Media Outreach and Freedom of Expression Project, Interview (1)
Turkey’s long-debated disinformation law took effect on October 18, 2022. The law has brought with it many questions about the freedom of expression in Turkey. We interviewed Prof. Dr. Lisel Hintz from John Hopkins University about the new law, freedom of the press, and the future of freedom of expression in Turkey.
To what events do you attribute Turkey’s increasing authoritarianism and censorship in the last 20 years?
I think there are a lot of events in which the current ruling party, the AKP, has engaged in authoritarian consolidation. And I believe crackdowns on free speech, freedom of assembly, and freedom of the press, have been tools by which the AKP has consolidated its authoritarian regime. Twenty years is a long time. The AKP has been in power that long. It comes into power proclaiming to be a conservative democratic party, proclaiming to be on the EU track, proclaiming to be pushing towards the democratization of the country. And for the first few years, I think many people thought that might be the case.
Some people now are frustrated that perhaps they were naive or didn’t see the track the AKP was on. I think that there were several factors in that. EU actors are partly responsible for the AKP turning away from the EU track. We also have to hold the party accountable for the particular ways in which it has removed checks and balances. Even the AKP’s EU trajectory, as I argue in my first book, Identity Politics Inside Out, was instrumental in reducing the role of the military in politics and in reconfiguring the judiciary, as well as reconfiguring the institution of the Presidency and in being able to retool how university rectors are chosen, all kinds of different institutional changes reduce those checks and balances. And so, when we think about authoritarian consolidation, we’re thinking about the hold on power that the AKP has established, partly through its cooptation and assertion of control over particular institutions. And we see that with the judiciary, the Supreme Electoral Council, the Supreme Board of Radio and Television, the military, the police, and lots of other institutions, they’ve come under the control of the AKP partially through legislative reform, partially through putting cronies in positions of power, through other political economy tools, etc.
Political and economic incentives in the media sphere, for example, mean that even private TV channels that are not owned by the state but that are owned by holding companies that have construction and mining and banking and financial interests that tie them to the government do not air news that is critical of the AKP. So, I think looking at all of those different ways in which the AKP has institutionally been able to consolidate its power is important. And then, you look at how they’re controlling speech; censorship of journalism is part of that. The jailing of journalists is another part of that. The delegitimization of people who criticize the government is part of that. The massive application of the law that criminalizes insulting the president is part of that.
So there are institutional shifts, there are economic shifts, and there are discursive shifts. Lots of different ways in which authoritarian consolidation has happened under the AKP. With your question asking what some of the events that contributed to that are, we see that the Gezi Park protests were instrumental in demonstrating to Erdoğan that there was frustration with his increasing creep into the personal lives of citizens. So I think a lot of the authoritarian consolidation, crackdown, and jailing of artists, journalists, and activists happened post-Gezi. And then, of course, the 2016 coup attempt, which increased the fear or threat that Erdoğan perceived but also created a useful opportunity for him to purge all kinds of different forms of opposition from the civil service, from the education system, from the military, and then also provided a really useful rhetorical tool for him to paint individuals who are in the opposition as terrorists. So that event was certainly contributing to authoritarian consolidation, the shift to the presidential system, and his election in 2018. I would even say that Turkey’s involvement in Syria has allowed Erdoğan to paint Kurds even more widely than he has previously as “terrorists.” I think it has also been a way in which he’s delegitimized the HDP and other political forms of Kurdish resistance. So, a lot of different events have contributed to it, but I think we’ve seen in the last few years and a speeding up, an increase in the pace of authoritarian consolidation, and I think the disinformation law is just one element of that.
Turkey is one of the countries with the most jailed journalists today. How did this affect the media in Turkey?
