Turkish opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu has accused Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of exerting pressure on media outlets after a recent crackdown on journalists. The Republican People’s Party (CHP) head criticized Erdogan a day after the Turkey Journalists’ Labor Union (TGS) held a press conference announcing that 59 journalists were laid off or forced to quit for their coverage of anti-government protests.
Kilicdaroglu’s announcement was also timed to coincide with Turkey’s annual Journalism Day, marking the publication of the first uncensored newspapers under the Ottoman Empire 105 years ago. The day has become increasingly important for activists in the country concerned by press crackdowns under Erdogan (Turkey’s 2013 ranking by Reporters without Borders is 154, out of 179 countries — as compared to 116th, when Erdogan came to office in 2003). Kilicdaroglu noted that both Zimbabwe and Cambodia had higher rankings on the index, and said that the government’s “police state mentality” had driven Turkey “105 years back in time.”
While shaky press freedom is not a new phenomenon in Turkey, with its history of cracking down on leftist and Kurdish journalists, the systemic issues responsible for Turkish media’s self-censorship really came under the spotlight in the immediate aftermath of massive anti-government protests in May. The extent of the Turkish media’s hesitance to cover the protests became increasingly obvious as even major news outlets neglected or limited coverage of the massive public demonstrations. (Penguins became a recurring symbol used by protesters, based on CNN-Turk’s decision to air a penguin documentary as protests were reaching a boiling point.)
CHP is well positioned to launch this line of criticism against the government, having taken up the cause of journalistic freedom long before the Gezi Park protests began. Following an Erdogan press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in February (during which the P.M. claimed that “the number of arrested journalists is not more than the number of fingers on one’s hand”) the party began its own investigation into journalists facing prosecution — clearly hoping the issue could materialize into a significant one against the prime minister who has been pursuing E.U. membership for Turkey.
However, even with wider awareness around the severity of the situation for journalists, it’s unlikely that press freedom will be a winning issue against the seemingly-unshakeable Erdogan — at least not on its own. Erdogan’s authoritarian tendencies have been firmly in the crosshairs of his opponents for months now and it’s still not clear that this particular narrative will be enough to sink his AKP come election time (though it has certainly wreaked havoc on his international standing). Critics of the prime minister are already convinced of his authoritarianism. Attacks on Erdogan based on his responsibility for the erosion of Turkey’s democracy will only really hit home with a wider swathe of Turks depending on him tanking on other crucial issues, namely the economy and the Kurdish issue. In short, CHP faces a long and uncertain road.