The former editor of a once-prominent Turkish newspaper is worried the rich, diverse country at the crossroads of Europe and Asia is drifting toward an autocratic ruler with little regard for preserving freedoms of expression – including a free press – conditions that allowed Turkey to flourish as a secular democracy.
“I am a witness and a victim of Turkey’s break from democracy,” said Abdulhamit Bilici, a journalist for 25 years.
Now a political refugee in the United States, Bilici led Zaman Daily, which had been the largest newspaper in Turkey until it was seized and eventually shut down by the party of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Bilici will be in Dayton on May 1 at the invitation of the Dayton Council on World Affairs. He will speak about the fast-moving changes in Turkey, including crackdowns on journalists. The 5:30 p.m. event will be hosted by Cox Media Group Ohio, publisher of this newspaper.
The importance of Turkey to the United States and international interests could not be greater, Bilici said. An ally of the U.S. for 60 years, Turkey is the only Muslim country in NATO and has NATO’s second-largest Army in terms of troop numbers. The country also sits near Russia, Iran, Syria and Iraq in a volatile, strategic region.
“Now there is a big chance that the West is losing Turkey … and Turkey is getting each day closer to Russia and other axes,” he said. “Keeping Turkey as a democratic country is a very important strategic issue for Turkish people and the friends of Turkish people.”
Carolyn Rice, an executive board member Dayton Council on World Affairs, heard Bilici speak in Washington, D.C. last November. She said the newsman has a compelling story.
“I would think our community would want to know Turkey is an important ally and an important country in all that’s happening,” said Rice, who is also Montgomery County treasurer. “He’s not coming to make a political speech or be talking against Erdogan. It is truly about the topic of the importance of a free press in a democratic society.”
Bilici described Zaman Daily’s editorial stance as conservative-progressive, a sober-eyed, middle-of-the road approach for the region’s only Muslim democracy.
“We were supporting family values and we were respecting religious values and traditional values of Turkish society. This was our conservative aspect,” he said. “But under the progressive aspect, we were defending the rule of law and democracy and Turkey joining the European Union. So it was a combination of both sides.”
The Istanbul-based paper first supported Erdogan’s efforts as a prime minister pushing democratic ideals and inclusion in the European Union, Bilici said. But the paper’s editorial stance shifted as Erdogan’s party pressured, purged or jailed protesters, journalists and prosecutors as well as others the ruling AKP party saw as threats through a 2013 corruption scandal.
Erdogan’s government labeled the paper, among others, a terrorist organization. On March 4, 2016, troops stormed the building and took over the presses.
Bilici left Turkey about 15 days later. Speaking by phone last week, he said family members are with him in the U.S. but declined to discuss where they are living due to security concerns.
Bilici said none of the paper’s columnists’ views – whether nationalist, conservative, progressive or leftist – could find favor with Erdogan’s government. Fifty journalists from the paper – including those who worked to objectively cover the news – are currently jailed, he said. At least 81 journalists were imprisoned in Turkey as of Dec. 1, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Two years after Erdogan became president, a military faction attempted a 2016 coup, and the government declared a national emergency. Bilici said resulting restrictions made work even more difficult for even-handed newsgatherers.
“The failed coup last July was also an important last turning point that he started to rule the country by emergency that is now continuing,” he said. “Erdogan is using that as an opportunity to silence any position, leftist, liberal or conservative, nationalist, whatever.”
Erdogan now controls 90 percent of the Turkish media, Bilici argues, making it easier to consolidate power in elections such as one a week ago that could result in abolishment of the country’s existing parliamentary system of government.
He also said he detects a similarity in the way some in the U.S. media have been treated at the White House following the election of President Donald Trump, when some reporters were barred from press briefings.
“There are some parallels, but of course America has a much stronger tradition of democracy and very important, strong institutions,” he said. “There is a common understanding in the United States to defend freedom of expression, although those newspapers and media don’t agree on political issues.”
Bilici said in just five short years Turkey’s democracy was “hijacked” by Erdogan’s party, resulting in a muzzled press and judiciary. He hopes those parallels don’t stretch too far.
“I don’t mean that America will start jailing its journalists – I hope it doesn’t go that far – but the people should be ready to defend democracy by defending freedom of expression and an independent judiciary,” he said. “Because when you lose those two, you don’t have a chance to defend democracy. These are red lines.”