California Forum

Knowing Trump won’t stop them, the world’s authoritarians seek to silence the press

Demonstrators angered by the two-year detention of a German journalist in Turkey wielded signs saying ‘#FreeThemAll’ and ‘#FreeTurkeyMedia’ during a car parade in Hamburg, Germany, Feb. 16, 2018. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan freed the correspondent for the German daily Die Welt, but imprisoned a half-dozen other journalists and media company employees. (Bodo Marks/dpa via AP)
Demonstrators angered by the two-year detention of a German journalist in Turkey wielded signs saying ‘#FreeThemAll’ and ‘#FreeTurkeyMedia’ during a car parade in Hamburg, Germany, Feb. 16, 2018. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan freed the correspondent for the German daily Die Welt, but imprisoned a half-dozen other journalists and media company employees. (Bodo Marks/dpa via AP) AP

I had wanted to write this column on elegance. That method of interacting with other human beings that presents both style and confidence, humility and perfect inner poise and balance. I had wanted to ignore the state of the world for one brief moment, and instead write about some of the wondrous athletic feats on display at the Olympics; or, in a completely different arena, about the sheer joy of watching the 36-year-old Roger Federer practically dance his way back to the No. 1 spot in men’s tennis.

Federer’s been chasing that prize ever since he dropped off the ranking’s pinnacle more than five years ago. It was his Moby Dick, an entirely uncatchable prey that, psychologically, he couldn’t take his mind off of. Nobody really thought he could do it. This month, deep into what counts for old age in tennis, he finally harpooned his prey. “Improbable” doesn’t even begin to describe this sporting accomplishment.

For strong-men and their sympathizers, there is something innately soothing about a neutered and punished free press.

As I said, that’s what I wanted to focus on. But events have a habit of intruding. Instead, I opened the newspaper and read about three journalists and three other media company employees in Turkey – a member of NATO and one of America’s closest allies in the Middle East – being sentenced to life in prison for “subliminally” supporting, in their news coverage, Fethullah Gülen, the movement purportedly behind the failed 2016 coup attempt against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The brothers Ahmet and Mehmet Altan, two of the jailed journalists, are 67 and 65 years old. Nazlí Ilicak is 73. Their “crime” is that they supposedly were in contact with members of the banned group, and that their reporting somehow biased audiences against Erdogan’s government and in favor of the plotters. They will, if the sentences are upheld, be joined in prison by Yakup Simsek, Fevzi Yazici and Sükrü Tugrul Özsengül.

Erdogan is a particularly odious strongman leader. He has all but destroyed Turkey’s independent judiciary, has purged academia, has clamped down on the media – more journalists are imprisoned in Turkey than in any other country. Despite, or because of this, when they met in D.C. in September – during an Erdogan visit marked by his security detail beating up protesters in the streets of the American capital – Trump praised his leadership, and the “great friendship” between the countries.

In normal times, a key American ally would think twice about using politicized courts to incarcerate journalists for life. They might worry about political backlash. In these times, however, with Trump routinely lambasting American journalists as being enemies of the people, whipping up his followers against those he says peddle “fake news,” and with his accusing political opponents who don’t cheer his speeches of being “treasonous” and demanding personal loyalty oaths from top justice officials, there is no reason to think Erdogan will be subject to anything more than a mild slap on the wrist by the State Department.

Indeed, Rex Tillerson was in Turkey in the days surrounding the verdict, for talks with Erdogan and his top ministers. While the erstwhile friends sparred quite bitterly and publicly over whom to back in Syria, as well as the imprisonment of some U.S. citizens during the state of emergency, the secretary of state did not openly criticize the sentences handed down to the journalists.

Turkey, in theory, may still be a democracy; after all, it continues to hold elections and clings to other formal trappings of a competitive political process. Russia, too, holds elections on a regular schedule. Yet, both countries now intimidate journalists, prosecuting them in the courts and also encouraging violence against them, to such an extent that the viability of the pluralist political system has been vastly undermined. In both countries, increasingly elections are a façade, the results largely pre-ordained.

For strongmen and their sympathizers, there is something innately soothing about a neutered and punished free press. The impulse to imprison a hostile journalist using the courts to provide a fig leaf of legitimacy really isn’t that very different, when push comes to shove, from the kidnapping, by extremists, of journalists such as Austin Tice, who reported for McClatchy, The Washington Post and other publications in Syria. For those who believe in democracy, there is something existentially horrifying about the notion of using either the brute force of terrorism or the institutional might of the state to drive media institutions and honest reportage underground.

In 1644, the English scholar John Milton published Areopagitica, history’s first, and arguably and most famous, fully developed philosophical defense of the right to publish freely. He wrote that one might as well “almost kill a Man as kill a good Book; who kills a Man kills a reasonable creature, God’s Image; but he who destroys a good Book, kills reason itself.” He also noted that, “If we think to regulat Printing, thereby to rectifie manners, we must regulat all recreations and pastimes, all that is delightfull to Man [sic].”

What Milton warned against nearly 400 years ago holds true today. Strongmen who attack free expression attack much more than simply a few media companies; rather, they strike at the heart of what it means to be free. They also, ultimately, do so out of weakness rather than from a place of genuine strength.

One of the things that has always astonished me when watching Roger Federer is his innate self-belief. He doesn’t need to tell everyone again and again that he is the best; he simply shows people. He doesn’t need to order people to cheer for him or to lambast those who don’t.

Counter-poise that sort of elegance with the insecurities that lead so-called “strongmen” to beat up on critical journalists. I’d say, “Game, set and match” – and not to Trump and Erdogan.

Sasha Abramsky is a Sacramento writer who teaches at UC Davis. His latest book is “Jumping at Shadows: The Triumph of Fear and the End of the American Dream.” He can be reached at sabramsky@sbcglobal.net.

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