French president Emmanuel Macron has called on Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan to release a French reporter, highlighting Erdogan’s war with the press.
On Sunday, French President Emmanuel Macron asked that a French reporter jailed in Turkey be released, drawing attention to what has become a recurring problem. Detained on July 26 of this year, the reporter, Loup Bureau, was charged with aiding and assisting a terrorist organization. The incident highlights a troubling trend in the treatment of the press by Turkey’s mercurial president Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Macron’s recent request echoes previous statements from his office and from several non-government groups, including journalist associations inside and outside of France, who have called on the Turkish government to release Bureau.
This most recent ordeal began when Bureau reported on the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, a mostly Kurdish militia in northern Syria, but it follows a pattern of hostility that has been developing in Turkey for years. Since Erdogan took power, thousands of Turkish journalists have been arrested, often on charges of insulting the president, while many foreign journalists have been expelled from the country.
In fact, two other French journalists were arrested in Turkey earlier this year on similar charges to Bureau. Erdogan has combined these hard legal measures with pressure on advertisers and distribution companies to isolate media sources that would be critical of him, many of whom have seen their circulation fall precipitously. The combined chilling effect of these policies has given Turkey one of the least free press environments in the world, Reporters Without Borders ranking it 155th out of 180 countries.
Turkey is no stranger to democratic crises. The military has intervened to change the course of politics in the country four times between 1960 and 1997. A failed coup attempt last year kicked Erdogan’s repressive policies into a fever pitch, as he attempted to rout out supporters of his former ally and current critic Fethullah Gulen. Even so, the particulars of this crisis set it apart from the others in several notable ways.
First, the Turkish military has, in the past, seen itself as a bulwark against the influence of religious fundamentalism on the government. Erdogan, on the other hand, has taken steps to unravel secular institutions, such as altering public school curriculums to include religious instructions at the expense of science, and he shows every sign that he will continue to do so. Turkey has often been held up as a secular liberal democracy in a region where authoritarianism and religious extremism predominate. Both aspects of the country could change if Erdogan continues along his current policy trajectory.
Second, many of Erdogan’s attacks on the press seem bizarrely personal. Last year, a Turkish columnist was jailed for instructing his readers to smoke cigarettes as a means of mocking the president, who dislikes smoking. The government has also come down hard on social media that it sees as insulting to the president, requesting the removal of more twitter posts than every other country in the world combined. Erdogan even demanded that a German comedian who mocked him on German television be charged with a crime. Although the charges were later dropped, the incident showed the Turkish president to be as vindictive towards his critics outside of the country as he is of those within.
Response From the US and Europe
Perhaps as worrying as Erdogan’s actions is the lukewarm response they have gotten from many Western leaders. In the aforementioned incident in Germany, Chancellor Merkel indulged Erdogan, invoking a vestigial section of the German penal code that forbids insulting foreign heads of state. Meanwhile, the United States has taken no serious diplomatic action to curb Erdogan’s authoritarian tendencies, nor has it shown any sign that it intends to do so in the near future. Following the controversial referendum that amended Turkey’s constitution to give the president dramatically greater power, responses from the American government ranged from cautious to overtly supportive.
Western governments’ unwillingness to criticize Erdogan for his attacks on the press can largely be attributed to Turkey’s strategic role in the region. The United States relies heavily on its relationship with Turkey to maintain a presence in Syria. Given that Washington and Ankara have already butted heads over American support for Kurdish militias fighting ISIS, the State Department seems unlikely to further inflame tensions by demanding that Erdogan loosen his grip on the media. Germany, on the other hand, depends on Turkey to help control the flow of refugees into Europe, perhaps explaining why Merkel was willing to defy long-standing German legal norms at Erdogan’s request.
With few leaders in the West showing a willingness to stand up to Erdogan, Macron’s actions are encouraging, but much more will be needed to meaningfully change the Turkish president’s behavior. Other heads of state in Europe and elsewhere will need to speak out against Erdogan’s assault on the press and use the machinery of international organizations to give force to their complaints.