In December, a prosecutor launched an investigation into prominent Fox News (Turkey) journalist Fatih Portakal for "openly inciting others to commit a crime," because he asked his viewers a perfectly realistic question: "Let's have a peaceful protest [in Turkey], a protest against... rising natural gas prices. Could we do it [without getting arrested]?" (Image source: Fox News Turkey video screenshot)
Democratic anomaly became the new Turkish normal several years ago. The anomaly, sometimes, offers entertaining moments, too. Take, for instance, Parliament Speaker Binali Yıldırım, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's most important political confidant (and former prime minister), who became the joke of the day when he declared: "Animals, too, are living beings". Someone teased him on social media: "He is right. And I am adding: Plants, too, are living beings." A few days later Yıldırım, under fire from the opposition because he refuses to resign as parliament speaker although he would run for mayor of Istanbul in nationwide local elections on March 31 (they cite the constitution which bans the impartial parliament speaker from engaging in any political activity), amused a whole nation when he said: "Elections are not political activity". Not all Turkish anomalies are as entertaining as this one.
What most Turks thought was a joke in the past few years now appears to be bitter reality. The joke goes: One day a political prisoner asks his guard if he could borrow from the prison library a certain work of fiction written by a certain author. The guard answers: We don't have that book in our library. But if you want, I can bring you its author. He is here."
A journalist recently uncovered the true story behind what millions of Turks mistakenly thought was just a joke. An academic, Mehmet Altan, detained on charges of "giving subliminal messages for a coup," asked a guard if he could borrow a book written by his brother, Ahmet. "We don't have that book," said the guard, "but the author is here."
So, the Turkish witch-hunt goes on. As of October 31, there were 239 Turkish journalists under detention or in jail. One of them was Max Zirngast, an Austrian journalist and social activist, detained by the Turkish anti-terror squads in September. Like a political thriller from a Latin American country in the 1970s, Zirngast's interrogators sought to know details about books he had and his ties with the Kurds, as well as with left-wing organizations in Turkey. Zirngast was released on December 24, pending trial.
In the past couple of years, 29 publishing houses have been shut down. Tens of thousands of books have been confiscated and destroyed. Thousands of libraries have banished books banned by the government. Bookstores visited by police officers have expelled unwanted titles from their shelves, as well.
In January, Turkish law enforcement officials invented a new crime for journalists: Doing journalism against the state. The new crime, reminiscent of Hitler's Germany or Stalin's Soviet Russia, came into being when Turkish prosecutors filed a lawsuit against journalist Esra Solin Dal on charges of "being a member of a terrorist organization" and "doing journalism against the state". Dal, a reporter for the pro-Kurdish Mezopotamya news agency, had been arrested along with 141 people in Turkey's predominantly Kurdish Diyarbakır province. Turkish police on October 9 arrested Esra Solin Dal, a reporter of the pro-Kurdish Mezopotamya Agency, along with 141 people, in the southeastern province of Diyarbakır. She was released later, but the authorities launched an investigation nevertheless. Finally, a court in Diyarbakır accepted the indictment.
In December, a prominent television news presenter, after covering the Yellow Vest protests in France, asked his viewers a perfectly realistic question: "Let's have a peaceful protest [in Turkey], a protest against... rising natural gas prices. Could we do it [without getting arrested]?" asked Fox News (Turkey) journalist Fatih Portakal, who has six million followers on Twitter. After President Erdoğan lambasted Portakal, a prosecutor immediately launched an investigation into him. The prosecutor's office said it was investigating Portakal for "openly inciting others to commit a crime" after the journalist speculated whether Turks could protest like those in France.
The Turkish witch-hunt does not target only journalists. Turkish actor Levent Üzümcü, for instance, known for his dissident views said his theatrical production was cancelled due to political pressure by the authorities. In a sarcastic video released, Üzümcü said:
"These days, which art and artists are as free as they have never been, democracy has been improved as much as it has not been before, our stage that we were planning to present our play on was taken from us due to political pressure."
Üzümcü took part in the Gezi Park protests in 2013, when millions of Turks took to the streets for months to protest Erdoğan's government. He was fired from his job at Istanbul's City Theater in 2015 after criticizing the government's heavy-handed suppression of protests that had spread across the country.
The Gezi Park protests apparently remain unforgettable in Turkey's official memory. HSBC Turkey's Chief Executive Officer Selim Kervancı is being investigated by the prosecutor's office over a video he retweeted during the Gezi protests five years ago. As the senior Turkish official of one of the world's biggest banks, he is among the highest-profile executives targeted in the government's crackdown on dissent. Kervancı is being charged with insulting Erdoğan for retweeting a video clip. from the 2004 German movie "Downfall," set during Adolf Hitler's last days and depicting the collapse of Nazi Germany.
In defiance of his country's colossal democratic deficit, Erdoğan is evidently trying to find new foes. Erdoğan's conspiracy theory that Turkey would have been a global power if not secretly battled by a clandestine network of Jews is not hidden. Recently, Erdoğan pointed a finger at the American entrepreneur George Soros for apparently conspiring against his government. He claimed that the Turkish businessman and philanthropist Osman Kavala, currently detained and awaiting trial, was working for "the famous Hungarian Jew George Soros". By adding the "famous Hungarian Jew" to his conspiracy theories, Erdoğan apparently wanted to demonize Kavala and remind the judges that the suspect has a Jewish connection.
Kavala was arrested in October 2017 on charges of sponsoring and organizing the Gezi protests. He has remained in jail since then, with no indictment. He says he is waiting to see the indictment against him in order to prove his innocence. Now that Erdoğan linked him with "that famous Hungarian Jew," this feat may not be easy.
Burak Bekdil, one of Turkey's leading journalists, was recently fired from the country's most noted newspaper after 29 years, for writing in Gatestone what is taking place in Turkey. He is a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.