It took only a few hours for hope to turn to fresh despair. At lunchtime on Friday, the German-Turkish journalist Deniz Yucel was freed after more than a year in detention. An image of Yucel embracing his wife – who he had married while he was incarcerated – outside the concrete and razor-wire gates of Istanbul’s Silivri prison raced across social media, to widespread jubilation. But by the time the day’s evening call-to-prayer sounded, six other journalists had been convicted and jailed, three of them with aggravated life sentences.
All have been accused of supporting terrorist groups, either the Kurdish militants of the PKK or the Gulenists, the Islamic sect that President Erdogan accuses of launching the 2016 coup attempt. No-one is in jail for practising journalism, we are always told – though last year Erdogan himself said in an interview that any writer who publishes the words of terrorists can be considered a terrorist themselves. That doesn’t leave much space for publishing anything other than the government’s own line.
Mehmet and Ahmet Altan, brothers in their sixties, have been thorns in the Turkish establishment’s side for decades – whatever form the establishment happens to be taking. As founding editor of the Taraf newspaper, Ahmet spearheaded investigations into the military and was prosecuted for an article he wrote about the victims of the Armenian genocide. Mehmet was a celebrated economics correspondent. Nazli Ilicak, 73, the third to be given a life sentence, was an MP for the main opposition party before becoming a journalist. All three were arrested soon after the coup, accused of sending subliminal messages for the Gulenists during their appearance on a television show. Unless their cases are overturned, they will die in prison.
So this is Turkey: now the world’s biggest jailer of journalists, and a once-democratising nation that has slipped so far, and so quickly, into authoritarianism that all of us who have witnessed it are reeling. There are those who will say that they always knew it would turn out this way – that Erdogan has never had a single strand of democracy in his DNA. But most Turks admit that they once held hope in the man who seemed to start out as a liberaliser. Erdogan once wanted to take Turkey into Europe. He wanted to make peace with the Kurds. Most of all, he wanted to defang the military, which had appointed itself the guarantor of Turkish secularism but had also become the biggest obstacle to real democracy. And he had personal experience of the country’s authoritarian leanings.
Back in the late 1990s, a younger Tayyip Erdogan won the backing of Amnesty International when he was jailed for reading an Islamist-tinged poem at a really. The judiciary, dominated at that time by secularists, deemed that he had stoked religious hatred. Erdogan’s jailing secured his legend among Turkey’s religious conservatives as a rebel against the staid system, and not long after he was released he began his rapid ascent through national politics. As prime minister in the 2000s, he battled back against the generals and began lifting laws against the Kurdish language and the Islamic headscarf. So admired was he in the rest of the world that when the Arab uprisings began in late 2010, Erdogan’s Turkey was touted as a model for the rest of the region.
Analysts debate endlessly over where it all fell apart – but none, apart from the blind loyalists, disagree that Erdogan the democratiser is dead. In his place, there is now Erdogan the vindictive, the jingoistic, the paranoid. He travels everywhere in a huge motorcade, surrounded by men in shades and earpieces. Once the scourge of the military, he has now, since the post-coup purge which has seen more than half of the top tier of officers dismissed, recast himself as commander-in-chief. Earlier this month, he appeared in the operations room dressed in a camouflage jacket, peering over tactical maps with his generals. And although officials will insist that it is the judiciary, not Erdogan, that makes the decisions on legal cases, it is now a given that if the president fingers someone in one of his near-daily speeches, they will be immediately detained and put on trial.
Some Turks say it is a curse that afflicts all their leaders – that, once in power, they cannot help succumbing to the authoritarian urge. The adoration of the crowd is too intoxicating, and the country too huge and volatile to allow democracy to take its course. Others believe that Erdogan fears what will happen to him should he lose power, and that is why he is gripping so tight.
Ahmet Altan’s latest novel, Endgame, tells the story of an anonymous Turkish town that tears itself apart. There are rumours of great riches buried underneath the hillside and the residents are willing to kill, cheat and betray each other to get their hands on it. In doing so, they destroy themselves and the beauty of the land they have inherited. It is difficult not to draw parallels.