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Turkey silences more journalists in latest post-coup crackdown

November 2, 2016 at 6:25 PM EST
Carnations and today's copies are seen in the newsroom of Cumhuriyet newspaper, an opposition secularist daily, in Istanbul, Turkey, November 1, 2016. REUTERS/Murad Sezer - RTX2RBLF
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HARI SREENIVASAN: But first: It’s been more than three months since a coup sought to depose the Turkish president. The attempt failed quickly, but the crackdown in its aftermath continues, alarming many of Turkey’s allies.

Readers have opened Turkey’s main opposition newspaper to find blank columns this week, a protest against jailing its editor in chief and a dozen staffers. Their arrests Monday were part of an ongoing purge against perceived opponents by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan since a failed coup last July.

On Tuesday, his prime minister brushed off European criticism.

PRIME MINISTER BINALI YILDIRIM, Turkey (through translator): Today, somebody from the European Parliament says the detention of journalists from that newspaper is a red line. Brother, we don’t care about your red line. It’s the people who draw the red line. What importance does your line have?

HARI SREENIVASAN: Across Turkey, some 170 outlets have been shuttered since July, leaving 2,500 journalists out of work. The U.S. State Department has raised its concerns repeatedly, as it did again Monday.

JOHN KIRBY, State Department spokesman: Suppressing speech and opinion and the press doesn’t support the fight against terrorism and only encroaches on the fundamental freedoms that help ensure democracies remain strong.

HARI SREENIVASAN: But silencing Turkey’s media is only one facet of a crackdown on anyone suspected of supporting Fethullah Gulen, the Islamic cleric whom Erdogan accuses of fomenting the coup attempt. Gulen lives in exile in Pennsylvania.

A staggering 100,000 civil servants have been fired, including 10,000 more just last weekend, and 37,000 people have been arrested. President Erdogan has even voiced support for reinstating the death penalty, though it would dash hopes for Turkey’s European Union membership bid.

Meanwhile, as he consolidates his internal power, the Turkish leader is waging war along his borders. This week, Turkish tanks massed at Silopi, near the Iraqi frontier, to press the fight against the Kurdish separatist group known as the PKK. Southeastern Turkey is a largely Kurdish region, and the PKK maintains bases in Northern Iraq.

In Ankara, the defense minister said there is — quote — “no obligation to wait for threats to rise.”

FIKRI ISIK, Defense Minister, Turkey (through translator): We have important developments in the region. There is a serious struggle against terrorism inside Turkey and on the other side of the border. Turkey is in the position of making preparations for all kinds of possibilities.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And, in Syria, Turkish forces are looking to retake the city of al-Bab north of Aleppo from the Islamic State. Success would also bar the city to the Kurds, who hope to close a 45-mile gap between their enclaves and create a contiguous Kurdish zone along the Turkish frontier.

Turkey also insists that Syrian Kurdish forces not be part of any campaign to retake the Islamic State’s self-proclaimed capital of Raqqa in Syria. All of this has strained relations with Washington. The Obama administration regards the Kurds as among its staunchest allies against ISIS.

We take a closer look at this recent crackdown with Amberin Zaman. She is a Turkish journalist and author and serves as a fellow at the Wilson Center, a think tank in Washington.

So, 10,000 more civil servants just in the past week that have been fired. Right after the coup, the government said this was to try and root out all the Gulenists at the time. Why now? Why is this happening?

AMBERIN ZAMAN, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars: Well, as you pointed out, the government has justified these moves on the grounds that it’s weeding out the Gulenists, who they say have penetrated the entire government, the judiciary, the army, academia.

But, at this point, when you look at the scale of this purge, you have more than 100,000 people now who have either lost their jobs or who are in jail, I think around 30,000-plus now in jail. And you look at the number of journalists also in jail, the number of media outlets, over 100, well over 100 now shuttered.

It’s becoming very clear that this is just not about the Gulenists, but more an effort on the part of the government to stifle all dissenting voices.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, as these journalists and their publications are affected, is there even a vehicle for people to express dissent?

AMBERIN ZAMAN: Very good question.

One of the newspapers that was just sort of raided on Monday, Cumhuriyet, was pretty much the only opposition newspaper that was still around. And now it’s facing this court case. Fifteen journalists from the newspaper, including its managing editor, are now in prison.

So, actually, there’s practically nothing left, just a handful of online media outlets that still struggle to offer an alternative view.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, what’s the mood on the street like? How are Turkish people reacting to this act that they’re witnessing over a period of months now?

AMBERIN ZAMAN: Well, when we talk about this massive crackdown and pressure on the media, et cetera, what often isn’t mentioned is the fact that there are a significant amount of people who actually support the government, who support President Erdogan.

I just saw a recent opinion poll that showed that his popularity, if anything, is rising, that some 54 percent of the people approve of the way he’s running the country. So, that needs to be, you know, said.

So, the country is deeply polarized between those who, you know, almost adore, let’s say, the president — there’s a cult of personality around him — and then those who, you know, bitterly oppose him, but who also happen to be bitterly divided amongst themselves, which is why there’s no really effective opposition against the government, against the president.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, while he might have great support internally, externally, forces like the U.S. and the E.U. are finding concerns with some of these actions.

How does this affect his standing in NATO or the E.U., or potentially in the E.U.?

AMBERIN ZAMAN: Well, at the moment, people in Brussels and this capital, Washington, are observing Turkey with increasing alarm, because Turkey seems to be increasingly erratic, unpredictable in its actions.

As you know, Turkey is talking about intervening militarily in Iraq. It’s already done so in Syria, admittedly, to fight the Islamic State, and it has, indeed, cleared its borders of the Islamic State. But, at the same time, in Syria, it’s attacking the United States’ most effective ally in the fight against the Islamic State. And I’m talking about the Syrian Kurdish group called the YPG.

So, that’s complicating efforts to sort of, you know, destroy the Islamic State in Syria. And at a time when, you know, there’s now this critical operation under way in Mosul, Turkey is now talking about going into Iraq. He’s engaged, the president, in a very public spat with the Iraqi prime minister, Haider al-Abadi.

As you know, Turkey moved several hundred troops into Iraq last December, saying that they were there to train Sunni militia, but also to act as a deterrent against Shia militias. And this is making everything a lot more complicated.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Amberin Zaman from the Wilson Center, thanks for joining us.

AMBERIN ZAMAN: Thank you.

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