Politicians blamed for worsening atmosphere for Turkish journalists
After being assaulted 28 times during his career—punched, kicked and beaten with bats—Turkish journalist Hakan Denizli thought he had seen it all. But for the 29th attack, they came with a gun, and they did so while he was taking his four-year-old grandchild to daycare.
Denizli, who edits the Egemen daily newspaper in the southern city of Adana, is matter-of-fact about it: “I got into the car and the window was open. They came, shot me in the leg and ran away.” That incident in May came amid a spate of assaults that has seen six journalists targeted in as many weeks.
Many blame the worsening atmosphere on politicians, who regularly lash out at individual journalists. “If you don’t know your place, the people will hit you in the back of your neck,” President Recep Tayyip Erdogan snapped after a TV presenter on Turkey’s Fox news channel asked whether people would protest rising prices in December.
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) says Turkey is the biggest jailer of journalists in the world, and ranks it 157th out of 180 countries in the world for press freedom. There are 142 journalists currently behind bars in Turkey, according to the P24 press freedom website. Most are detained under a two-year state of emergency imposed after the 2016 failed coup.
The government says nobody was arrested for work as a journalist, but RSF says violence against the media often goes without punishment or even criticism. A request for a parliamentary investigation into the recent attacks was rejected by the ruling AKP party and its alliance partner.
One outspoken critic of Erdogan’s government, Yavuz Selim Demirag of the Yenicag daily, blames the attack on him on a full-page advert put out by the right-wing Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), the ruling party’s coalition partner. He was among dozens of journalists listed in the advert, which was published in several high-circulation newspapers after last year’s general election, with the banner, “Slander, allegations, complaints.”
At least two of them have been attacked.
Demirag, 61, was beaten by a gang with bats outside his home on May 10, breaking parts of his rib cage. “When I sneeze, cough, get up, it hurts,” he said.
Prosecutors say they are investigating, but six suspects were quickly released after their arrest. “Being a journalist in Turkey is hard, attacking journalists is heroic,” Demirag said.
Opposition journalists face not just violence but relentless pressure from the judiciary. Barely a month after the assault, Demirag was briefly imprisoned for an old conviction of “insulting the president” over a speech in which he questioned the right to immunity of certain officials, and he remains on probation.
Denizli says he has “maybe 24 or 25” legal cases against him. “I am not cowed by these cases.”
Journalists of all stripes are at risk, but the responses often reflect the fierce partisanship of Turkish politics. The government has been silent on Demirag’s assault, for instance, but Erdogan’s office immediately denounced the attack on Islamist journalist Murat Alan, who was beaten up in Istanbul on June 14.
Alan had reportedly referred to Turkish generals as “donkeys,” angering the country’s ultra-nationalists.
Idris Ozyol, a journalist from Antalya on the south coast, did at least receive a call of consolation from Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu after being attacked recently. But he said Cavusoglu blamed the government’s own coalition partner, the MHP—which only annoyed him further. “One arm of the government attacks, the other arm sends messages saying ‘We are so sad’—like a game of good-cop, bad-cop,” he told AFP.
RSF’s Erol Onderoglu said the situation was “deeply hypocritical” given Turkey’s criticism of Saudi Arabia following the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in their Istanbul consulate last year.
Onderoglu, who himself faces charges of “terrorist propaganda” for supporting a pro-Kurdish newspaper, said: “We need a prominent political figure to intervene against this hostile climate… [but] it is really difficult to expect anything.”
Recovering from the gunshot wound to his leg, Denizli suspects his articles on corruption are to blame for the endless attacks, but he remains undeterred. “I just try to do my job as best as I can,” he said.