ABOUT 150 journalists have been thrown in jail, and about 170 media organizations closed down. University professors are being marched in chains to prison. The government fired more than 3,000 members of the judiciary, and thousands more civil servants have been ejected from their jobs. Smartphone users are being arrested for using an encrypted app. Sound like a purge in China or Russia? Think again. This is Turkey, a NATO member that a decade ago was regarded as a model Muslim democracy. Now, under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, it has become one of the most repressive regimes in the world.
Since a July 15 failed coup attempt, Mr. Erdogan has launched waves of purges, claiming that the self-exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen, who lives in Pennsylvania, was behind the overthrow effort, and accusing thousands of people of subversion and belonging to terrorist organizations. As the State Department noted in its 2016 human rights report, many were detained “with little clarity on the charges and evidence against them.” The purges are accelerating as Turkey nears an April referendum on whether to give Mr. Erdogan new powers. Meanwhile, a flood of educated bureaucrats, academics and businesspeople are desperately trying to flee Turkey to Greece or Georgia.
Recently, the authorities arrested a Turkish-German newspaper correspondent, Deniz Yucel, who writes for Die Welt, on charges of “disseminating the propaganda of a terrorist organization” and “inciting people to hatred and enmity.” His real offense may be that he published articles about the hacking of private emails of Turkey’s energy minister, the son-in-law of Mr. Erdogan. German Chancellor Angela Merkel condemned the arrest as “bitter and disappointing.” Mr. Erdogan would hear none of it, declaring the journalist a “German agent” and a terrorist.
Mr. Erdogan’s pursuit of expanded power in the referendum has also stirred incendiary arguments between Turkey and both Germany and the Netherlands after Turkish ministers were prevented from addressing expatriate Turks in those nations. When two municipalities in Germany canceled campaign events, Mr. Erdogan declared it was “not different from Nazi practices.” Ms. Merkel rightly replied that such language “can’t be justified.” Ms. Merkel walks a tightrope at home over the delicate issue of refugees from the Middle East. Turkey is restraining the tide and is a major trading partner with Germany. But faced with Mr. Erdogan’s repression, the German chancellor is proving to be a welcome voice of conscience, filling a vacuum left by the United States.
Since President Trump took office, the State Department has been largely silent about Turkey’s downward spiral. While the 2016 human rights report was filled with detail about the crackdowns, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson didn’t attend the March 3 release of the report. Mr. Tillerson has asserted that he cares about protecting human rights abroad, but what will he do about it?