Why Turkey’s press ban on Ankara bombings won’t work

This article was first published on  the Media Observatory website in October 2015.

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Turkey is still in the shock of having lost 102 people on Saturday, 10 October, who were killed by twin suicide bombers as they had gathered for a Peace Rally in the capital.

In the initial aftermath of the attack, it became evident that there were too many security flaws that led to the attack.  Preliminary findings indicated that attack was clearly staged by ISIS. Some even claimed that the violence was partially state-sponsored, as a disaster of such a scale cannot possibly be planned and executed without the knowledge of Turkey’s National Intelligence Agency (MİT). This is not too surprising, as many allegations in the past few years have been directed at the Turkish government, ruled by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) might have assisted ISIS in some of its operations, or even supplied arms, in an effort to overthrow the Bashar al-Assad regime, which the AKP sees as its enemy in Syria.

These claims weren’t wholly unsupported. There were reports that the suicide bombers had been on the security forces’ radar for a long time. Many security experts and some former members of Turkey’s spy agency, MİT, agreed that there were too many security and intelligence flaws. The fact that voice recordings, that allegedly featured the voice of one of the suicide bombers bidding his brother goodbye, was among the evidence that supported allegations of intelligence flaws, even negligence.

The Turkish government responded to these allegations not with resignations or explanations, but instead, by issuing a comprehensive gag order on covering the bombings. A public prosecutor demanded a gag order on “news reports, interviews, criticism and similar publications regarding the investigation in print media, on television, on social media and the Internet.” A court later issued the ban.

This, however, hasn’t surprised anyone either. The default response of the Turkish government to any terror attack, accident, natural disaster, or controversial operation run by its military has for a long timebeen issuing gag orders to help it avoid discussion on the government’s responsibility.

Media can take the abuse
For the Turkish press, which by now has been divided into two camps as pro-government and the rest, the ban in practice doesn’t mean much. Most of the free newspapers have decried the ban, vowing that they will continue to cover news related to the bombings. Independent newspapers, the left-wing press, the Kurdish media and any publication or internet website that doesn’t fall under the government’s sphere of influence by now has become used to oppression.
Indeed, violations of press freedoms under Turkey’s increasingly autocratic President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, have become the norm. Even Hürriyet, ironically a newspaper which has historically been criticized for being too mainstream and always on the side of those in power, has received its share of these attacks. Unfortunately, one of these attacks has been physical and Ahmet Hakan, a columnist for Hürriyet had to be hospitalized after a group of assailants beat him. The government has actively, and successfully, pressured digital TV platforms to take opposition networks, most notably Samanyolu TV and Bugün TV, that all have close links to the allied-turned-foe movement of the US based Islamic cleric Fethullah Gülen, off the air. Recently, Bülent Keneş, the editor-in-chief of Today’s Zaman, had to spend four nights in jail for posting a tweet in which he allegedly “insulted and defamed Erdoğan.” Most recently, Turksat, Turkey’s satellite-TV provider, announced that it will be taking several anti-government stations off its network. The Kurdish and left-wing press, which have also been targets of systematic government oppression, even before Turkey’s decidedly authoritarian turn, are also undoubtedly well-trained in dealing with state harassment.
‘We know the killer’
Gag order or not, with or without press bans, sadly, all is out in the open. “We know the killer,” is what many banners held by people attending the protests after the Ankara bombings read. The freedom of the media in this case, as almost always, has serious consequences: it also amounts to violations of the right to know, the right to protest, the right to debate and the public’s right to hold the government accountable.
PHOTO: Protestors on the street with the text “We know the killer” on the banners
What the international community under these circumstances should do is to see the Erdoğan regime for what it is: an autocratic juggernaut riding roughshod on media and other freedoms. There have already been calls in this direction, Turkish journalist Yavuz Baydar and others have recently questioned the motives behind Angela Merkel’s visit to Turkey on Sunday. A group of world’s academic superstars, including such names as Judith Butler, Immanuel  Wallerstein, Slavoj Zizek and Angela Davis, announced support for a signature campaign for the Turkish government to be held accountable for its role in failing to prevent the Ankara bombings, which also called on world governments to leave the Turkish government in isolation.
The truth is, however, regardless of the government’s reaction, that there will always be people in Turkey who will be ready to risk their freedoms, even lives, to report on the harrowing Ankara bombings and other events. This is why the gag orders will never work.

Author: E Baris Altintas

I am a journalist and a civil society professional. I can be reached at retinueeATgmail.com.

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