Monday, March 7, 2016

Turkey Takes Over Opposition Newspaper to Silence Dissent

In the latest installment of Our Allies Did WHAT?, the Republic of Turkey forcefully took over an opposition newspaper called Zaman after it published a series of articles critical of President Erdogan's administration. Zaman was not technically shut down; rather, the paper came under new leadership and started printing stories that were friendly to the government on the next day it was open.

The whole episode sounds distinctly like something out of a formal dictatorship or a dystopian novel. Zaman had apparently gotten into trouble with the authorities by publishing multiple articles that alleged extensive corruption under Erdogan. Erdogan's government reportedly described one of the paper's backers, a US-based Islamic cleric, as a terrorist and suggested the goal of the criticism was to  overthrow the Turkish government. Using this narrative, Erdogan's administration convinced a Turkish court to order Zaman placed under new court-appointed management (and thereby cease its opposition).

Turkish police moved to implement the order on Friday and were confronted by thousands of protesters in front of the Zaman headquarters. The police used rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse the protesters and proceeded to storm the office building on Saturday. Then Sunday's edition of the paper came out the next day with no criticism, and no mention of the paper's takeover.

Without being an expert in Turkish politics, one obviously can't say with certainty whether the claims of corruption (or, for that matter, the claims of a coup) are credible. But historical precedent suggests that "terrorism" is probably the leading excuse for authoritarian policies all around the world--and there's no reason to think Turkey is any exception. (America certainly wouldn't be.) Indeed, as we speak, Turkey is using the same pretext of terrorism to attack the Kurds in Syria, which have been the strongest allies of Russia and the United States in the fight against ISIS. Erdogan also inflamed fears of terrorism and Kurdish nationalism (which many in Turkey view as largely interchangeable terms) to help his party win the recent parliamentary elections. So given this context, allegations of terrorism from Erdogan certainly warrant skepticism.

Moreover, if the corruption claims really were illegitimate, it stands to reason that refuting the claims outright would be a much more effective way to silence a scandal than forcefully silencing their author. Thus, common sense suggests that the concerns raised by Zaman, which is also Turkey's largest newspaper, probably had an uncomfortable amount of truth to them. The front page headline of the last edition published by the free Zaman read, "Constitution Suspended."

In spite of these brazen actions by Turkey, however, official criticism has been relatively mild. Turkey remains a member of NATO in good standing, even though they have done the following in recent periods:
*Supported the Al Qaeda affiliated Al Nusra Front in Syria to assist with the revolution.
*Shot down a Russian plane, in a deliberate and pre-meditated ambush, that further inflamed tensions between major powers over Syria
*Bombed the Syrian and Iraqi Kurds that are key allies in the fight against ISIS, as noted above.
*And now eliminated the pretense of a free press domestically.

Of course, none of this should be taken as a call for the US to actively antagonize or impose sanctions against Turkey. But they're the sort of things that should make US policymakers think hard about the relationship. The amount of hypocrisy required to preserve the alliance seems to grow by the day, and Turkey is potentially on the brink of directly challenging Russia militarily in Syria.

Given that the actions above directly contradict any conceivable definition of US interests or values, now seems like a great time to consider neutrality.

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