ISTANBUL (Reuters) - In almost half a century as a reporter, columnist and editor of two national newspapers, Hasan Cemal has seen coups, military rule and government crises shake Turkish democracy. But never, he says, have press freedoms been so curtailed as under President Tayyip Erdogan.
Broadly-defined anti-terrorism laws have been used to prosecute dozens of journalists in recent years. Several more face legal action for referring to a corruption scandal around Erdogan’s inner circle in December 2013.
Some opposition journalists who have avoided court have instead been fired by what they say are pliant media bosses seeking to avoid Erdogan’s ire, or say they have been shut out of official events.
Almost all have made the same mistake: criticizing government policy or offending Erdogan, who has dominated Turkish politics for more than a decade and whose leadership, critics say, has become increasingly authoritarian.
“The free space of journalists is being limited in an unprecedented way because there is an order from a sultan who hates independence,” Cemal told Reuters. “Freedoms, rule of law, the right to live democratically are swiftly being eliminated.”
Erdogan rejects the notion that Turkey has anything but a free media, declaring in January that Turkish journalists were freer than any in Europe.
Tensions have risen anew in the run-up to a general election on Sunday, the second in five months and a vote critical to Erdogan’s political future. He wants the AK Party he founded to win back the majority it lost in June, enabling it to change the constitution and grant him stronger executive powers.
Police forced their way into the offices of an opposition media company on Wednesday, days ahead of the election, forcing two television stations already taken off the air to stop broadcasting over the internet.
The move, the authorities said, was backed by a court order and part of an investigation into the network of Fethullah Gulen, a U.S.-based cleric accused by Erdogan of trying to topple him.
For the hundreds of protesters outside the building, whose shouts of “you can’t silence the free media” were met with pepper spray and water cannon, and for Erdogan’s opponents, it was yet another example of blatant disregard for free speech.
“(The raids) are a particularly disturbing illustration of the dangerous path Turkey has undertaken in recent months as regards its stance on media freedom,” Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Nils Muiznieks said.
The raids sent a “chilling message”, he said, ahead of Sunday’s vote in a nation aspiring to join the European Union.
Aydin Unal, an AK Party lawmaker and former Erdogan adviser, said on Tuesday more opposition papers may face legal action, including the nationalist and secular Sozcu, raising the prospect of a deeper “settling of scores” after the election.
Most polls suggest the AKP will struggle to win a majority on Sunday and be forced into coalition, potentially with the main opposition CHP, although one survey on Thursday indicated it would be able to govern alone.
“Whether or not there will be more oxygen in the system for journalists will depend on the result of Sunday’s elections,” said Asli Aydintasbas, a journalist for around 20 years.
“If there is a decline in AKP votes and if they fail to form a single-party government then they’ll have to be more compromising, more democratic,” she said.
Aydintasbas was fired from the Milliyet newspaper for what she said were columns critical of Erdogan and the government.
Government officials have repeatedly denied putting pressure on bosses of media companies, many of which are owned by parent companies that hold lucrative government contracts in other areas of industry.
The government also says no journalists are detained in Turkey for their work alone, but for other offences such as spreading terrorist propaganda. It has declined to comment on individual cases, saying they are a matter for the judiciary.
There were seven journalists in prison in Turkey as of last December, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, although there have been more arrests since then.
Erdogan’s sympathizers reject the notion that press freedom is deteriorating.
“There was a time when more than 100 journalists were in jail and we were competing with China in terms of imprisoned reporters,” said Hilal Kaplan, columnist at the Sabah daily.
“Today I would say the media is more pluralistic; there are pro-PKK (Kurdish militant) media, anti-Erdogan media, pro-AKP media, some of which couldn’t have existed 15 years ago.”
Cemal disagrees. He was editor of the Cumhuriyet newspaper during the presidency of Kenan Evren - a former army chief who led a 1980 coup and came to symbolize the military’s decades-long dominance over politics - and of his successor Turgut Ozal.
In the years after Evren’s coup, fifty people were executed and half a million arrested, hundreds died in jail, and many more subsequently disappeared - the sort of instability that Turkey has long since left behind.
But even in the turbulence of those times, Cemal said, there was greater access to information. He resigned as a columnist from Milliyet in 2013 after the newspaper suspended him when one of his columns drew criticism from Erdogan.
“Erdogan has to date never held a real press conference, because he never wished to take and answer questions from those opposing him ... Even the coup leaders including Evren held press conferences,” Cemal said.
“I harshly criticized Turgut Ozal. He still allowed me on his plane for trips, invited us to his press conferences and engaged in fiery debates with me and other opposition journalists. Even the second-class democracy of those times was better than today.”
Writing by Nick Tattersall; Editing by Peter Graff