Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is becoming more authoritarian by the day. His government has announced it will use every tool available to investigate and punish protesters, critics in the media, and social media users. Additionally, Ankara has started to openly threaten foreign websites such as Twitter and Facebook, hoping they will end up betraying their users.
Whenever he gives a speech to his followers or appears on TV, Erdogan repeats that foreigners, not Turks, are the driving force behind the protests that have engulfed Turkey for the last month. For example, he regularly refers to a sinister “interest rate lobby” that, together with certain “foreign capitals,” works to destroy the economy. Since not even he can deny that the ones doing the actual protesting are Turkish, Erdogan and his henchmen can only conclude that they are traitors deserving of the harshest possible punishment.
That is why the government is doing everything in its power to identify protesters active on social media so they can be persecuted. Both Twitter and Facebook have been “asked” to share user information with the Turkish government. It would not surprise me that, once identified, these individuals will be charged with one sort of terrorism or another.
Luckily, the two American social networking behemoths refuse to cooperate. Neither is inclined to step into a country’s domestic political affairs. They are there to serve the freedom of speech and to enable people to express themselves. If a government wants to crack down on dissent, it will have to do so without their help.
The Justice and Development Party (AK Parti or AKP) being what it is, immediately lashed out at these companies. Said minister of Transport, Maritime Affairs and Communications Binali Yildirim: “The Turkish Republic doesn’t recognize those who don’t recognize it!” For good measure he added a threat: “79 million people will hit them with an Ottoman slap.” Before you think that he is referring to a girlie kind of slap that would not impress anyone: In Turkish culture, the Ottoman slap is an “all powerful“ way to take out one’s opponent.
In the meantime, Turkish journalists who dare do their job and share the real story with their readers (or viewers) are singled out and intimidated. For instance, the mayor of Ankara, Melih Gökcek, launched a public smear campaign against Turkish BBC reporter Selin Girit who reported on the protests and who tried to explain to her viewers why things had gotten so out of hand.
Girit, Gökcek tweeted, was “an English agent” engaging in “treachery to her nation.” He even called on his followers – AKP-voters – to speak out against her and harass her online by using the hashtag #ingiltereadınaajanlıkyapmaselingirit (“Don’t be an agent on behalf of England Selin Girit). “I want that everyone who loves their country to make the hashtag a trending topic. That way, our reaction will be heard abroad,” he added.
It did not take long for Girit’s Twitter stream to be overwhelmed with personal attack after personal attack. She did not speak out against it herself, but her company did, calling the attacks “unacceptable.” True, albeit a bit of an understatement.
Attacks on Twitter users, private companies, and journalists; it all happens in modern Turkey. And there is more. It was also reported this week that the Islamist government is even going so far as to “investigate” the bank accounts of their foreign customers. According to the report, the Capital Markets Board asked banks a couple of days ago to submit the account activity of foreign customers between May 20 and June 19 because it had “received complaints” that these individuals had received and used money to stir up the protests. Supposedly, this is all part of some grand kind of “conspiracy” by the aforementioned “interest rate lobby,” who want to throw Turkey into chaos.
Of course, there is no reason whatsoever to believe that there is a foreign conspiracy behind the protests. As I reported for FrontPage Magazine earlier this month, the organizers are Turks who simply disagree with Erdogan’s policies and fear his increasingly authoritarian leadership style.
To Erdogan, however, these conspiracy theories are too good to resist. After all, it allows him to brush aside the legitimate concerns of the opposition and to use intimidation and other techniques in order to silence critics.
I do not believe that it already is too late for Turkey, but it certainly is very troubling that, even now the mass protests have calmed down, the government still refuses to respect the freedom of expression and the freedom of the press. If Erdogan persists, Turkey’s democratic system may very well end up being damaged beyond repair. That would be unacceptable, not only to Turks, but also to the West, which is why it is up to the European Union to convince him to take a different tack. He may not listen to his domestic critics, but if his most important trade partner refuses to do business with him by linking the eurozone and Turkish economies even more, Erdogan may very well decide to change course nonetheless.
Let us hope so, for we cannot afford to let Turkey slide into authoritarianism. Europe and the United States need Turkey as a strong and democratic regional partner. Doing nothing is, therefore, simply not an option.
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