The ban by Turkish authorities on access to the Independent Turkish website points out to the enlargement of the “digital warfare’’ waged by the regime of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan against the critical news sites, along with social media.
Independent Turkish, a relatively fresh outlet in Turkish publishing domain, is linked with Saudi Arabia. The site was launched in April 2019, with a license agreement signed between Independent Digital News & Media Limited, owned by Russian businessman Alexander Lebedev, and the Saudi Research and Marketing Group, which owns all rights on the Independent Turkish news site.
Although the news site claimed to be devoted to the editorial guidelines of The Independent of the U.K., its self-censorship of some of its original critical content did not go unnoticed.
But for Erdoğan’s palace, in which there is a large group of censors operating under the name of Directorate of Communications, no self-censorship is strong enough. Like many other news sites operating from within Turkish domain, a clash between the Independent Turkish and Turkish authorities was not a question of if, but when.
The ban follows a block by Saudi Arabia of TRT Arabi and Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency, allegedly based on commentaries on the indictment of the Jamal Kashoggi murder and stream of accusations placed on Saudi authorities for laxness in battling with the deadly COVID-19 virus.
Its signal flare was thrown by the presidential palace’s think-tank, SETA, in an article, penned by Yusuf Özkır. The article focusing on Independent Turkish, lashed out at its content. It concluded that “the principle of reciprocity must be applied in foreign media in Turkey.’’
In this context, the information strife has turned the Independent Turkish into a pawn – a hostage. Whether or not the ban will be lifted is an open question.
Given the fierce rhetoric from Riyadh and Saudi media outlets, and Turkey’s targeting of Independent Turkish (but also Deutsche Welle, Ahval News, Sputnik and BBC Turkish as the article lines out), the ban will probably a permanent one.
Yet, apart from that, the latest measure imposed by Ankara must be seen in a broader context. The blockage of Independent Turkish is only an extension of the annihilation process of the free news flow. The equation was apparent for a long time: As the Turkish crisis spread beyond the chaotic domestic and regional politics into the economy, the Erdoğan government’s consistent reflexes have been to stifle whatever remained on the media, both conventional and digital.
Recently, three remaining critical TV channels, including Fox TV and HalkTV, were given draconian fines, for “inciting panic’’ via their reports and comments on COVID-19 pandemic in Turkey. The country’s top media watchdog, the Radio and Television Supreme Council, went even further, with its chairman, İlhan Taşçı, declaring, “we shall even apply the harshest measures if necessary,’’ in an apparent reference to the downright closure of the critical channels.
In the digital domain, the atmosphere is of a pressure cooker. Recently three editors of a critical news site, OdaTV, and three others from the Kurdish news site, Yeni Yaşam, were detained for publishing the pictures and details of a top-level secret service member, who had died in the clashes in Libya.
Earlier, when a new crisis had erupted between Ankara and Moscow over Syria’s Idlib, the addresses of some editors of Sputnik news site, which is financed by Russia, were circulated by pro-government accounts, leading to a mob gathering before the flat of one of them. Meanwhile, about 230 people were detained in a series of raids for their social media messages, marked by the authorities as “spreading panic and fear.’’
Signs point to Erdoğan’s regime remaining uneasy in its limited ability in managing the crisis, especially after the outbreak of the coronavirus. It is in urgent need of international financial assistance, which due to its extremely centrist administration, which leaves no room for autonomy for its central bank, nor any transparency, casting the country into a darker solitude.
This helps explain the administration’s mood on attacking what it sees as the country’s softest and most vulnerable spot: the media.