By RANJENI MUNUSAMY

“It’s like snow in the summer”, says Abdülhamit Bilici, director of Turkey’s Cihan News Agency, about the systematic breakdown of the rule of law and erosion of democratic freedoms in his country. Perhaps that’s the only way to keep going in the context of an assault on media freedoms, arrests of judges, manipulation of the judicial system, blocking of funding to aid agencies and raiding of schools – to see these as an aberration that will pass. Turkey is caught in a frightening maelstrom of corruption and the quest for unbridled power, a pseudo war against Isis and a real war against the Kurds, as well as a flood of Syrian refugees streaming through the borders. It is a world away from us but is a storyline that holds important lessons for South Africa. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.

“I’m being sued by the Prime Minister over a tweet.”

Sevgi Akarçeşme, a columnist at Turkey’s biggest newspaper Zaman, looks at me flatly as she says it. We are sitting at the offices of the Journalists and Writers Foundation on the bank of the Bosphorus, the strait that connects the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara and divides Istanbul over two continents. Behind her is an achingly beautiful vista with ferryboats sailing past and centuries old castles and mosques dotting the coastline.

The frightening story Akarçeşme is telling about the closing space for independent thought and destruction of institutions of democracy is in stark contrast to the picturesque setting. It is difficult to be mesmerised and appalled at the same time.

If she is anxious that she and two of her colleagues will face off against Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu in court in two weeks, Akarçeşme doesn’t show it. Her tweet criticised Davutoğlu for covering up corruption and curbing media freedom.

The irony is, of course, laughable. The reality is not.

Over 700 journalists and ordinary citizens are being sued by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Several journalists and editors have been arrested. Two judges were arrested for their verdicts releasing journalists who were on trial. Hidayet Karaca, the general manager of an independent television network Samanyolu has been in prison without an indictment since December for suspected terrorist activity. Perhaps there is reason to be suspicious, you might think. Well, the charge allegedly relates to an episode of a discontinued soap opera broadcast five years ago that is now considered to be “forming and leading a terrorist organisation”.

The legal complaint over Akarçeşme’s tweet is similarly outrageous. It also holds her responsible for a reply to her tweet by one of her followers who said the Prime Minister was a liar. Akarçeşme says she has no idea what will happen in court when she appears on 14 September but is convinced the point of the case is simply “to intimidate and silence”.

That certainly appears to be the intention as Erdogan’s hopes to expand his presidential powers and enable constitutional changes. He has called a snap election in November after national elections in June delivered a hung parliament. He now wants his party to regain its parliamentary majority. With fragmented opposition, a war on the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (KPP), a clampdown on critics and the media and a generally complacent society, there is not much that can stop Erdogan from stomping ahead.

Although the private media does not have much sympathy and support from Turkish society, they hope the information and knowledge they provide will help sway public opinion.

It was not always like this. Zaman, which is read by two million people, was highly supportive of Erdogan and his government. Then in December 2013, the newspaper published a corruption expose involving four government ministers. As incidence of corruption was rising, so too were efforts to control the media space and crack down on independent voices. Then last December, the editor-in-chief of Zaman, Ekrem Dumanli, and the TV station head Karaca, as well as other employees of both media institutions, were arrested in a dramatic swoop by the authorities. Dumanli was released a few days later but Karaca is still in custody, waiting to be told what he is being charged with.

“I have learnt a lifetime of lessons,” says Abdülhamit Bilici, director of Cihan News Agency, a stable partner of Zaman. “Our support for Erdogan was support for democracy… But now Turkey is getting away from the rule of law and democracy.”

Bilici says about 70% of the media in Turkey is now under government control. Journalists belonging to independent media houses are not allowed to cover government events. Independent media institutions are also being subjected to a government advertising boycott, and businesses are also under pressure to withhold advertising. Public servants are not even allowed to read Zaman.

As if that isn’t enough, a team from the tax authority has moved into Zaman’s building to constantly audit their finances. It makes you almost grateful that the worst thing the South African Revenue Service has been accused of is running a rogue spy unit.

It is difficult to keep telling the news under these circumstances but all these media institutions are determined to do so. The newspapers are forced to reduce the number of pages to cut costs and seek advertising elsewhere.

Adnan Topkapi, the foreign news chief at Samanyolu TV says they have to source footage from other agencies for all government and parliamentary events as their cameras are not allowed in. The station has continued to run news exposing government scandals as the detention of the head of their network has encouraged whistleblowers to come forward with information.

Alarm bells are now ringing internationally It was reported this week that the G20 Summit, scheduled to be held in Turkey in November could be cancelled because of the massive crackdown on the media.

There appears to be another dimension to the crackdown. Government operations seem to be targeting institutions associated with the faith-based Gülen Movement, also known as the Hizmet movement, which has tentacles across Turkish society, including the media. The movement is inspired by the teachings of Turkish preacher Fethullah Gülen and promotes altruism and education. In recent weeks, private schools associated with the movement have been raided, although it not clear what the authorities were in search of.

