TGC) and the International Press Institute (IPI). “There has not been a more distressful era than this one,” said TGC president Turgay Olcayto welcoming those attending. “Journalists and media outlets are under massive pressure and the people do not have the right to access information. Despite this fact, the journalists continue to do their best even though they become unemployed. We are not losing our hope.”

The corruption of media rights in Turkey under President Erdogan are well documented. Since the abortive - some suggest suspicious - July coup more than Turkish 100 media workers have been “locked away” with dozens of media outlets ordered closed. "EU governments are silent about the violations of rights in Turkey because of the refugee treaty and Syrian policy, and we will continue to work to find these violations in the international media," said Reporters sans Frontieres (RSF) advisor Sophie Busson at the Istanbul forum.

“Freedom of thought, freedom of the arts and freedom of the press are, I hope, uncomfortable,” blasted Axel Springer CEO Mathias Döphner, in Die Welt (February 28). “But democracies who regard the protections of these freedoms as constituting elements of their system are weakened, dull and sometimes wobbling. So-called populists, pseudo-democrats and dictators, on the other hand, are in a global attack mode (with) contempt and restriction of intellectual freedoms as a model, especially the mechanism of intimidation.” Axel Springer publishes Die Welt and Herr Döphner also stands as president of the German Publishers Association.

He continued: “More arbitrariness and authority on one hand, the more resistance and criticism on the other. Now one can say that the Russian, Chinese and Turkish governments are indifferent. But for us, for the direction and self-confidence of our open societies, it does not matter. We feel, perhaps more during the zealous campaign against the European Union in the United Kingdom or a presidential candidate, we need good, independent, and therefore critical journalism. We feel this is our job.”

President Erdogan, speaking in Istanbul later in the week, referred to Mr. Yucel as a German spy and a “representative” of outlawed Kurdish group, reported Daily Sabah (March 3). He also claimed Mr. Yucel was given refuge in the German consulate in Istanbul before surrendering to authorities. On its website the Committee to Protect Journalists (cpj.org) keeps a running tally of actions taken against reporters and media workers.

German media has irritated the Turkish president before. Last year comedian Jan Böhmermann recited on a satirical late-night TV show a not-so-subtle criticism in verse that Mr. Erdogan found offensive. (OK, it truly stepped over a line) Successive German courts agreed it was offensive but allowed for “artistic freedom.” In February Hamburg jurists upheld a ruling from last May that most of that verse could not be repeated though Mr. Erdogan “must accept heavy criticism, as freedom of expression arises from the special need to criticize power.”

Like other contemporary authoritarians Mr. Erdogan does not take well to criticism. At least he’s not using Twitter. An article in major daily Hurriyet, appearing February 25th, exploring the decision to allow female soldiers to wear headscarves came with the (translated) headline “The Commanders Are Uneasy.” Apparently Turkish military brass was not consulted on the decision and the article was written by Ankara correspondent Hande Firat, who claimed fame for presenting the Turkish president first during the abortive coup on news channel CNN Turk and since has been seen as reliably pro-government

"Neither this newspaper nor its bosses have the power to publish a headline like that," lashed out Mr. Erdogan. Hurriyet editor Sedat Ergin was released, the newspaper issuing an apology (February 27). Ms Firat is now under investigation.

"There is no old Turkey anymore,” said AK party deputy Gökcen Ozdogan, quoted by Deutsche Welle Turkish (February 28).


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