Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's increasing Third-Worldish authoritarianism is taking new turns: it is now visible outside Turkey.
At the same time as Erdogan was heading for Washington for a nuclear security summit, the two journalists who he asserted last year "will pay a heavy price" had to stand trial at a second hearing on charges of espionage and terrorism, and with life sentences hanging over their heads. Their "espionage and terrorism" activity concerned a story they ran in May 2015 detailing how Turkish intelligence was transporting weapons to Islamist fighters in Syria.
"This is a tug of war between Turkish democrats and autocrats," Can Dundar, one of the "spy/terrorists" told The Wall Street Journal. "The Western world has been supporting Erdogan for years and we were telling them that this was the wrong decision, not only for Turkey, but also for the Western world."
The case had already turned into a diplomatic row between Turkey and a number of European Union nations, after Erdogan lashed out at the foreign consuls-general who attended the first court hearing in a show of solidarity with the journalists.
Meanwhile, Turkish paranoia around insane claims that the entire world has joined hands to conspire against Turkey's supreme leader appeared once again. Senior government officials have been slamming Twitter, and claiming it "censored" a hashtag created for Erdogan by removing #WeLoveErdogan from its top trending tweets.
"I'm asking Twitter officials: Who instructed you to remove the #WeLoveErdogan hashtag? Was it a country, a person, a terrorist organization, or someone else?" Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag told reporters just a day before Erdogan arrived in Washington. "I am of the opinion that this is one part of a global operation conducted against our president."
Apparently, Twitter is not the only conspirator against the Turkish leader. Turkey's foreign ministry summoned the German ambassador and asked him to remove from the internet a German satire program poking fun at Erdogan, thus causing a diplomatic dust-up with Germany.
The Germans, as every free country would, refused to censor the satire. Ironically, of course, Erdogan's attempt at censorship spurred a huge surge of online interest in the video, which by March 31 had attracted more than four million views -- ten times the program's usual audience. Once again, Erdogan's repressive manners turned into self-ridicule.
Then came the Turkish circus in Washington. On March 31, Erdogan was scheduled to speak at the Brookings Institution. His security guards harassed and physically assaulted journalists trying to cover the event; they also forcibly attempted to remove several journalists, although they were on the guest list. According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), the Brookings staff prevented them from ejecting the reporters.
One Turkish journalist, Adem Yavuz Arslan, was kicked out of the building while checking in. A senior Brookings official eventually escorted Arslan back in, but, as Erdogan's security guards continued to "verbally harass, insult and threaten" him, Brookings had to assign its own security guard to the seat next to him. "Erdogan's guards are not committing these barbaric acts against independent media on their own," Arslan told Reporters Without Borders. "I'm pretty confident they have their orders." But that was not the entire show.
According to press reports, several other journalists were involved in the tussle with Erdogan's security guards. Another Turkish journalist, Emre Uslu, said that outside the event he was kicked in the leg by Erdogan's bodyguards and was prevented from attending the speech.
An American reporter attempting to film the harassment received a kick in the chest. The National Press Club was outraged. "We have increasingly seen disrespect for basic human rights and press freedom in Turkey," the president of the Club, Thomas Burr, said. "Erdogan doesn't get to export such abuse."
Against this backdrop, Erdogan kept on adding to his own ridicule. "I am not at war with the press," he said in an interview with CNN International. Then he went on: "We have never done anything to stop freedom of expression or freedom of press. On the contrary, the press in Turkey had been very critical of me and my government, attacking me very seriously. And regardless of those attacks, we have been very patient in the way we have responded to those attacks."
As Aykan Erdemir, a former opposition member of the Turkish parliament [now a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington], said, Erdogan can be a "toxic asset": "Heads of state don't want to be in the same photo with him ..."
Burak Bekdil, based in Ankara, is a Turkish columnist for the Hürriyet Daily and a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.