Kimse Yok Mu, a relief agency that provides emergency and humanitarian assistance to distressed areas around the world and also distributes aid to refugees in Turkey, has had its channels to receive donations blocked by government. Its association with the Gülen Movement has resulted in its bank account being frozen and the network through which it receive donations via an SMS line has also been blocked.

Kimse Yok Mu is no longer allowed to advertise for funding, even though its entire operation is run through public donations. Like all other organisations being squeezed by the government, it continues to operate and seeks other channels to get around the onslaught. It now runs adverts with no branding except a picture of a sheep winking to remind people to donate to the agency.

While a media clampdown is expected in all good autocracies, the targeting of schools and an aid agency seems baffling. But Erdogan does not believe the Gülen Movement, which is believed to have over seven million supporters across Turkey, is just about serving humanity and promoting peace and harmony. He believes members of the movement are plotting to overthrow his government and using the network of organisations under their control to do so.

Fatih Ceran, spokesman for the Journalists and Writers Foundation says the Gülen Movement has no political ambitions and only wants to promote education, dialogue and peaceful coexistence based on their spiritual leader’s interpretation of Islam. The movement has a presence in South Africa through the Turquoise Harmony Institute.

You would think that Erdogan has bigger issues to focus on rather than be paranoid by a group of do-gooders. With the Islamic State (Isis) wreaking havoc in neighbouring Syria, and reports that it is also operating within Turkey’s borders, it should be at the top of the president’s priority list. Erdogan has been playing a game of bluff with the United States, using the coalition’s battle against Isis as a premise to wage war on the Kurds. While action against Isis involved three Turkish airstrikes, there have been over 300 bombing raids on PKK bases. Relations between Erdogan and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad are strained, complicating matters further.

The war in the region has led to an estimated three million refugees flooding into Turkey, mostly from Syria. Many thousands have been heading for the Turkish coast to cross the Aegean Sea to seek a new life in Europe. Others just want a safe place to wait out the war.

The central bus station in the coastal town of Izmir is teeming with refugees, some trying to sleep on the pavements. There is almost a festive atmosphere, even though it is after midnight.

Miklif, 24, from Tikrit, Iraq, Ayat, 26, from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia and Mohammed, 21, from Damascus, Syria are planning to get a ferry to Greece. A month ago, they were on a ferry that capsized. They were rescued but now they want to go back. “The government is just as bad as the terrorists,” Mohammed says.

On the beachfront, there are hundreds more people. Some are sitting around staring at the twinkling lights across the bay, while others stroll the promenade.

Jamil is a player. He is curious as to what I am doing standing alone on the promenade long after midnight. The Syrian refugees are nervous about talking to strangers, so I am waiting for them to come to me. Eventually Jamil approaches, types something on his phone and says in a heavy accent: “What are you doing here?” The magic of Google Translate.

Ranjeni-Turkey-crisis-Jamil-01.jpg

Jamil has also run away from the war. “Very bad. I don’t want to die.”

But Jamil also has another problem. It takes a long time to explain. There’s a spelling error on his tattoo and he is really upset about it. He takes my pen and corrects “C” to “G”. His tattoo is transformed from “Came Over” to “Game Over”.

Ranjeni-Turkey-crisis-Jamil-02.jpg

Both photos of Jamil by Lucas Ledwaba.

It is close to 1am when I meet brothers Anas, 29, and Achmat, 21. They are both from Damascus and fled to Izmir because they did not want to be drafted into the Syrian military. “I have a small baby back home. My whole family is there. But we are here because we are human. We don’t want to fight,” Anas says.

“It is just boom, boom, boom there. Every day the bombs fall.”

Achmat is a newly qualified journalist but has not yet been able to find a job. As a refugee in Turkey, his chances of working are slim. As a refugee trying to cross the icy seas to the dream of a better life in Germany, his chances of survival are slimmer.

When will you go home, I ask.

“When Assad goes.”

But neither Assad nor Erdogan appears to be going anywhere. Their nations continue to disintegrate under their rule and a cross border tragedy of epic proportions is playing out.

Perhaps the biggest tragedy is when society gives up, when ordinary people choose to remain passive or risk their lives to seek refuge elsewhere. Turkish society certainly seems complacent to the erosion of their democratic freedoms and the breakdown of the rule of law. There appears to be very little civil society action to stop the slide to authoritarianism.

That’s what makes us different. That’s what should always make South Africa different. If ever we reach a state of complacency or surrender critical engagement and activism, it could well and truly be “Game Over”. DM

Photo: Turkey’s Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan addresses members of parliament from his ruling AK Party (AKP) during a meeting at the Turkish parliament in Ankara June 26, 2012. REUTERS/Umit Bektas

*Ranjeni Munusamy travelled to Turkey as part of a media tour sponsored by the Turquoise Harmony Institute.