The News
Wednesday 24 of April 2024

Learning to Live Without Freedom

Turkey's President Tayyip Erdoğan arrives for the NATO Summit in Warsaw, Poland,photo: Reuters/Kacper Pempel
Turkey's President Tayyip Erdoğan arrives for the NATO Summit in Warsaw, Poland,photo: Reuters/Kacper Pempel
After July's failed coup, those who openly criticise Erdoğan are likely to pay the price

“A sub . . . what?” I asked. My doctor described my ailment during a visit to her in early August.

“It’s called a subacute thyroiditis. Means your thyroid is infected and that’s why you have fever. We think it is viral. But seeing how many people are showing up with this lately, I can only imagine it has something to do with what is happening in the country.”

Great. On top of ruining my television career, inhibiting my journalism and cannibalizing all my mental space, Turkey’s repression was now destroying my body too.

As if a full-blown insurgency in the Kurdish areas and a string of Islamic State bombings in Istanbul this year were not enough, we survived a horrifying military coup on the night of July 15 — complete with with low-flying F16’s, sonic bombs, gunfire and incessant calls from minarets to resist the uprising echoing in our small apartment on the Bosphorus.

A few weeks and many sleepless nights after the failed coup, I was a complete wreck. Anxious. Sleepless. I suffered from fever and aches.

“You need to learn stress management,” a friend in alternative medicine advised me. She said thyroid illnesses were all about “not being able to speak your mind.”

Ha. Try speaking your mind as a journalist in Turkey these days.

When I travel abroad, people often ask me how I manage to survive as a writer in Turkey — whether or not I am at risk for persecution. What I cannot openly admit is that I survive by biting my tongue.

One of the things that happens to people living under authoritarian systems is the gradual — and the learned — numbing of all senses. Back in 2011, when several opposition journalists were arrested on trumped-up charges, I was writing in protest, tweeting in anger and taking part in demonstrations for free speech. Since then, my television show has been forced off the air. My newspaper publisher decided to end my column that had been running for seven years; he admitted that he feared offending the Turkish president. Another high-profile job offer was rescinded after the ruling AKP party secured an electoral victory last November. “Sorry,” said the editor who would have been my boss. “Am sure you will understand.”

The post-coup period is turning into a nightmare in Turkey. The failed putsch has unleashed an unseen level of authoritarianism in Turkey, with a massive crackdown on dissent and free speech. The government has imposed a state-of-emergency law, which means the parliament is bypassed, the country is run by decrees and pretrial detentions now can last up to 30 days. More than 100 journalists — mostly affiliated with publications sympathetic to the Kurds or to the Gülen movement, which the government holds responsible for the coup — are in jail. Turkey has put in more requests to Twitter to block content than any other country — according to Twitter’s own transparency reports, the government as made 2,493 requests for nearly 15,000 accounts. The airwaves and the pages of mainstream newspapers were already sanitized as most media publishers are either cronies of the AKP or know better than to engage in hard-hitting criticism of any kind. Libel laws and anti-terror laws are actively being used to suppress critical voices.

Over the past year, I find myself intuitively developing a set of survival techniques to be able continue writing in Turkey. For example, the Turkish president and his family are off limits — I never write directly about him. I may refer to a statement he made, criticize “Ankara” or “a government decision.” But the subject is never you-know-who. I do not touch the topic of corruption. Ever. Where possible, I opt for a foreign policy subject, as opposed to the domestic situation in Turkey. I do not mingle with Gülenists or appear on their television shows. This is easier since they are all shut down. I tweet judiciously. I hardly go to demonstrations — even for free speech.

It is painfully shameful to admit all this — but if you ask me, that’s how I manage.

Since the coup attempt, several outspoken journalists have fled the country or ended up in jail — including several people I know. Internet censorship has grown; independent voices have fewer and fewer outlets in which to write. Free speech is effectively dead.

There are endless ways to justify faint-heartedness in repressive times like this. The other day, about a dozen independent, pro-Kurdish television stations were shut down. The property of these networks was transferred to the state television. A few years ago, I would have been the first to rush over in solidarity. But this time, I found myself thinking, “What is the point? Nothing will change.”

I admired the courage of the few hundred who went to protest the shutdowns in Istanbul. They are young, idealistic and brave.

But I felt too exhausted and too hopeless to join them. I do have a thyroid infection, after all.