I met a man last week who a year ago was the editor of a newspaper with a circulation of 1 million readers. Today he is in exile and looking for a job.
Erdogan was able to pack Zaman’s board of directors with people associated with the Justice and Development Party.
The Republic of Turkey has always been a country with one foot in the East and one foot in the West straddling the Mediterranean Sea at its narrowest point.
Turkey has been a shining example of a Muslim democracy practicing religious and cultural tolerance. It has been an important member of NATO and an important U.S. ally in the fight against radical Islam.
Bilici and his newspaper, Zaman, show how fast one’s rights can go away, how fast a country can slip away, too.
He visited our news office to tell his story of how Turkey was plunged into a darkening abyss and there is little hope of his country’s return to a true democracy.
Turkey was always one of those countries I never concerned myself about.
It was a country that came out of World War I one of those bankrupt empires – along with Austria-Hungary Empire and the Russian Empire.
Kemal Ataturk is the Turkish George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. In the 1920s he fashioned a vibrant, progressive, democratic Turkey. He did it in a part of the world where we seldom find such adjectives today.
Turkey was a stable democracy, one that practices a secular form of government. While mostly Muslim, it allowed minorities religious freedom and political participation.
Notice the use of the past tense here. Last July, there was an abortive coup in Turkey apparently begun by dissident military officers. It was quickly put down by other members of the military, but the damage was done.
There have been military coups in Turkey in its past and although this one ended in a few hours – and about 400 deaths – Erdogan began to consolidate power in the hands of his executive branch.
Judges, professors, military officers, legislators – almost anyone with authority – began to be arrested. Dissent was quashed. Erdogan purged the judiciary and then began to use the courts and police to silence all dissent while amassing more power to his executive authority.
You may have noticed the newscasts making a big deal out of a recent Turkish referendum that just about ensures Erdogan will have the powers of a dictator.
The coup that spawned the power grab was so inept, it caused many to question whether it was a ruse to allow Erdogan to seize more power.
But there was still the media to deal with. And Erdogan went to work. Media outlets were attacked from many sides, Bilici told us.
Some media outlets against Erdogan were shut down as spreading treason. As Erdogan’ s authoritarian regime pulled in more and more power, it gained power in the judiciary by having any true democracy-minded judges expelled or arrested.
With the courts in hand, journalists, editors and even politicians could be arrested on trumped-up charges. Sometimes Erdogan’s minions bullied advertisers to withdraw support or face the consequences to their own businesses.
Other media outlets found their companies had been bought by people friendly to Erdogan and emasculated the news reporting from the inside. Arrests, bankruptcies, hostile takeovers – all were methods to eliminate a free press in Turkey, Bilici told us.
His newspaper, Zaman, was known for its diversity of opinion. Minority editorialists were encouraged to provide a voice and a view from other sides of society.
Erdogan was able to pack Zaman’s board of directors with people associated with Justice and Development Party. Those who wrote anti-Erdogan articles were simply fired – or arrested.
Some 50 Zaman journalists are in prison today. In all, more than 200 have been jailed. Bilici was forced to flee the country.
Today, he is telling his story to anyone who will listen. His country is being consumed from within.
Just last week, reforms that would greatly increase Erdogan’s authoritarian powers passed by the narrowest of margins – and brought out immediate charges of voter fraud.
“Today, 90 percent of the media are under government control,” Belici said. “The remaining 10 percent struggle to survive. With control of the judiciary it is easy for anyone against Erdogan to land in jail.”
The 200-plus journalists in jail lead the world in that category of prisoner, he said.
Turkey is headed for one-man rule. Look at any country that experienced one-man rule and see what has happened. He ticks them off: Iraq, Iran, Russia, Libya, North Korea, Venezuela, Cuba. The list goes on.
“Turkey is a secular state. It had an exceptional place as a nation situated east and west. We have one leg in NATO,” Belici said. “We had a role to play until Erdogan became an authoritarian.”
Belici asks for nothing. He is a journalist and he simply wants to tell his story. It is a sad story, perhaps with implications in a region already sitting on a lit powder keg.
But it couldn’t happen here. Not in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave.
Not here. Could it?