Edmund Ghareeb, author of the The Kurdish Question in Iraq, says President Recep Tayyip Erdogan increased the climate of fear and violence in the country and arrested and censored opposition media

Story Transcript

SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. On the surface, the Turkish elections were smooth and rather conclusive, according to government officials and mainstream press. While the final results won’t be available for another ten days or so, the prime minister swiftly declared AK Party of President Erdogan the winner within hours of polls closing. In spite of this victory and the majority it has managed to consolidate in parliament, the government is exercising rather authoritarian measures, as it has resumed its crackdown on journalists, media outlets, and political opposition rivals. Reporters Without Borders has called on immediate release of Cevheri Guven, the publisher of the weekly Nokta, and Murad Capan, the editor. They were arrested last night on the suspicion of inciting criminal activity in the wake of parliamentary elections, and an Istanbul court today ordered them held on the more serious charge of inciting armed revolt against the government. In addition, RSF is reporting that police blockaded, stormed and teargassed several TV stations headquartered in Istanbul and disconnected their signals. Now joining me to discuss all of this is Edmund Ghareeb. He has great expertise in the area of media and Middle Eastern history, as well as politics. He’s the co-editor of many books, and he has also authored many books, among them Kurdish Question in Iraq, and The Kurdish Nationalist Movement. Edmund, thank you so much for joining us today. EDMUND GHAREEB: Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be with you again. PERIES: Edmund, take us through these steps. The attacks on the media that we have been experiencing prior to the elections, and now after the elections. What’s going on? GHAREEB: Well, this has been a very important issue, an issue of great concern for many people, especially journalists, but many others who believe that there is a need for a free media and a critical media to play the role of watchdog on the government. So what we have seen in Turkey, in fact a number of international media organizations, in fact Turkey was on the index, number 154 of 180-something, [184], I believe. So it has really gone down quite a bit in the last few years in terms of media freedom. And before the election, just before the election, there were a number of incidents where some journalists were detained. Especially those, for example, who reported on the Turkish, what they believed to be, that the Turkish police was looking the other way when weapons, as well as armed men, were going into Syria. There was also a great deal of a crackdown on a number of media outlets, media organs, when there were charges of corruption or they reported on corruption by some senior government officials, as well as some who are close to the ruling AKP party. Two days before the election there was a crackdown on two newspapers which are believed to be closed to Fethullah Gulen, the cleric, who has been, who used to be a very close ally of AKP and President Erdogan. And then in recent years they have gone their separate ways. These two papers are also accused of incitement. And in fact, not only were they shut down but new editorial board, a new board came to, took place from the old editors. And almost overnight the government, I mean these two newspapers and the two television channels, changed from being critical of government policies and of AKP policies to newspapers and to channels which were sympathetic and supportive of the government. Cumhuriyet, for example, one of the largest newspapers in Turkey, was surrounded by police and security forces, and the story was that they were sent there in order to protect them from any attack. A number of other newspapers, there was a statement by one of the AKP politicians who, it has been quoted generally in the media, that he warned these papers that the independent, the critical papers, wait until after the elections, your turn is coming. We’ll have to wait and see now. PERIES: Edmund, why does President Erdogan feel it necessary to crack down on the media? After all, he has garnered a majority in parliament, he has all the power he needs. Why is this necessary? GHAREEB: Well, I think in part–two reasons. One, he believes that these papers, these critics, are trying to undermine the government, undermine his authority and the AKP’s authority. There are, some of his supporters believe that the criticism is denigrating the president. Also, on top of that–and this is if we even go back to the slogans that were adopted by the AKP immediately after the last election in June, one of the main slogans was it’s either us or chaos. And to a certain extent when people question these policies, the media question this, this was something that the government felt was undermining its authority. Also the fact that sometimes it’s pursuing, the media, this independent media was pursuing issues which raise questions about the way the government was being run, about the roles of senior officials were playing, including ones that were close to the government. And so as a result they were seen as undermining and weakening, and challenging governmental and AKP policies. PERIES: And Edmund, the fall in the status of press freedom that you cited earlier, has this happened in the period that President Erdogan has been governing? GHAREEB: I think it has. Although one thing, to be fair about it, Turkey–except for a brief period, especially when there was military rule–Turkish government officials took a very tough line on the media. There was a sort of a honeymoon period around the turn of the decade, last decade. And when the military was being sort of undermined and weakened, and pushed aside from playing a political role, there was a more open environment, political environment, media environment. But I think there has been a steady trend in decline in media freedom over the last few years. PERIES: Edmund, let’s take up the aftermath of the elections in our next segment.

