Mustafa Akyol, who is one of the more insightful Turkish columnists and has been very harsh on the press crackdown under Erdoğan, thinks that the worst might be over for Turkish journalists now that Ahmet Şık and Nedim Şener have been released from prison. This column comes on the heels of a long Dexter Filkins piece examining the growing quashing of opposition under Erdoğan, which is certainly not a new phenomenon to anyone who has followed Turkish politics over the last decade. I think that Akyol might be jumping the gun just a bit in the glow of Şık and Şener’s reprieves – the bottom line is that the dynamics that have led Erdoğan to become more heavy-handed in his attempts to ensure that the AKP becomes Turkey’s permanent ruling party have not changed. Turkey’s burgeoning economic growth and building conviction that it doesn’t need to join the EU are still in play, as is Erdoğan’s personal popularity and dominant position atop the Turkish political firmament. It also still remains true that Erdoğan’s instincts tend toward the authoritarian side and that he does not react well to challenges.
There is a great word in Turkish – kabadayı – that is used to describe Erdoğan and that captures well the divide between his supporters and opponents. A kabadayı was historically the neighborhood tough or small time gangster, and it carries a negative connotation of being a bully but also a positive connotation as someone who stands up for his own people and those under his protection. To Erdoğan’s fans, he is a kabadayı in the sense of unapologetically fighting for Turkey on the world stage and restoring Turkish honor and prestige. To his detractors, he is simply a bully who pushes people around and brings the power of the state down on his political opponents.
While it is a positive sign that four journalists out of the over one hundred in jail have been released, Şık and Şener were prominent high profile cases, and lots of domestic and international pressure had been brought to bear on the government to release them. I hope that Akyol is right and that this indeed heralds the end to a sorry era for press freedoms in Turkey, but I fear that this is just a momentary blip that is ultimately not going to mean very much in the larger scheme of things.