Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is visiting Washington, D.C. this week — and his security team has brought along some of its tactics for shutting down dissent and free speech.
Outside a planned speech at the Brookings Institution on Thursday, confrontations between protesters and Erdogan’s guards devolved into violence. Eyewitnesses reported that Turkish security forcibly removed one journalist from the scene, while another was kicked and a third was thrown to the sidewalk. Inside the event, journalists reported being forced to leave by Turkish security.
Never seen anything like this:a female protester just tackled. DC cops are in the street trying to keep Turkish guards from hurting folks
— Yochi Dreazen (@yochidreazen) March 31, 2016
— Mahir Zeynalov (@MahirZeynalov) March 31, 2016
A video from inside Brookings appears to show violent altercations between Turkish personnel and either media or protesters.
Inside the event, Turkish security also attempted to kick out journalists. There were reports of Brookings staff escorting journalists into the building to get them past security.
Here: Turkish security tries to kick a journalist out. Brookings security protects the journalist. Moments ago pic.twitter.com/k0mATo3fh8
— ilhan tanir (@WashingtonPoint) March 31, 2016
On Wednesday, Turkish police similarly attempted to drown out protesters on the streets of Washington by shouting loudly and indiscriminately — and accused the protesters of supporting terrorism.
In all, the confrontations are just a small taste of what journalists in Turkey face every day, where in the past few weeks alone, Erdogan’s government — which is a NATO ally and a major player in the fight against ISIS — has raided and seized control of Turkey’s biggest newspaper and dispersed protesters with water cannons, tear gas, and rubber bullets. Erdogan’s government has also brought two prominent journalists to trial behind closed doors, and although the trial was adjourned until April 1st after opposition lawmakers refused to leave, the two still face life imprisonment if convicted. Even while Erdogan was still giving his speech at Brookings, there were reports that another Turkish academic, Meral Camcı, was arrested.
— Saulo Corona (@saulocorona) March 5, 2016
In Turkey, it is illegal to mock “the Turkish nation,” a vague law that has been used to shut down public criticism and satire targeting President Erdogan. The law caught international attention this winter when a doctor was dismissed from his job and brought to trial for tweeting images comparing Erdogan to Gollum from Lord of the Rings (though the movie’s director Peter Jackson insisted that the pictures were actually of Smeagol and thus can’t legally be considered an insult). Last year, a student was also prosecuted for tweeting jokes about Erdogan.
The confrontations in Washington, D.C. are not the only signs that Turkey may be looking to spread this press interdiction worldwide. Turkey’s foreign minister also recently summoned Germany’s ambassador to complain about a music video mocking Erdogan on German television and demand that it be removed from air. The German Ambassador refused, citing freedom of speech.
Press freedom in Turkey has declined steadily for the past five years, with its freedom of press rating sliding from “partly free” to “not free.” Broadly defined anti-terrorism laws are frequently used to target journalists, and in recent months, have also been used to round up dissenting academics. Additionally, a 2014 law significantly lowered the bar of the requirements to block websites. In 2014, Turkey filed five times as many content-removal requests to Twitter, which is incredibly popular with Turkish citizens, than any other country.
There are signs the state of press in the country may get even worse. After the March 13th terrorist attack in Ankara, President Erdogan called for broadening the legal definition of terrorist to include those who use “their position and pen to serve the aims” of terrorists — specifically citing legislators, academics, journalists, and activists.
In his speech at Brookings, however, Erdogan insisted that changes to legislation improved human rights and freedom of expression in the country, and alleged that many of the journalists imprisoned in Turkey were members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a group that claims to be fighting for Kurdish autonomy, but is considered a terrorist organization by the Turkish government, as well as the United States and the European Union. Erdogan also implied that those questioning the state of free media in Turkey were simply believing allegations made by “those trying to defame Turkey.”
Reporters Without Borders condemned the violence between Erdogan’s security and reporters on Thursday. Although Turkey and the United States are long-standing allies, the White House has said that President Obama will not sit down with the Erdogan for a “formal conversation” this week — which analysts suspect is a snub aimed at Turkey’s regressive crackdown on the media.