Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s ruler for 15 years, has established himself as Turkey’s most consequential leader since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the republic’s founder. But while Ataturk’s legacy was to orient Turkey toward the West and lay a foundation upon which successors could cultivate democracy, religious tolerance and a reasonably free press, Erdogan seeks the opposite: He has placed Turkey firmly in the Islamic bloc and increasingly prefers Russia over NATO. He fans the flames of religious incitement not only against Jews and Christians, but also against Muslims who reject his more conservative views.
It is time for the United States and its allies to show Erdogan that his crackdown, at home and abroad, comes at a cost. The West can start by using some of the same mechanisms it has applied to bad behavior from Russia — in particular, the 2012 Magnitsky Act, which imposed sanctions on individuals who could be shown to have committed serious violations of human rights.
We would be well-advised to start by looking at the president’s treatment of the press. Eviscerating free speech and press freedom have been central to Erdogan’s strategy. If the opposition has no platform, then Erdogan need not win arguments — he can simply impose them and eschew accountability for his policies. The warning signs were there from the start: In 2005, after Musa Kart, an editorial cartoonist for Cumhuriyet, lampooned Erdogan as a cat entangled in yarn, Erdogan successfully sued Kart for $3,500. When Kart again lampooned the president, he ended up in prison.
He was not alone. In 2012, Reporters Without Borders called Turkey “the world’s biggest prison for journalists.” Today, more than 70 Turkish journalists languish in prison. (Turkey has also targeted foreigners. In my case, it demanded Twitter close my account, issued a reward for my arrest and demanded an Interpol “red notice” against me, all because Erdogan dislikes my writing.)
Erdogan turned his fire not only upon reporters but also upon their editors and employers. After the newspaper Cumhuriyet published photographs showing Turkish trucks supplying weaponry to Islamist Syrian rebels, a Turkish court convicted its editor Can Dundar of “leaking secret information of the state.” Early in his tenure, Erdogan staffed Turkey’s tax and banking boards with political loyalists and used them to wield punishing tax bills against companies whose papers and television stations criticized him. In 2009, for example, he fined the Dogan Group, Turkey’s largest media company, $500 million after its various newspapers and television stations criticized his policies. The company appealed the fine and maintained its independent line — until it was hit, several months later, by a separate $2.5 billion penalty.
Dogan is now in the process of being sold off to a pro-government conglomerate. It will be just Erdogan’s latest media scalp. In 2007, Erdogan’s government seized Sabah-ATV, which included several newspapers, a TV station and a radio station. Multiple buyers expressed interest in bidding for the company, but with mafia-like persuasion, Erdogan persuaded all to drop out, allowing his son-in-law to grab the media group at a bargain basement price. In 2016, the high-circulation Zaman newspaper suffered a similar fate and was simply shut down.
The press-freedom chill in Turkey is no secret. Over the course of Erdogan’s rule, Turkey’s rank in Reporters Without Borders’ press freedom index fell from 115 to 155, putting it below even Russia, Pakistan and Burma. Freedom House now ranks Turkey “not free.”
What happens in Turkey does not stay in Turkey, however. Erdogan’s declaration that he seeks “to raise a religious generation” means in practice a promotion of radicalism rather than religiosity. In terms of incitement and export of radical preachers, Turkey is quickly becoming today what Saudi Arabia was in the 1980s. Erdogan’s regime has supported Hamas, Sudan’s genocidal regime and even al-Qaeda associates. Emails said to be from Erdogan’s own son-in-law have shown a willingness to profit off Islamic State oil. The press crackdown, however, has left many Turks blind to their leadership’s behavior.
If the State Department and Congress wanted, however, they could stand up for the free press and impose a cost on its repression. Just as the 2012 Magnitsky Act sanctioned human rights violators in Russia, the U.S. government could impose Magnitsky penalties not only on those who target free speech but also on those who profit from its suppression.
Turks reacted with shock when, in October 2017, the United States temporarily suspended issuing some visas to punish Turkey’s arrest of a consular employee. To ban visas for those who profit from Erdogan’s media seizures could be equally effective. Anyone who takes over a seized paper or replaces a journalist fired for independence should pay a price. So, too, should Erdogan press appointees who have — as is common knowledge among Turkish journalists — compromised professional ethics for the sake of multimillion-dollar payouts or posh homes along the Bosporus. Such actions won’t restore press freedom, but they will signal that profiting off its repression comes with a cost. It’s time to stand up for Turkey’s independent journalists, an endangered species, before they truly become extinct.