Erdogan's Khashoggi Moment is Obfuscating Turkey's War Against Journalists

Published October 23rd, 2018 - 12:42 GMT
Detainees from the military look upon Erdogan after the failed coup of 2016 (Rami Khoury/Al Bawaba via Stockholm Center for Freedom)
Detainees from the military look upon Erdogan after the failed coup of 2016 (Rami Khoury/Al Bawaba via Stockholm Center for Freedom)


By Ty Joplin


While Turkey’s President Recep Erdogan stands on the world stage and shared details of Jamal Khashoggi’s gruesome murder, hundreds of dissident journalists are languishing in his prisons, far removed from the world and subject to beatings and psychological abuse.

Khashoggi’s death represents a kind of morbid opportunity for Erdogan to reposition Turkey more favorably with the West. By successfully posturing himself as Khashoggi’s Champion, he gains the easy appeal and mandate of being a defender of free speech, which in turn gives him the ability to continue trampling on his own country’s journalists with impunity.


Erdogan’s Jailing of Journalists

Erdogan speaks to a crowd of supporter following the failed coup in 2016 (AFP/FILE)

“Turkey is the world leader in jailing journalists, with around 170 reporters and media workers currently behind bars,” Emma Sinclair-Webb, the Turkey director at Human Rights Watch, told Al Bawaba.

“The government prosecutes journalists for criticism of state policies or the president and has made sure that many newspapers and TV news channels have been silenced or have adopted an editorial line favorable to the authorities,” she added.

Turkey has consistently been rated by human rights organizations and government watchdogs as the most prolific jailer of dissident journalists. In 2016, the same year elements of Turkey’s military tried and failed to overthrow Erdogan in a coup, Turkey jailed 259 journalists. In so doing, the country broke the record for most journalists thrown in jails since 1990 according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Erdogan shuttered over 100 news outlets he deemed subversive.The year after, 2017, Erdogan jailed 262 journalists, breaking his own record.



Journalists and activists Erdogan deems threatening are subject to physical and psychological torture for extended periods of time.

After the failed coup in July 2016, Erdogan purged thousands of civil servants from Turkey’s government and began jailing journalists and activists en masse. The Stockholm Center for Freedom (SCF) investigated their treatment in Turkey’s detention centers and found torture routinely used as a tool to break their detainees.


Semi-naked detainees held in a room following the failed coup attempt (Stockholm Center for Freedom)

One detainee shared his account of being taken and raped with a police baton:

“I want my mother to be taken out… I will tell you everything… I was tortured and oppressed at Kırıkkale Police Department… I was blindfolded at all times and I was unable to see the police officers who tortured me… They took me to the bathroom and stripped me entirely naked… They raped me with a truncheon…”

Among those arrested was journalist Ayşenur Parıldak, who was beaten and sexually abused by drunk guards:

“I was subjected to violence and sexual abuse. I was interrogated day and night for eight days. They [police officers] were questioning me while they were under the influence of alcohol and did not deny this,” she told SCF.

“I am afraid of being forgotten here.”



Amnesty International conducted its own independent investigation into the treatment of political prisoners in Turkey. They found that police in Ankara and Istanbul routinely held detainees in ‘stress positions’ for up to two days, all the while refusing them food, water or medical treatment of any kind.

In the wake of the media purges led by Erdogan, six journalists were sentenced to life in jail without parole or the possibility of future amnesty. Nazli Ilicak, Ahmet Altan, Mehmet Altan, Fevzi Yazici, Yakup Simsek and Sukru Tugrul Ozsengul were taken in on charges of  “attempting to overthrow the constitutional order,” thanks to their alleged role in the coup. Their sentence allows them to be held in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day. On Oct 2, Istanbul's 2nd Appeal Court upheld the decision, rejecting the journalists’ appeal.

The judicial process, intended to be a check on Erdogan’s repressive power, has become an auxiliary force on his behalf.


Khashoggi’s Death and Erdogan’s Moment


Khashoggi’s death in Istanbul gives Erdogan an opening to re-normalize relations with the U.S. without seeming like he is conceding in his ongoing dispute with Trump’s White House.

Erdogan has been positioning himself as a Neo-Ottoman sultan of sorts as he vies for regional power. In reforming Turkey’s domestic and foreign policy around himself and an Islamist platform, he has steadily shifted Turkey from being a platform for U.S. and NATO interests to one opposed to the U.S. He has entered a more serious working relationship with Russia, buying its S-400 missile defense systems and working with Putin on Syria, and has responded to Trump’s sanctions on his country with boycotts of his own.

Domestically, Erdogan is a fragile ruler. He is simultaneously heralded as a visionary for Turkey and one may be steadily ruining its economy that is predicted to enter a recession in 2019, thanks in part to spiraling inflation, debt and a trade war with the U.S. he has stoked.

In response to Erdogan’s jailing of a U.S. pastor he alleges was involved in the coup, Trump slapped Turkey with multi-billion dollar tariffs on steel and aluminum and sanctions on some of Turkey’s high-level ministers. On Oct 12, when the murder of Khashoggi was dominating headlines, Erdogan quietly released the U.S. pastor.

Erdogan’s decision to release the pastor likely comes as part of a larger effort to ease tensions with the U.S.



He has also begun working with a U.S. investigative team that includes the head of the CIA, Gina Haspel. Collaborating with the U.S. to help solve the mystery of Khashoggi’s murder and releasing a U.S. citizen signals to Washington that Erdogan is looking to renegotiate the terms of their relationship to one that is more positive, all the while appearing strong against Saudi Arabia, a state Turkey is increasingly in tension against.

Any and all revelations that help solve what happened to Khashoggi is invaluable and unquestionably a success for transparency, human rights and press freedom. The work of Turkey’s intelligence officials has been invaluable in this endeavor, and helps to reveal that Saudi Arabia is also one of the most oppressive regimes on the planet when it comes to freedom of speech.

Saudi has, for years, jailed, tortured and killed dissidents with impunity.

But in the extensive coverage of Erdogan as anti-Saudi leader ready to speak up against the ill treatment of journalists, his actual record on press freedom gets buried, making it more difficult to seek justice for his victims and accountability for the perpetrators.

The emerging victor of the Khashoggi affair then is Erdogan, who can look tough against his adversaries in Turkey while touting himself as a staunch defender of human rights to the international community, even as he continues to crack down on journalists questioning his grip on power.

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