When I was growing up, my father always told me “I may not agree with what you have to say, but I will fight to the death to defend your right to say it.”
My father’s adage was put sorely to the test in my college days.
A staunch conservative, when he would come to visit me, he would grimace at the sight of the Ché Guevara and Karl Marx posters that were plastered on my dorm room walls, but say nothing.
I eventually outgrew my Che Guevara days, but the lesson my father taught me in defense of freedom of expression (even in a dorm room that HE was paying for) stuck with me, and probably had a lot to do with my decision to become a journalist.
That lesson was simple, but it was to become the key gen of my editorial fiber: A free, pluralist media is essential for democracy and checks on power.
Quite simply, freedom of speech — and, more importantly, freedom after speech — is at the very core of open and free societies.
Last week, Turkish forces raided the Istanbul offices of that country’s largest independent newspaper, Zaman, and replaced its editorial staff with a gang of government thugs who are now in charge of overseeing its editorial content.
Defiant to the end, Zaman’s editors managed to print one last uncensored edition of the paper in which they proclaimed the expropriation of their journal as “one of the darkest days” in the history of the Turkish press.
More than 500 supporters of Zaman took to the streets in protest, but were soon dispersed by a deluge of tear gas and a strong police presence.
In accordance with a court ruling (and with a tacit blessing from the office of Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu), Zaman in currently officially under state control, with its former staff now facing charges of affiliation with the Hizmet movement, which Turkey alleges is a terrorist group aimed at overthrowing President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government.
Meanwhile, Davutoglu has issued a statement calling the expropriation of Zaman a “legal matter” that has nothing to do with politics.
“It is out of the question for either me or any of my colleagues to interfere in this process,” he stated in a recent television interview.
(Asked for comment on the matter, Turkish Ambassador to Mexico Mustafa Oguz Demiralp said he had nothing to say personally and referred The News to the public statements by Davutoglu.)
The seizure of Zaman is not the first incidence of a press crackdown under Davutoglu.
At last count, according to Reporters Without Borders, at least 30 Turkish journalists are behind bars for having peacefully exercised their right to freedom of expression.
So far, Europe and the United States have responded to the latest effort by Ankara to muzzle a free press with toothless admonishments and a battery of tsk-tsks.
But it is doubtful that the West will take any real action to pressure Davutoglu or his puppet master Erdoğan for their blatant abuse of power, given the fact that both Europe and the United States are now counting on Turkey to help them stem the tide of political immigrants from Syria and Iraq.
That only opens the door for more media suppression in Turkey.
The media most certainly has its faults, and un-vetted stories are, unfortunately, a growing reality in today’s electronic news industry.
But while irresponsible journalism can provoke national and even international security concerns, there is no basic human right more cherished — nor more essential to the cause of social equality and democratic values — than that of a free press.
While the immigrant crisis is understandably on the front burner of Turkish-Western relations, the simmering tensions of the restriction of freedom of expression in Turkey are slowly coming to a boiling point.
There are only two possible outcomes: a further clampdown on the media and the eventual demise of democracy in Turkey or a public revolt.
As my father taught me, there can be no real democracy without a free and plural press.
In the end, the strength of a nation depends on the quality of its access to information.
The silencing of any media — no matter how offensive or unbalanced its views or editorials — represents the end of freedom.
Thérèse Margolis can be contacted at [email protected].