Working as a Middle East correspondent can be hazardous to your health. Freelance journalist Austin Tice is approaching the six year mark since his kidnapping in Syria. Reporter Marie Colvin was tracked and targeted for lethal attack by the Assad regime.
Things have certainly gotten hairier for foreign reporters, but even more so for local journalists as regional tensions rise, alliances become fluid, nationalism grows, and refugee populations are on the move.
It’s not just Syria and Iraq, either. While the Trump administration weighs how further to respond to Damascus’s latest chemical weapons attack, the whole neighborhood is in flux and rules are being actively rewritten. Slowly, surely, countries once considered welcoming and safe are turning more menacing for both citizens and strangers. Turkey is the latest to flip.
Not long ago, while reporting on the refugee crisis on the island of Lesbos in Greece, I sat at a modest seaside fish tavern and looked across the water at nearby Turkey, wondering whether I would go to jail if I stepped foot on Turkish territory. It was a week when journalists from the Turkish opposition newspaper Cumhuriyet were on trial in a country that has imprisoned more journalists than anywhere else on earth.
Since a failed 2016 coup attempt, some journalists have been labeled terrorists, gone to jail, and become jobless for no obvious reason. Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s dictatorial rule has used a state of emergency and a no-critic law to lock up over 50,000 people, rebuild Turkey’s military with loyalists, and purge 150,000 employees from schools and the civil service. Erdogan has also given free rein to Islamists and bolstered the enemies of his sworn personal adversary, the Pennsylvania-residing Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen, accused by Erdogan of orchestrating the unsuccessful 2016 overthrow.
Turkish journalists now unemployed or jailed are guilty of truth-telling about their regime. As an American, I have not felt compelled to moderate my speech or make it fit Ankara’s politics. Instead, I have over the years called Erdogan what he really is — an unreliable American ally and an unsavory and corrupt authoritarian living lavishly in his 1,000 room Ankara palace as he plots to lead a new 21st century Caliphate while playing nice with anti-Nato countries Russia and Iran. A Turk saying these things would be in trouble. Big time.
While safely reporting in Greece, I stared across the sea at the familiar Turkish coast and daydreamed about Hammam baths and visiting Istanbul friends. I wished to meander through Hagia Sofia’s splendor and entertained nostalgic thoughts that the nearby country I saw was the same progressive, modern Turkey of a few years back — a Turkey that once had a female prime minister and a nation that outlawed the death penalty so it could unify with the Europe Union.
I recalled a time when Israel and Turkey were closely allied and the ruling Turkish political party’s closest ideological organization was not the Muslim Brotherhood. It’s hard to believe today that Ankara once pursued peace negotiations with Turkey’s Kurdish minority. For years, this was the Turkey the United States was betting on. It is not the Turkey we got.
The Turkey we wanted was a tolerant, Western-looking, dynamic nation — the model of a secularized, democratic, Muslim-majority state that would lead the Middle East towards modern reforms, with a healthy press helping guide and chronicle a growingly multicultural, multi-ethnic future.
Turkey’s historic tolerance for religious minorities made it possible for Spanish Jews to find refuge there in 1492. Modern Turkey’s 20th century founder Kemal Atatürk firmly placed the country on a Western modernization path, symbolically shunning the Pasha’s dress to adopt the topcoat and creating a state that codified constitutional secularism, establishing a clear mosque-state separation. Along the way, there were serious abuses, mistakes, horrific human rights violations, the Armenian genocide. Despite being on the wrong side of history during both World Wars, Turkey entered the 21st century as an imperfectly evolving modern state on a solid, steady path towards something better, greater and more democratic.
All that is now gone. That Turkey is a distant memory. Even worse, as the Trump administration devalued America’s concern for human rights, Erdogan increasingly and blatantly disregarded the rights of journalists and all citizens.
Teachers, business owners, reporters, students, and all Turks feel less secure in their opinions or daily jobs today. They can be carted away at a moment's notice as Turkey is a country now ruled by men, not laws. The legal system justifies and reinforces the power structure and supports the all-powerful Turkish president.
Now Erdogan has slowly exported his ruthlessness, as witnessed last year when his security henchmen beat American protesters in Washington, D.C. Erdogan’s legal reach extended abroad to Germany, where he sued a German comedian for reading an on-air poem ridiculing him. His military arm regularly stretches across Greek, Syrian, and Iraqi borders, challenging those nations’ sovereignties and asserting national security claims. Can it be long before Erdogan takes a page from Putin’s playbook to punish his detractors, wherever they might be? Journalists beware.