This editorial appeared in the Washington Post.
In Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the tweet has been turned into a crime, and a troubled democracy is being turned into a dictatorship. Gradually but inexorably, a nation that once aspired to be an exemplar of enlightened moderation is being transformed by Erdogan into a dreary totalitarian prison.
In the latest setback, last week, 23 journalists were sentenced to prison for between two and seven years on patently ridiculous charges that they were members of a terrorist organization and had tweeted about it. Two others were convicted on lesser charges of supporting a terrorist organization.
Erdogan, the target of a failed coup attempt in July 2016, has embarked on a campaign of repression against perceived enemies in the press, government, academia and law enforcement, among other pillars of Turkish society. More than 60,000 people have been arrested and 150,000 forced from their jobs.
Erdogan’s prime targets are the perceived followers of the opposition cleric Fethullah Gulen, who now lives in Pennsylvania. Erdogan claims that Gulen — once his ally in Turkish politics — had incited the coup attempt, hence the charge of a “terrorist organization.” Gulen denies it.
Turkey once had a robust, independent press, but Erdogan has waged a multi-front campaign: closing media outlets, forcing others into new ownership and using friendly judges and prosecutors. In the latest cases, some reporters and editors were convicted for what they said on Twitter. Baris Topuk, a lawyer representing two journalists, said at an earlier hearing: “In our opinion, the name of the organization in which the defendants are accused of being members should be TTO: Tweetist Terrorist Organization. There are no weapons or bombs in the case, only news articles and tweets.”
Ali Akkus, who was news editor of the now-defunct Zaman daily, had said on Twitter, “No dictator can silence the press.” A prosecutor singled out the use of the word “dictator” in the charges against him. Akkus was sentenced to seven years and six months in prison.
Cuma Ulus, editor of the daily Millet, got the same sentence and declared earlier during the proceedings: “I have been a journalist for 21 years. I stood against terrorism and violence, (and) defended expression of freedom during all my life.” In the indictment, prosecutors cited three tweets and 22 retweets, accusing him of stirring up frenzy against the government.
Separately, 17 current and former writers, cartoonists and executives from the Cumhuriyet newspaper are also on trial. Erdogan is reportedly planning an assault on Internet broadcasting and free expression online, as well.
The show trials underscore how far Turkey has fallen from Western norms of democracy, human rights and the rule of law. Erdogan is happily marching alongside Russia, China, Egypt, Cuba and other countries where legitimacy to rule rests on coercion and thought control. Erdogan’s dictatorship must be called out for what it is. Even if he covers his ears, the United States and other nations must protest, and loudly.