Exiled Turkish journalist shares experiences of Erdogan’s rise and the importance of press freedom

21st October 2019

By Steven Krolak

(NEW ALBANY, Ind.)–Abdulhamit Bilici, a leading Turkish journalist now living in exile in the U.S., visited IU Southeast last week, giving students and the community a rare insight into events in his homeland, at a time of heightened relevance and interest for Americans.

Bilici spoke to international studies students in an Introduction to International Studies class, spoke to a public gathering, then took part in a taping of the International Power Hour on Horizon Radio alongside host Dr. Jean Abshire, associate professor of political science and international studies.

He was in the area as a guest of the American-Turkish Friendship Association of Kentucky, in connection with the Veritas program at Bellarmine University.

Bilici was the editor-in-chief of Zaman, the largest newspaper in Istanbul, Turkey, beginning in 2005. Zaman featured articles that cut across ideological divisions and showed Turkey as a progressive bridge between East and West, between the Muslim and non-Muslim worlds. It also cast a critical eye on the increasingly autocratic style of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, now Turkey’s president, who became a full-fledged populist dictator around 2013.

In 2016, amid a crackdown on free media, police raided the offices of Zaman and evicted Bilici and his staff. Within hours, propagandists had transformed the paper from an independent voice of freedom to a bullhorn for the Erdogan regime. Bilici fled Turkey and is now living in Washington, D.C., where he pieces together an income as an Uber driver.

Turkish journalist Abdulhamit Bilici emphasizes the importance of press freedom to international studies students.

Now that Turkey has invaded Syria after the sudden and controversial withdrawal of American forces working alongside Kurdish fighters to defeat the Islamic State, Erdogan and his ambitions are back in the spotlight in the U.S.

Those ambitions hit Bilici directly, and he was on campus to share his story, and the questions it raises about journalism and democracy.

For over half a century, the Turkish Republic has been a western-oriented nation, and is now a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the European Council, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), among others. It has also been petitioning to become a member of the European Union (EU) by working to align its political, legal and governance structures with EU democratic norms.

All of that was driven by governing elites with the ambition to modernize, according to Bilici. Initially, Erdogan fit this mold, and became popular around the world as a progressive Muslim leading an enlightened society. In retrospect, says Bilici, he was biding his time, amplifying divisions among diverse social and political groups while consolidating his own authority.

“The former authoritarianism was elitist, secular, modernist, westernist, and was supported by military, not by the majority of the Turkish population,” Bilici said. “Today’s authoritarianism is not secular, not elitist, and it uses religion—Islam—as legitimizer to gain the support of the majority of the people.”

Bilici sees the media and judiciary as the most important checks on the power of autocrats like Erdogan. Not surprisingly they are usually the first institutions to be attacked.

“They attack the media because the media has the power to tell them the truth,” Bilici said. “They need to first discredit it in the eyes of the public, then eliminate it, then establish own version of media as a propaganda tool.”

But these checks must be understood and maintained, not assumed to be effective without human agency. In the case of Turkey, whose population had confidence in their institutions, they were still successfully deconstructed by incremental encroachments.

“At first it seemed to be like a snow in the summer, which you don’t take that seriously because you know that tomorrow will be sunny and the snow will go away,” Bilici said. “But it turns out that this is a kind of winter for Turkey, because it has lasted for many years, and destroyed a lot of democratic structures.”

Bilici admits to being pessimistic about the future of Turkey, but does have some hope. It springs from the knowledge that democratic aspirations and habits are old and enduring. This was demonstrated during recent local elections when Erdogan’s ruling party lost in Istanbul and Ankara, the nation’s largest city and its capital, respectively, despite controlling 95 percent of the media and having jailed thousands of academics, journalists and opposition leaders.

For Bilici, the key to preserving democracy is to recognize the threats to it when they first manifest themselves.

“When a leader attacks media, regardless of whether it is left or right, you should be alarmed,” Bilici said. “Media freedom is your freedom.”

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