Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has masterfully positioned himself as a leading voice on the murder of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul on October 2.
On Tuesday, while presenting the Turkish state’s official account of Khashoggi’s “vicious, violent murder,” Erdogan amplified the Washington Post columnist’s stature as a world-renowned journalist and vowed to conduct an independent investigation as a project of conscience.
But Erdogan’s self-anointed role as the slain journalist's advocate belies an uglier truth: his own track record on press freedom is dismal.
Since the failed military coup in 2016, Erdogan’s government has rounded up and arrested over 50,000 of his critics, and fired or suspended more than 130,000 people from civil service jobs. He’s been especially hostile towards the country’s independent press — where hundreds of journalists have been imprisoned and roughly 200 media outlets shuttered in the last two years alone.
Erdoğan’s war on independent media has earned Turkey the distinction of being “the world’s biggest prison for professional journalists,” according to Reporters Without Borders. Turkey ranks near the very bottom of the NGO's World Press Freedom index — 157 out of 180 countries. The NGO reports that many members of the press have spent more than a year in prison before trial and that in some cases they've been sentenced to life imprisonment for their reporting.
In March, 22 journalists were sentenced to prison on terrorism-related charges, despite their vocal denials. The Committee to Protect Journalists called the sentencing “a disgrace to Turkey’s justice system,” and called on Erdoğan to “stop equating journalism with terrorism, and release the scores of press workers jailed for doing their job.” (The crisis is so problematic that CPJ keeps a running chronicle of Turkey’s media crackdown.)
That same month, VICE News traveled to Northern Cyprus to spend time with Afrika, a small Turkish Cypriot newspaper feeling the wrath of President Erdoğan firsthand. In January, after the paper published a front page headline criticizing the government’s military operation against the Kurds in Syria, Erdoğan openly called on his supporters in Northern Cyprus to retaliate.
Soon after, some 500 Turkish nationalists showed up outside the paper’s offices, where protests quickly turned violent.
“When Recep Tayyip Erdoğan gives an order ‘go beat them down to size, put them in their place’ no one here can say no. They came here with the intention of killing us, it was a lynch attempt.” said Afrika editor Şener Levent.
Cover image: Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks at a symposium in Ankara, Turkey, Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2018. (Presidential Press Service via AP, Pool)