Part 2

SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome back. I’m speaking with Edmund Ghareeb about Turkey after the elections. Edmund Ghareeb’s expertise lies in the area of media, Middle Eastern history and politics. He has co-edited and authored a number of books, among them The Kurdish Question in Iraq and The Kurdish Nationalist Movement. Thank you again for joining me, Edmund. So Edmund, what has taken place in the elections and what can we expect in the next few months? EDMUND GHAREEB: The results, actually, were surprising. Many people, many polls, analysts, expected that the AKP was going to increase its numbers maybe by three, four points. It had gotten somewhere around 40-point, I think [40.1], or something like that during the last election. But I don’t think anybody actually, maybe even not even the government, expected that they would get 49 percent. That’s quite a jump from the 40-41 percent. The reasons, I think, are that the government may have succeeded in using the environment which emerged after the June elections. There was an environment of increasing tension, increasing violence. Especially with the rise of tensions between the PKK, the Kurdish nationalists, the Kurdish workers’ party and the government. There were incidents of terrorism. One in the city of Suruc when a group of Kurdish leftists and progressives were going to Khobani in Syria to try to help build a school, and in fact a supporter of Daesh, generally ISIS, blew himself up and about 24 people were killed. And close to 100 people if not more were wounded. And then there was the attack that I’m sure you remember in Ankara, which led to the death of close to 200 people. And many, many, people wounded. And this was, in fact, also a rally by HDP, which is the Kurdish party, and also by other political parties and progressive groups in Ankara who were rallying. So these attacks actually led the parties, especially the opposition parties, and particularly the HDP which is the People’s Party, the Kurdish People’s Party, although it did not use the term Kurdish. But basically this party suspended, as well as opposition parties in other areas, suspended their campaign activities and campaign rallies while at the same time the government was continuing to have its own rallies. PERIES: Now, one of the factors that created the conditions for the voter turnout was really this fear factor. A lot of people were scared of going out to vote. I understand that at many polling stations there was military guard, as well as the conditions in the country, particularly given the attacks that you just cited. There was issue of the voter turnout for the opposition parties. GHAREEB: Yes, clearly that was a very important issue. And certain parts of the country, especially in the Kurdish areas, there were police. Very tough security. There were some areas which were sort of, almost under martial law a few days before that. And so basically there were critics, HDP supporters and supporters of some other groups, accused the government of helping foster an atmosphere, an environment, of intimidation. I think there is no doubt while many people believe that this environment was the responsibility, or it was blamed on the government, nevertheless it appears that many people within Turkey came to the conclusion that it may be better to have one party rule. And so they rewarded the AKP, because they wanted development, because the value of the Turkish currency declined heavily against the dollar. And also there was another, I think, very important factor which contributed to this. And there was, if we take a look at the results of the voting–for example, which parties lost the most. PERIES: Before you say that, Edmund, I also want to say that in spite of the fear factor and people feeling threatened and scared, there was still an 83 percent voter turnout in terms of eligible voters, which should be commended. GHAREEB: Yes, and that I think is very important, 84 percent. And this is what President Erdogan and the Prime Minister Davutoglu actually emphasized. They said this was a vote for democracy. And this vote for the Turkish people who came out to vote. And I think there is, this is very true, or is significant. That’s why I’m saying this is important. Because a lot of people came to believe that the government in fact may be, may bring about, may be able to do a better job than the opposition. Because that was one of the problems. The opposition did not do very well. After the June election, when they were given a chance by the Turkish public to form a government, to cooperate perhaps in forming a coalition government, almost especially the MHP refused to enter into a coalition government, although it was closed to