Athens, Greece—A satirical cover for a political news magazine was all it took to see its editor eventually sentenced to more than two decades in prison.
Cevheri Guven, editor in chief of Turkey’s Nokta magazine, fled while out on bail late last year, smuggling his family out of a country he says is rapidly descending toward all-out dictatorship. He took refuge in Greece, where he applied for political asylum.
Mr. Guven is far from alone in feeling the full force of the Turkish government’s wrath against press critical of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, particularly after last year’s failed coup attempt. About 160 journalists are currently in jail, mostly on terrorism-related charges, while more than 150 media outlets, from broadcasters to newspapers and magazines, have been shut down, leaving thousands unemployed.
Mr. Erdogan bristles at accusations he is muzzling the press, saying authorities are simply rooting out criminals. He disputes figures from rights groups about the number of imprisoned journalists.
“There can be no question of limitless freedoms in the press. If the media abuses all kinds of freedoms to cause turmoil in the country or to cause provocations, then there is the judiciary for them, too,” he said Wednesday, addressing foreign investor representatives in Istanbul. “The judiciary will work for them, too. Nowhere in the world can there be limitless freedoms. The West does the same to freedoms and its media members.”
Asked at the end of last week’s G20 meeting in Hamburg, Germany, about the media situation, Erdogan again insisted that those arrested had been detained for criminal activity.
“Journalists commit crimes, too, and when they do the judiciary makes the necessary assessment,” he said. “I want you to know that those you know as being members of the press are mostly people who aided and abetted terror.”
Pressure on Turkey’s media is nothing new. Ranked 155th out of 180 countries in the 2017 World Press Freedom Index, Turkey fared only marginally worse than it had the previous year, when it was ranked at 151. Some journalists in prison today have been there for years.
“Turkey is the world leader in jailing journalists and has decimated the independent print media and cracked down heavily on news websites and social media,” said Emma Sinclair-Webb, Turkey director for Human Rights Watch. Most of the journalists now imprisoned “have not yet been convicted of any crime but face trumped-up terrorism charges,” she said.
Rights groups have criticized Turkey for decades for imprisoning journalists. The country has seen at least three coups, in 1960, 1971, and 1980, each leading to regimes that restricted the media in various ways. Guven’s own troubles started with a September 2015 magazine cover, long before last year’s July 15 coup attempt.
But, he says, the coup aftermath, with its state of emergency granting authorities sweeping powers, has plunged the country to new lows.
“There have been [bad times] in Turkey, in the junta years,” Guven said, speaking through a translator from his temporary home in Greece. “But now is the worst time for journalists.”
He says some of his colleagues have been released from detention by court order, only to be re-arrested outside the prison gates. Others are held in isolation, and are threatened with life sentences.
“This shows that there is no chance for journalists to be free in Turkey,” he said. Guven himself has been sentenced to 22.5 years in prison for a variety of terrorist-related crimes, including making propaganda for both the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party and Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, two groups that are hostile to each other. Erdogan blames Mr. Gulen, a former ally living in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania, for the coup.
The situation in Turkey, Guven said, “is obviously” going toward a dictatorship.
Rights groups say critical reporting has been all but silenced by the detentions and sackings, which have included the editor and top staff at Turkey’s most respected opposition newspaper, Cumhuriyet.
“The crackdown on the media is not only about censoring critical reporting,” said HRW’s Sinclair-Webb, “but about preventing scrutiny of government policies and of the deeply repressive measures taken under the ongoing state of emergency.”
For Guven, serious problems began with Nokta’s satirical cover in September 2015 depicting a smiling Erdogan taking a selfie in front of a Turkish soldier’s flag-draped coffin. It was strong criticism of the president’s reported comments that soldiers killed fighting Kurdish militants would be happy for their martyrdom.
The result: Distribution of the magazine was banned and police raided its offices, accusing its leadership of insulting the president. In May, Guven’s colleague Murat Capan was caught trying to flee to Greece and has been imprisoned in Turkey, also on a 22.5-year sentence. Greek media said Mr. Capan had made it across the Greek border but was pushed back into Turkey, where authorities detained him. The Greek government denies pushing back asylum seekers.
Activists say the media crackdown has fostered a climate of fear which has led to self-censorship.
“The fact that there are journalists in jail is not the only proof of the lack of press freedoms in Turkey. The censorship and self-censorship imposed on media organs also remove press freedoms,” Gokhan Durmus, head of the Turkish Journalists’ Syndicate, said in a speech on May 3, World Press Freedom Day. “In our country, which is governed under a state of emergency, journalism is being destroyed. They are trying to create a media with one voice, a Turkey with one voice.”
The purge has affected almost every sector of Turkey’s professional classes, from the judiciary and military to academia, hospitals, kindergartens, businesses, and diplomats. Human rights activists, including members of Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, have been among the latest wave of detentions.
Anyone deemed to be linked to Gulen’s network of schools, charities, and businesses has fallen under suspicion. About 150,000 people have been detained, one-third of them formally arrested; more than 100,000 have been fired, sometimes for links as tenuous as using a particular bank.