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Sedat Ergin

Paper closing is proper in autocracies, not democracies

We know that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan cannot stand news that he doesn’t like. We have gotten used to his reactions of articulating angry announcements. The Prime Minister carried his anger so far last September that he called for a boycott of the Doğan Group newspapers including the daily Milliyet.

However, recently he increased the threshold in demonstrating his reaction to the press in a way we’ve never seen before. The Prime Minister wants media bosses to shut down papers that write false news. Last September, as newspapers of the Doğan Group wrote about the ongoing lawsuit in Germany regarding the Deniz Feneri corruption scandal, which was not false news, the prime minister directly pressed heavily on the group’s boss, Aydın Doğan.

Whereas Aydın Doğan himself learned about these news in the papers. This time the target is Mehmet Emin Karamehmet, owner of the daily Akşam. The reason for the prime minister’s anger is last Saturday’s headline in the daily Akşam.

Either you shut down
The paper’s top news read, "We cut back on natural gas, shifted to election coal" under the headline "Free Poison." The picture completing the headline showed the air pollution in the neighborhood of Nurtepe right next to Okmeydanı in Istanbul. The picture proves that heating stoves are used instead of natural gas. But the Prime Minister claims this picture is misleading because it has been taken in a neighborhood where no natural gas is allocated yet.

The most interesting aspect is his suggestion to Karamehmet, "Either you shut down your newspaper or you do not write false news É if the boss of the newspaper believes that way I’m here and I’m ready to go to that place where this picture has been taken É"

Editor in Chief of the daily Akşam, Ismail Küçükkaya, responded to the prime minister in writing, standing behind the news. He wrote that the neighborhood in the picture, opposite to what the prime minister says, is included in the natural gas allocation system. Küçükkaya also gave the address of the house with the smoke arising from its chimney in the picture. I subscribe to my colleague’s explanation.

The real issue is not whether the paper’s news comes out right or not. The news may be false. The issue is here is the prime minister when talking about information he thought was false using a reprehending mood toward the press. In his request for "closing the paper" there are many problematic aspects regarding the prime minister’s understanding of democracy and freedom of press and expression.

The first problem being his suggestion of closing of a paper as a "sanction." I think for the first time in my more than 30 years of professional life as a journalist I have witnessed a prime minister suggesting such a method. In the West, politicians would not even joke about it. Before, when accreditations of some of my colleagues at the Prime Ministry were canceled, I wrote that this method evoked a more military procedure.

During that period, I used to work as a reporter at the daily Cumhuriyet and personally lived through the despot of closing a newspaper. But it was closed by the military regime. It was painful for me to hear words from the mouth of an elected prime minister. You should be certain that a prime minister who talks about closing of newspapers will use all means available to him without any hesitation to create pressure and silence the papers that he is not content with. This is exactly what is being done to the Doğan Group today É

Besides, there is no need for the prime minister to issue instructions in this matter as his bureaucracy would always tend to interpret his public statements as signals for a set of directives.

The West considers him an autocrat

One more thing that’s fatal is the oppressive atmosphere created by the prime minister who keeps repeating his threats targeting the press. How possible is it for the journalists to feel free in the light of inhaling this atmosphere air and experiencing pressure upon themselves.

Democracy is not a regime that feeds on such pressure, threats and reprimands.

Such regimes are called autocracy, not democracy. This characterization is not made by me; most respected publishing organs in the West have started to characterize Prime Minister Erdoğan this wayÉ for example the Economist É Redhouse Dictionary, explains an autocrat as "absolute domination of a monarch, despotism É"

Recently, The Economist has also used the word "truculent" to describe Erdoğan. The same dictionary explains this word as "brusque, cold-hearted, cruel, barbarian, heartless É"

Of course there is one more thing unclear. The prime minister talks about closing the paper if the information is false. But what sanction is imposed on Erdoğan when the information is correct, on which the paper insists.

As you know, in the culture of inviting for a duel in the West all risks are equal.

We will not suggest the closing of his office. It is sure enough if he doesn’t talk about closing newspapers.

That’s where we are at right now É

Sedat Ergin is editor-in-chief of the daily Milliyet, in which this piece appeared on Tuesday. It was translated into English by the Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review’s staff.