Turkey’s ruling block Justice and Development Party (AKP) and Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) has long been using diversion tactics to divert and control public discussion to topics that would serve their political agenda; however, the latest defamation campaigns, arrest of journalists and threats indicate something more hazardous that pose a threat to freedom of expression, gender equality and social peace.
Within a week in Turkey, three women were at the center of public discussion: a prominent journalist- anchorwomen Sedef Kabaş was arrested, a renowned artist and Turkey’s pop icon Sezen Aksu and singer Gülşen Bayraktar, a.k.a. Gülşen were targeted and threatened. They were targeted by conservative and pro-government groups, which have resulted in an arrest, social media lynch and threats by politicians.
Threat, arrest, attack
Journalist Kabaş was taken into custody from her home with a midnight raid at 2 AM on Jan. 22. She was arrested on the same day over “insulting the president” for her comments in her news show on Tele1 TV.
While she was in custody, Minister of Justice Abdulhamit Gül posted on his official Twitter account: “I curse the ugly, shameless words that target our President, who was elected by the votes of our nation. These impudent and unlawful expressions stemming from envy and hatred would find the response they deserved in the conscience of the nation and in front of justice.”
He was not the only politician. Pro-government news outlets and social media accounts targeted her before the pre-trial imprisonment order, asking for her arrest.
A day before, on Jan. 21, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan threatened a pop icon of Turkey, Sezen Aksu, for a sentence in one of her songs “Şahane Bir Şey Yaşamak” that was published five years ago.
An Ankara Mosque Imam, Halil Konakçı, accused her of insulting the religious figures by using Adam and Eve in her song and triggered a social media frenzy that turned into a crusade of conservative groups. Lawyers filed complaints; politicians gave statements one after the other. The song hasn’t raised any concerns for five years before the Imam Konakçı, who has been outspoken about his anti-republic and return to caliphate outlook, brought it to the public attention with a hate speech.
The diversion strategy backfires
Erdoğan then hit the last straw in his speech at a mosque after a Friday prayer.
“Nobody can desanctify His Holines Adem (Prophet Adam). It is our role to cut those tongues which talk against our saints,” he said, targeting the most famous singer of Turkey.
On that week, singer Gülşen’s transparent stage costume was an issue for every kind of supporter of male superiority after another singer brought the subject to the public attention. Almost every magazine column, social media account, public-private news outlet discussed the level of transparency of her outfit.
She gave a dashing response to the comments:
“More than being a father’s daughter, a man’s wife, a child’s mother, I am a person with a mind and ability to think and free will. I am not a slave to any adjective. I don’t belong to anyone. I am myself. I belong to myself,” she wrote on her Instagram account, becoming a hit, shared by millions.
Aksu wrote a poem that read, “you cannot oppress my tongue, you cannot kill me.” It is translated into dozens of foreign languages, shared by millions; her song listened by millions.
Kabaş’s words would not make a headline if Erdoğan supporters did not launch a social media campaign under “know your place” hashtags. Now, millions know her words after her arrest. And the same millions saw that Gülşen is not “just a pop star.”
Much bigger, more serious problem
Yes, indeed, the ruling alliance do not want people to talk about the economic crisis or any other subject that does not serve them. To ensure that, they want to use their most potent weapon of diversion: “belief and religion,” and to drag the opposition into this discussion.
There is something hazardous here beyond just a misdirection, diversion of news and public discussion.
According to journalist Nevşin Mengü’s information after Erdoğan targeted Aksu in his Friday speech, Presidential press advisors approached journalists and “advised” them not to publish the President’s words.
It is not a coincidence that the press advisors wished to censor the words of President Erdoğan, but the speech recoded by the mobile phones was posted online and then went viral. In this digital age, it’s up to a certain point that one can suppress news by pressuring journalists.
After all, Islam is not under the monopoly of the AKP. Some religious people are discontent with the use of religion in politics to this extent. There can be people from all political views in the mosque community. What we are experiencing here is, yes, a diversion, but also a problem of freedom of expression.
Zealots are instrumentalized to keep the religious base
The ruling bloc has nothing left to convert into votes. Just a few weeks ago, Erdoğan announced the victory against the currency crisis by introducing a contentious monetary/fiscal program. Now, he is defence of the government for the soaring inflation and rising prices by telling people, “we could have done more, show us understanding, be patient.”
Only the diversion of religion-belief remained to defend themselves with. Erdoğan wants to divert the game to the area he knows well. They resort to zealots, radicals, bigots in order to keep their religious base on their side politically.
It is not a coincidence that attempts to restrict the right of alimony for women and children after the divorce was on the ruling party’s agenda. The real issue here is not alimony. The ones that campaign against the alimony, the raging minority I call them, are the ones that blackmailed the President with their votes to ensure the withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention. Their next target is the Civil Code, which legally equates women with men, secularism and democracy.
These are the religious fundamentalists, whose help is sought to keep the devoutly religious people, the direct sufferers of the economic crisis like the rest of the society, on their side. These fundamentalists are the ones with obscurant, anti-modernist, fundamentalist and misogynic tendencies. They are the ones that cannot adopt the gender equality struggle of the democratic parliamentary republic that Atatürk has established. What they defend is the same as the culprits of the assassination of journalist Uğur Mumcu on this day 29 years ago, who exposed the relations between radical Islamist sects, politics, mafia and business.
Erdoğan’s insult cases, arrest of journalists: no words above the patriarch
Opposition parties were slow to react. They started to speak openly after Erdogan’s threatened Aksu by “cutting the tongue” and Kabaş’s arrest. This also shows their uneasiness about Erdogan’s tactic of diversion of the discussion to the ground of religion and faith. They are right to be careful, but we are talking about rights and freedoms here.
The criminal offence “Insulting the President of the Republic” has been actively used against those who criticize Erdoğan. The number of investigations opened for this offence in Kenan Evren’s Presidency, which he acquired with the military coup of Sept. 12, 1980, was 340. In Evren’s successor Turgut Özal term, there were 250 complaints. In Süleyman Demirel’s term the number was 158, Ahmet Necdet Sezer’s 163. During Erdoğan’s predecessor Abdullah Gül’s time, 840 cases were filed. When it comes to Erdoğan’s presidency, the number exceeded 68,000; it is sixty-eight thousand in writing.
According to the Progressive Journalists Association (ÇGD) reports, just in 2021, 32 journalists were detained, 179 lawsuits opened against journalists and press organizations, 219 journalists were tried. Those who are convicted sentenced to 48 years and 11 months in prison in total. Journalists were threatened 27 times by various groups, especially by politicians. 75 journalists were attacked and battered, most of whom were covering the social events. Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK) imposed a total of 74 fines on national channels in 2021.
Erdogan has long been displaying concrete examples of a patriarchal, male-dominated culture, where the patriarch’s word is above anyone else’s, and nobody can criticize the patriarch. As he thinks that being respected is not to be confronted, when he could not gain respect, he thought he could acquire it by fear. And it went such far that the advisors try to censor even the President in panic. Everything is falling apart.