Turkey was already notorious for its growing liquidation in the country’s media outlets. Erdogan’s strong men regime was pretty determined to not to provide even a glimmer of hope for the opposition, going after every journalist or media profession who criticizes the government. Not surprisingly, this has not changed with the COVID-19 crisis. One of the most popular anchormen in the country, Fatih Portakal, faced criminal charges after tweeting about the government’s pandemic strategy. The pandemic, therefore, became a great showcase for observing that politicians with authoritative tendencies will continue to play politics even at the expense of people’s lives.
On April 7, Turkey woke up to yet another attack on freedom of speech coming from the President of the country. It came as a little of shock when the citizens of the country heard that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was filing a criminal complaint against one of the top famous TV presenters in the country, Fatih Portakal from the FOX TV channel. This is not the first time that such incident is taking place in the country, which has been an ostensive manifestation of the country’s democratic breakdown. Turkey is still suffering from the authoritative tendencies of the incumbent government. One of the most evident indicators of Turkey’s democratic backsliding in recent years was the unreasonable number of journalist the country has imprisoned. In fact, according to a graph introduced by the Economist Turkey leads the world in jailed journalists. The country faces acute restrictions on its media outlets. 2020 World Press Freedom Index ranks Turkey 150 out of 180 countries. Unfortunately, this downfall did not change with the novel coronavirus outbreak either. Leaders with authoritative tendencies are prone to control the media in order to silence the opposition. Leaders who fear their place in the Palace are certainly more ambitious to do so. They will continue to play politics even at the expense of certain people’s lives. The pandemic is a great showcase for observing this ambition.
President Erdogan, after the 26th meeting of the Presidential Cabinet, which was organized by a videoconference from the Huber Residence in Istanbul Tarabya, said that the cabinet has discussed the economic aspects and security issues related to the coronavirus outbreak. He then called for a National Solidarity Campaign against the outbreak recalling the historical emergency measures that were imposed during the nation’s War of Independence, known as the National Tax laws (Tekalif-i Milliye). These measures have allowed the government to seize citizens’ personal wealth and belongings to aid the nation during preposterous times. However, it was not long before there were voices raised to criticize this statement on the grounds that the government was trying to heat the ground for a possible future economic measurement imposed to its citizens. Among the critics, was a popular TV anchorman called Fatih Portakal. He tweeted, cynically, that ‘’what if the government asks for money from the ones who have deposit money and savings by saying that ‘we are going through difficult days’. Imagine they would say we would pay after the Corona! Unfortunately, I cannot say this is impossible!’’ The president himself and the Banking Regulation and Supervision Authority sued Fatih Portakal for spreading lies on social media and manipulating the public. Ahmet Özel, one of the lawyers of the President said, “These are statements entirely false and intended to manipulate the public. Therefore, we have filed a criminal complaint against Fatih Portakal under the Turkish Criminal Code and BRSA legislation to the Istanbul Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office.” Although Fatih Portakal’s case was more salient due to his popularity, he was not the only media professional that was attacked during the Covid-19 crisis. Hakan Aygün, the former executive editor of the Halk TV Channel, was also arrested for his tweet teasing the President’s “National Solidarity Campaign” that was launched to ask citizens to provide financial assistance for individuals and families who are in a difficult situation because of the coronavirus. It is clear that even a life or death situation like this could not manage to contain Erdogan in his attempts of silencing the opposition voices. The government keeps pushing the journalists who even slightly criticize them.
Politicians with authoritative tendencies mostly perceive the political environment as a zero sum game in which they either win or lose. They make sure that all is under their control. Long-term prison sentences of journalists and other media workers create an icing effect on others and have major restrictive effects in public debate as well. Media, therefore, is an essential component of democracies making sure that the citizens of the country are exercising freedom of opinion and expression, which is one of the basic human rights. Hence, it is crucial that the media in all of its forms is free, sonorous and pluralistic especially during such novel times. A habit of the Turkish government to crack down on journalist in order to kill the public awareness especially during the last couple of years is being evoked during the pandemic as well. Hakan Aygün and a more popular figure like Fatih Portakal was another very important commination act signalling that the government was determined to assure the silence of the opposition. Erdoğan is playing politics at the expense of these journalists’ lives. For him, it has come to a situation in which the purpose is not just to control the opinion of the public but more importantly to make sure that no other citizen, who is unpleased with the incumbent government, would feel that she is not alone and ever find the courage to mobilize. It is far more evident that the President fears a possible snowball effect that would mostly likely to cause his presidency. All in all, Turkey is not a totalitarian regime. There still is a possibility that the country could elude this challenge and go back to its heydays of democratic progress by mobilizing against such illiberal processes. Media is an important tool for such mobilizations. Hence, the possibility of the media being an encouragement mechanism for the opposition to take action against the government hangs like a scary painting in the minds of the incumbent government causing it to crackdown on journalists more than ever and it seems that the coronavirus is not going to change that.