The recent upholding of a Turkish court’s decision to convict dissenting journalists demonstrates that, in the case of Turkey, the use of explicitly anti-democratic politics is woven in with a subtler form of authoritarian control. The use of these more explicit political moves seems to be most frequent around times of crisis for the regime, such as the failed coup of 2016. In April of 2018, 13 employees of an independent Turkish newspaper, Cumhuriyet, were convicted of “terrorism-related crimes” by a Turkish court. The employees who ranged in position from journalists to managers, a cartoonist, and a lawyer, were sentenced from two to seven years, and they were all detained for nine months prior to the trial. In February of this year, eight of the thirteen convictions were upheld.[i]
The employees were seized in their homes, and charged with aiding terrorist organizations through cellular and digital communication, and changing the tone and direction of the newspaper to express support for the organizations. One such organization was that of Fethullah Gülen, who the Turkish government claims is responsible for inciting the failed coup against the Turkish government in 2016. Following the failed coup, 15 pro-Kurdish news outlets were closed, adding to a total of 160 news sources which were shut down in the span of three months.[ii] The repression of, and control over, the media is a key aspect of democratic erosion, and a serious issue in Turkey. When taken into consideration with trends in the form of democratic erosion, this case poses the interesting question of when regimes chose to use explicit, as opposed to subtle, authoritarian, anti-democratic political moves.
It is no secret that Turkey has very minimal press and media freedom. Turkey is ranked 157th out of 180 countries in the 2019 world press freedom index by Reporters Without Borders. [iii] These arrests are another instance in a slew of threats to democracy in Turkey. However, some of these threats are much less explicit than others. Ozan Varol discusses a new and more modern expression of authoritarianism, which utilizes opaque and often legal mechanisms to deepen a regime’s control. Varol refers to this as “stealth authoritarianism,” which uses “the law to entrench the status quo, insulate the incumbents from meaningful democratic challenges, and pave the way for the creation of a dominant-party or one-party state” (“Stealth Authoritarianism,” Varol, 1679).[iv] One of Varol’s examples is the suppression of the media. Under stealth authoritarianism, a regime does not violently suppress or jail opposition media, but utilizes libel or defamation lawsuits to create economic incentives for media outlets to avoid publishing dissenting opinions. Libel lawsuits are generally less costly to the regime than direct repression, which often results in increased attention and discontent with the regime, both domestically and internationally. The increased presence of stealth authoritarianism is in line with Bermeo’s work, presented in “On Democratic Backsliding”[v] which explores trends in democratic erosion. Bermeo notes a decrease in transparent and obvious forms of democratic erosion, such as executive coups, in favor of forms of backsliding which are harder to detect and prevent, such as executive aggrandizement (a practice Erdogan has utilized extensively.)
If we examine these trends in the contexts of Turkey, an interesting question arises. Varol cites an increase in the use of libel lawsuits by Erdogan’s regime, and the influence the approach had on Turkish media. Through extensive libel lawsuits, and the introduction of new laws surrounding defamation of the government, Erdogan enforced a high degree of self-censoring in the Turkish media. Varol gives the example of six popular newspapers publishing positive headlines about the Turkish leader, at “the peak” of protests against him in June of 2013 (Varol, 1698). Erodogan’s use of stealth authoritarianism has helped create a very censored media, and Cumhuriyet is one of very few remaining opposition newspapers in the country. It is very widely acknowledged that Turkey’s freedom of the press is incredibly low, and Erdogan has utilized tools of “stealth authoritarianism,” not just explicit repression or persecution of dissenting media outlets, to achieve this. The efficacy of these new forms of authoritarian control is quite clear, but in times of crisis, the regime seems to respond with more tradition authoritarian action. The failed coup was an incredible threat to the regime’s power, and they reacted by seizing journalists and forcibly shutting down opposing news sources. This garnered a huge amount of attention and protest domestically and internationally, but ensured the regime was in control of what information was being circulated. The answer to the question of when Erdogan’s regime utilizes different types of power seems to be: a long-term reliance on discrete forms of authoritarianism, such as those described by Varol and Bermeo, with increased usage of explicit authoritarian power when the regime comes under significant threat. These actions are costly, and attract significant backlash, resulting in this more restrained usage of them.
The question of action under crisis extends well beyond the case of the media. Larry Diamond’s approach, of examining regimes not as purely democratic or authoritarian may be the right place to start when addressing this question. For example, as Diamond describes in “Thinking about Hybrid Regimes,” Turkey is an ambiguous regime [vi] which combines some aspects of an electoral system into its authoritarian regime. Elections are held, but it is unclear if the ruling party would be allowed to lose. This leads us back to Bermeo’s theory of democratic erosion, which refers to an increase in strategic election manipulation, as seen in Turkish elections. This is a demonstration of discrete, often legal, practices being used to erode democratic institutions and empower the ruling regime. However, since the election for the Mayor of Istanbul came out in favor of the opposition candidate, Erdogan’s party has been torn on whether to claim corruption and redo the election. Many believe it is essential to keep the opposition out of power, while others fear it would stoke too much tension and discontent amongst the people.[vii] When faced with a threat to the status quo of their power, the regime must choose if explicitly authoritarian and anti-democratic action is best.
Comic: “Censorship by Erdogan” by Carlos Lutuff,https://twitter.com/latuffcartoons?lang=tr
[iv] Varol, Ozan. “Stealth Authoritarianism.” Iowa Law Review (2015)
[v] Bermeo, Nancy. “On Democratic Backsliding.” Journal of Democracy (2016)
[vi] Diamond, Larry. “Thinking about Hybrid Regimes.” Journal of Democracy (2002)