The violence and intimidation which were on display here Thursday in Washington, D.C. at the Brookings Institution are symptomatic of a greater sickness.
Turkish President Erdogan’s security detail was filmed and photographed attacking protesters, intimidating passersby, and physically accosting journalists. A scholar from a neighboring think tank was quoted as saying “this is not unusual behavior for his security detail. They act with impunity and there is no evidence they are reprimanded for it”.
Has this relationship with the media and public protest become Erdogan’s new normal? The past few years would indicate yes.
Reporters Without Borders, a media-watchdog group, has ranked Turkey 149 out of 180 countries in its 2015 World Press Freedom Index. This rank rose from 154 in 2014 due to the lack of reporter deaths and the conditional release of forty imprisoned journalists. Fourteen journalists were arrested in 2015 alone, double that of 2014. The Turkish government made headlines when it took over Zaman, the country’s largest newspaper, in early March. Deferring to an increasingly common response to ensuing protests, the Turkish riot police unleashed plastic bullets and tear gas on the demonstrators. Erdogan’s response to the protests his policies have caused has become routinely heavy handed. In a telling episode, Turkish police once again used tear gas and water cannons to disperse protesters mourning the death of a fifteen year old who was killed after being struck on the head by a teargas canister.
Why have these heavy handed reactions to protests and the media become Erdogan’s new normal? Why is he so terrified of the public at large and the media? The turning point may have been Turkey’s June 2015 elections, when Erdogan was almost voted out of office. His party lost its majority and resorted to calling for new elections. When Turkey’s largest terrorist attack in recent memory struck an HDP rally in October 2015, thousands marched in Ankara to blame Erdogan. Despite his heavy police response, Erdogan’s party was able to leverage national security to retake its lost majority.
This experience with elections, and the power it gives to the media and the public, did not leave Erdogan unaffected. To be sure, freedom of the press in Turkey has been steeply declining since 2006. Despite this, Erdogan still lost an election in 2015; an election he is not likely to forget. But after yesterday the Turkish people should realize exactly how terrified Erdogan is.