the AKP. Although a couple of its members joined the government. Nevertheless, if we take a look–the MHP, by the way, is the Turkish nationalist party. Its leader focused mostly on anti-Kurdish positions, and at the same time he was critical of the AKP and the prime minister, and the president. And so as a result this party, which had about 80 members in the parliament, they got something like 16 percent of the vote. They came down to 11.9, 11.10, close to 12 percent of the vote. So in fact, they lost a large number of votes. And so these numbers, these voters, went into the AKP because of the close relationship. So basically they may have won a large number of votes from the MHP. Also even the HDP, which is the People’s Democratic Party, the Kurdish party in a sense, last time it did receive support from secularists, from women, from liberals, from [inaud.] from other political parties basically because these people wanted them to get above the 10 percent threshold. Because as you know, in Turkey you have to get–any party to enter the parliament must at least get 10 percent of the vote. And if they don’t get the 10 percent then their votes are apportioned proportionately among the victors. The victor gets the largest percentage, the biggest party gets the largest, and then some percentages are given to the other parties. So this is a problem. One of the problems, actually, that is an issue. In any case, so both of these parties lost. The HDP had something like 13.1 percent. They came down to–they lost almost 3 percentage points. And part of this, again, may have been because the government in part said that this, the HDP, is an extension of the PKK, the Kurdish workers’ party, which is recognized by the Turkish government or seen by the Turkish government as a terrorist organization. So that clearly was a factor. So the government was able to use the violence, the atmosphere of violence, atmosphere of intimidation, to its advantage. And many people believe that the opposition, which was unable to work closely together and to form a government, or to form a coalition government with the AKP, were responsible. So in a sense they were punished by the public. However, does this mean that this vote was, clearly was certainly a vote for the policies? All the domestic or the foreign policies of the AKP? Many analysts who have been following this very closely basically say they, I think the people of Turkey wanted to have stability. They wanted to have security. They wanted to have a better economic situation. But it does not mean that they support all the policies of the government, what comes to some of the issues, for example, dealing with the question of reconciliation with the Kurds, or dealing with foreign policies, foreign interventions. Because this government, I mean the AKP government, when they first came to power during the last decade, they promised that Turkey was going to have zero enemies. Well, now it almost has zero friends among its neighbors. That’s what we were talking about. It does not have a good relationship with too many of its neighbors. In fact, it has a hostile relationship with most of its neighbors. So this is not something that most Turks agree upon, although the government used Kurdish, Turkish nationalism, in order to solidify support among those nationalists who were very much concerned about the rise of, what they saw as the rise of PKK violence, and their concern about the establishment of a Kurdish entity within Turkey. PERIES: And the rising threat of ISIS as well. All right, Edmund, thank you so much for joining us today, and I appreciate you. GHAREEB: Thank you very much. Pleasure to be with you again. PERIES: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.


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Edmund Ghareeb is an internationally recognized expert on Iraq, Kurds, the Middle East, US media coverage of the Middle East; the new media in the Arab world; Arab Americans; ethnic and religious minorities in the Middle East. He has taught Middle Eastern history and politics at a number of universities, including the University of Virginia, George Washington University, American University, and McGill University. He has authored, co-authored or edited a number of books, including Split Vision: The Portrayal of Arabs in the U.S. Media, The Kurdish Question in Iraq, The Kurdish Nationalist Movement, and Historical Dictionary of Iraq, Iraqi Refugees. He has also lectured and written extensively on US policy towards the Middle East and US-Gulf relations. Dr. Ghareeb is a former journalist and has been widely interviewed by Arab, American, and European television, radio, and newspapers on the Middle East, the media, and US related issues.