Turkey has become infamous for this statistic. Several years in a row, it has been the number one jailer of journalists. People will point to Saudi Arabia and China, yet Turkey, a NATO member, is jailing more journalists. The government responds by saying that there are no journalists in jail and only terrorists in jail. And by that, they mean they have tried to criminalize reporting on events that the government does not want to see reported. And so if you are writing news that the government is not happy with – if you are, for example, Can Dündar and you are writing on the transfer of weapons to the militant groups in Syria – then you are a terrorist, or then you are engaging in propaganda for terrorist groups, or then you are undermining national security efforts. So all of that is to say, when you are, in the government’s eyes, critical of its policies, you are no longer a journalist. And that’s fundamentally antithetical to what free journalism should be about, which should be about the ability for journalists to investigate, to call a government out on its actions.
I think this crackdown on free journalism really represents the authoritarian consolidation and the authoritarian mindset that has taken hold with the AKP. Now, there has been censorship in Turkey for decades and long before the AKP, particularly under military tutelage. There were frequent episodes of censorship, certainly on the Kurdish issue, on the Armenian genocide issue. So it’s not to say that this is new for Turkey, but what is relatively new is the extent to which journalism that is critical of Erdoğan himself or his government’s policies or that is reporting on inflation or anything that is being targeted. The government doesn’t want that covered, so now that content is also subject to censorship.
I think the jailing of journalists is meant to curtail some individuals’ journalistic work, but it’s also a signal of what can happen to others. It’s an intimidation campaign, and it’s meant to create a culture of self-censorship. And for many journalists I’ve spoken with, this is the case. To keep their jobs, they have to adhere to a particular line that a particular newspaper, news outlet, or TV stations are trying to adhere to. And what that does is even if there is not a person from the AKP in the room saying do not publish that, do not report on that issue, there are expectations in the newsroom. There are expectations at these news outlets that we want not to upset the government. And so even if there’s not someone directly telling you, don’t do that, there’s a culture in which that self-censorship functions. News editors may say, OK, well, cut that story because that might anger the government. And so there’s this culture in which you don’t even have to have formal censorship laws in place. You have these political and economic connections that tie these news outlets to the government in ways that constrict free speech, free journalism, and the ability of the press to serve as a check on the government.
How do you evaluate the disinformation law enacted by the government recently?
The disinformation law is something that I think we’ve seen coming. We can explain its timing because we have elections scheduled for next year, and we know that the AKP is desperately trying to use all of the tools in its toolkit, what we call the authoritarian toolkit, to try to ensure that it will be able to win those elections even though Erdoğan is not polling very well. When he polls against some of the opposition candidates, he doesn’t win. So we can see the disinformation law in the context of the run-up to elections as the government’s efforts of trying to find ways of criminalizing critical reporting, of criminalizing individuals who are sharing posts on social media, who are complaining about inflation, who are complaining about government policies. So the disinformation law is very much positioned in the context of this kind of thickening or increasing speed at which authoritarian consolidation is taking place, in which speech is being regulated.
It’s to me, the next step after the data localization laws, which try to ensure that Twitter and any kind of streaming platform have some kind of local presence where the government could make them accountable for the content that they’re broadcasting or the content that’s being shared on their platforms so that they can request content to be taken down. In addition to Turkey being the number one jailer of journalists for several years, Turkey was also the number one country requesting Twitter to remove content. So, the data localization laws allow the government closer control over what’s being disseminated, and the combination of that with the heavy application of the law criminalizing insulting the president, and now the disinformation law, it’s just an extra step in the way in which they can police any kind of content that is critical. And I think those concerned about how this can be used are not overreacting. We’ve already seen this, especially with the charge of insulting the president. It’s clear given the timing, given the history, given the targeting of those who are even retweeting something critical of the president. I don’t think we’re being alarmist in our concerns about the extent to which this disinformation law will be used politically to punish, silence, and again create a culture of intimidation, fear, of self-censorship. That may reduce the extent to which people can be critical. I will say that even in my DMS on Twitter, I’ve gotten messages from people saying, “please don’t take down your post. I just can’t like it because I’m afraid now that if I like that post, then something will happen to me.” So real effects are already being produced in terms of this self-censorship.
How do democratic Western institutions and non-state actors perceive the disinformation law of Turkey?
