By WILL ATKINSON
Two exiled journalists from Turkey were invited to talk to the University of Mary Washington students at Monroe Hall on Wednesday night, regarding the dangers of media censorship. The panelists were Abdulhamit Bilici, Editor-in- Chief of the Turkish newspaper, Zaman Toda,y and Mahir Zeynalov, a Turkish journalist who was deported from Turkey for heavily covering government corruption and the Turkish coup of July 2016. They spoke about their personal accounts with national and governmental limitation of media freedoms.
The audience was comprised of students, faculty and concerned citizens of Fredericksburg. Zeynalov now writes for the Huffington Post and is a frequent guest on CNN, NBC and BBC news sources. Student mediator and political science major, Justin Sevart, introduced both journalists and opened the floor to them to share their experiences with media oppression.
Five years ago, Turkey was a semi-democratic nation with full media freedoms, says Zeynalov. After Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was elected in 2014, many media outlets were targeted and stripped of their freedoms because he felt personally attacked by the media, Zeynalov explained.
“This is how it happens, we [journalists in Turkey] became overwhelmed with libel lawsuits,” Zeynalov said. “We spent more time in courtrooms rather than newsrooms.”
Reporters from certain media outlets were not allowed to ask questions or even attend President Erdoğan’s press conferences, according to Bilici.
“We were not able to ask our questions, they [state officials] called media owners to fire their reporters,” Bilici said. “They also started to call companies to not allow advertisement in our newspapers…that is where most of our income comes from.”
After both speakers were able to give their personal testaments about what they have resisted in Turkey, Sevart opened the floor for the audience to have an open discussion with the two journalists. Most of the remarks dealt with Turkey’s issues and the apparent parallels that are occurring in the United States with Trump’s administration.
When asked about Trump’s recent press conferences and accusations of certain media outlets being “fake news” Zeynalov said, “This seems very familiar to me, from where I come from… this is something I have seen in the past several years in Turkey…He (Erdoğan) thought media outlets were there to attack the government.”
Bilici added, “At rallies Erdoğan would cry out, ‘do not buy this newspaper!’ He got his followers to boycott the paper.”
Because of President Erdoğan’s attack on media outlets, Bilici was left jobless and in danger of imprisonment after Erdoğan and his constituents purchased Turkey’s largest newspaper the Zaman. They fired him along with many other journalists.
“Erdoğan started to put a lot of journalists in jail,” Bilici said. “I lost my career, my job… We were a critical newspaper and all of a sudden it changed, this happened in one night, they completely shut down the media after the July coup, now there is nothing.”
Zeynalov became the first Turkish journalist to ever be lawfully deported after his coverage of the 2016 coup.
“I myself got kicked out of Turkey mostly because I was reporting to the Western audience,” Zeynalov said. “I was the first journalist to be deported from the country…that’s what they do in Syria, Iraq and ISIS held countries, not in Turkey.”
Many journalists are still in jail without any formal indictment. Instead, they are being blamed for the coup as a way to justify their imprisonment, according to Zeynalov.
The two journalists also said that President Erdoğan’s campaign was based around the idea of returning to the old ways of Turkey. He wanted to create a Muslim-based society similar to the days of the powerful Ottoman Empire. “Make Turkey Great Again!” said Zeynalov followed by laughter from the audience.
UMW senior and business major, Reed Farrier commented on the parallels between the downfall of Turkish media and the implications of President Trump’s recent accusations towards media outlets.
“I definitely do see some similarities, but I don’t think it will reach the same extent here in the United States like it did in Turkey,” Farrier said. “Free speech is a very important aspect of our society so I don’t think he’ll be able to influence enough of the population to really do much damage to media outlets.”
Sevart, who organized the event, handed out fliers throughout campus and spoke with multiple clubs before recruiting the Middle East studies program to aid him in organizing the panel.
When asked about the possibilities of media control in the United States, Sevart said, “There is absolutely a parallel with the only thing keeping Trump from taking a similar approach to the media… it is the First Amendment that is so entrenched in American history, whereas Turkey has not had such a right.”
Near the end of the discussion, Zeynalov warned the audience of the dangers of taking away free speech and the perils of government-controlled censorship.
“You begin to think twice before you write an article…the president wanted to put me in jail for six years,” Zeynalov said. “Unless there is freedom of offense, there is no freedom of speech.”