“When no one dared tell the truth, one small child burst out, ‘The King is naked!’ Subsequently, the public plucked up the courage to laugh.” Hans Christian Andersen’s tale “The Emperor’s New Clothes” is known around the world. A similar narrative is being played out in Turkey, with one twist. While there are a few journalists who are able to declare that “the King is naked,” no one wants to hear from them. Imagine a country where, if there were a referendum on the fact of whether the country’s economic crisis has seen the currency fall by 50 percent, the result would be “no”. It’s not because a majority doesn’t believe it to be true, but because President Erdoğan’s party says it isn’t true. It’s because newspapers on the stands and TV channels have forged this perception. In the past few years, the divide between reality and perception has widened in Turkey, because the press is not free and the ruling party is exploiting it as a vehicle for propaganda.
It is critical not to overlook the relationship between a free press and the dollar. Every piece of news that reports on the misdeeds of the ruling party at the expense of public interest, that highlights the ruling party’s weaknesses, or that criticizes politicians currently in office is smeared as a lie. This includes economic news. The most popular method of refuting criticism is to label it a “betrayal of the fatherland” or to claim it comes from “foreign powers”. This is exactly what happened with the currency crisis. Those who reported on the crisis were labeled traitors, and the inflation was alleged to be orchestrated by those who were jealous of Turkey.
While the Turkish lira was dropping to record lows every day for two weeks in a row, we at Cumhuriyet were working very late into the night. When the exchange rate dropped to 1 USD for 7.24 TL, the Turkish lira had already suffered 48 percent of its annual loss. Aside from a few exceptions, there was not a single headline about this development on the front pages of Turkey’s mainstream media. Under the direction of Vahap Munyar, a former economics editor who later became the chief editor of Hürriyet, Turkey’s most popular newspaper, there was exactly one article about how the Turkish Central Bank was responding exactly as it should to the exchange rate shift. But why was the exchange rate rising? That crucial question simply wasn’t in the news.
As companies declared bankruptcy daily due to the soaring exchange rate, President Erdoğan offered the same explanation every time: There is no crisis. In fact, however, one of the most significant reasons for the crisis was the appointment of Erdoğan’s son-in-law, Berat Albayrak, to the Ministry of Finance and the Treasury. This did not reassure the market. Rather, it cast a shadow of doubt over the independence of Turkey’s public institutions.
Albayrak is also known for the lawsuits he has launched against journalists. Our reporting with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) on the Paradise Papers was published in November 2017, revealing that Albayrak’s older brother, Serhat Albayrak, was the director of a company in Malta. This company was tied to a company in Turkey called Çalık Holding, whose director was Berat Albayrak. No one refuted this. But a libel lawsuit was filed in response. The demand: up to four years in prison.
Albayrak was not the only politician who has sought legal action against the Paradise Papers reporting. Indeed, there was one other Turkish name among the 120 politicians identified in the leaks: former Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım. Yıldırım’s sons owned five companies in Malta. The former prime minister even admitted that his sons did business there, saying: “They are engaged in global business there. Any kind of investigation [into the legality] can be taken.”
Of course, no such investigation was launched. Quite to the contrary: Yıldırım’s legal team immediately filed suit against Cumhuriyet, claiming 50,000TL in damages. On top of this, a criminal complaint was also filed against me. The former prime minister and his lawyers have a requested a jail sentence of two years and four months for the “defamation of civil servants”. They even took legal action against newspapers who re-published Cumhuriyet’s original reporting on the Paradise Papers. For example, Yıldırım was awarded 10,000TL in damages over a political cartoon of him drawn by cartoonist Sefer Selvi and published in the newspaper Evrensel. The latter has also been targeted in a lawsuit over its critical reporting on Berat Albayrak’s handling of economic politics. Prior to this, six journalists who published leaked emails from Albayrak were arrested for several months.
The fallout from the Paradise Papers reporting in Turkey shows that it is nearly impossible for journalists in Turkey to report on state officials without being entangled in a lawsuit or receiving a criminal punishment.
The wider context is even more troubling. A large operation has been undertaken to silence Cumhuriyet. Seventeen of our colleagues were put on trial, 12 of whom were held in detention for over a year. If the sentences are upheld by the upper court, many of those journalists will be imprisoned again.* At the same time, several of the individuals who testified against Cumhuriyet’s journalists in court have been placed on the executive board of the Cumhuriyet Foundation after an internal election last year. This is how the operation to rein in Cumhuriyet as a mild form of opposition to the government’s line was carried out.
First [since the foundation election] the newspaper’s reputation for neutral reporting on human rights was discredited, and then the new editorial line openly opined that reporting on Kurdish issues was not welcome. One line from the anonymous petition that was delivered to President Erdoğan’s office targeting those indicted in the criminal case and requested the re-run of Cumhuriyet Foundation’s executive board elections is very telling: “It’s one thing for a newspaper to engage in opposition, but it’s another thing for a newspaper to commit treason.” According to the petition, a re-run of the newspaper’s foundation elections would readily cleanse it of these traitors.
But there is one thing being underestimated here. Reporting does not happen in one building or under the roof of any single establishment. The 30+ reporters who have left the newspaper, or were forced to leave it, are continuing to do their work. I believe that one day the voices of those reporters who are determined to never give up will be heard. Everyone will then see that the King is indeed stark naked.
* The sentences against the journalists in the Cumhuriyet case have since been upheld. You can read more about this decision here.