Western institutions have rightly been critical of various human rights violations in Turkey for a long time. I haven’t seen a lot of very bold, direct statements about the disinformation law in particular. I do know that the Biden administration has, at least in the past, said that they were going to be more critical of Turkey when it came to press freedoms, human rights, and so forth. But irrespective of whether Western institutions openly say this is anti-democratic, this kind of authoritarian overreach in how the law has the potential to be applied given the AKP’s track record is not in line with the membership criteria of NATO, of which Turkey is a member. Or of the EU, of which Turkey is an aspiring member. For example, we think of NATO as an alliance of democracies, but this doesn’t fit. Although Turkey is in line with Hungary and Poland, NATO members who have pushed that boundary already. We know that NATO has problems with that. But even if these Western institutions were to be very openly critical, that wouldn’t have a lot of positive effects in Turkey.
What Erdoğan can do in many different cases, as he did in Gezi and as he’s done in several other cases, is say that there are external powers that are meddling in Turkey’s domestic affairs, that they have no business commenting on what’s happening in Turkey, that Turkey’s sovereignty should be protected and respected. And that these powers have nefarious, subversive interests in trying to take down his regime. He’s been cultivating this narrative for years, claiming that external powers are trying to unseat him. That they don’t want to see a strong Muslim Turkey, that there are interest rate lobbies – all of these different vilification narratives he’s used. And so whenever the European Court of Human Rights or some other body criticizes the government’s actions in Turkey, he’s able to turn that around and use it as evidence of the West trying to undermine him. So Western institutions are in a really difficult spot because even if they want to call out these violations of democratic norms, in doing so, they feed into his narrative that they are undermining his regime. And that can help build up his nationalist base. That anti-Americanism, anti-westernism in general, particularly in the post-coup era, is something that plays to his advantage.
Did this law completely mute this dissent? How will the Turkish dissidents protect their rights from now on?
It’s a very important question. It will not and has not completely muted dissidents. It’s important for advocates for democracy in Turkey, those in the opposition in various camps, particularly the youth, given that 6 million youth will have the opportunity to vote in elections for the first time in 2023. In some cases, I think the disinformation law may have a chilling effect, like the example I gave where someone is messaging me and saying I can’t like your tweet, but please keep it; keep speaking out. But I also think that some are so frustrated at this point that this kind of law may not deter them, that they may continue to openly criticize the government. It’s tough to say at this point, I would be hesitant to make any predictions, but I sense that some believe this election is such a fundamental opportunity that shouldn’t be lost. That shouldn’t be missed. Despite all of the hurdles the government is putting in place, the opposition needs to try to mobilize as many people as possible. And one of the ways you mobilize them is to let them know how much disagreement exists when it comes to the government’s actions.
So I feel as though the opposition thinks the stakes are very, very high, that these elections are sort of the last chance to try to roll back the democratization that has been happening. Many of them may take risks and speak out anyway, but again I’m hesitant to predict. And I want to acknowledge that the costs are very high. The cost of these cases, the psychological and emotional costs, in addition to the time and financial costs, and the cost, perhaps in terms of losing one’s job, are very high. And so, for those continuing to engage in critical speech, we need to recognize that they are courageous and that they are facing a powerfully entrenched authoritarian regime that has openly targeted those engaging in critical speech, especially if they are of Kurdish descent, especially if they are with the pro-Kurdish movement. Especially if they’re artists, especially if they are pro-LGBTQ. I think recognizing the costs that dissidents face is important. But I don’t think this will completely silence oppositional speech. I also think that oppositional speech can happen in subtle ways. It can happen in creative ways. Tarkan’s Geççek video, for example. Maybe it’s not about the fact that the authoritarian regime will go soon; maybe it’s about the pandemic – that ambiguity is useful in creative resistance. But we should note that opposition and resistance persist, even given the government’s very direct targeting of opposition. I don’t think the disinformation law will silence oppositional speech completely. I believe oppositional speech can always find creative ways to sustain itself.
Photo: Ravi Sharma