With Friends Like These... Erdogan's Assault on Freedom and Democracy

The EU has placed its fate in the hands of Turkish President Erdogan. But the man who is to help solve the refugee crisis has recently shown more clearly than ever that he prefers autocracy to democracy. He is the price Europe must pay for failure. By SPIEGEL Staff

REUTERS/ Presidential Palace

Celil Sagir doesn't have much left to lose. On March 28, he was fired, shoved aside. Now, he can talk about what is currently happening in Turkey and describe what it looks like when one man subordinates an entire country.

Sagir was managing editor of Today's Zaman, the English-language offshoot of the country's largest opposition newspaper. But on March 4, police stormed the paper's editorial offices in Istanbul. Anti-terror specialists took part in the raid, as did several burly men in riot gear to put down protests. In their wake came the so-called trustees, sent to monitor the paper on behalf of the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The police searched the editorial offices and supervised the journalists as they prepared the next issue for print. Anyone wanting to enter the building was forced to pass through police checkpoints. Several journalists who were trying to get to their desks were fired by the police, told that their contracts had been terminated and that they should get lost. The rest of the editorial team was instructed to continue their work.

How, though, was that possible? The first issues of Zaman and Today's Zaman printed after the takeover lacked the critical stance and uncomfortable stories the publications were famous for. Such texts were either thrown out or rewritten. Zaman appeared with an amicably smiling president on the front page, prominently placed above the fold. When Sagir complained, "the trustee responsible told me: There are authorities above the trustees." He thinks "that somebody close to the president decided what would be published."

"Press freedom isn't only about free speech, it's more about democracy," says Sagir. Many of those opposition activists able to leave the country, he says, have now done so: academics, intellectuals and business people. They were afraid of raids and of being arrested, he says. Afraid of being prosecuted as terrorists and traitors.

"I would go too if I could," Sagir says, but he has three sons. He tried to keep working because he didn't want his newspaper to die and because he wanted to demonstrate to his children that he wasn't giving up. But he has given up his hope for an open, modern Turkey -- because it looks as though things are turning out just as Erdogan himself once said they would. "Democracy is like a train," he said. "You get off once you have reached your destination."

Making a Fool out of Merkel

Erdogan's modus operandi became even clearer last week in the absurd diplomatic dust-up over a satirical video aired by German public broadcaster NDR on its "extra 3" show. The clip, a rather harmless critique of Erdogan's heavy-handed ways, is only about two minutes long -- but it triggered an unhinged tantrum from the "Boss of the Bosporus," as NDR called him. His aids fumed, the German ambassador was summoned and the government in Berlin, after initial caution, grudgingly issued a statement. Erdogan wanted the video to disappear -- a position that clearly reveals his view of the state. It is that of a sultan, not that of a democrat. And it is definitely not the view of a leader who belongs in Europe.

Yet of all people, the Turkish president has become one of the most important politicians for Europe. Perhaps the most important. The dispute over the video served to demonstrate just how dependent on Erdogan the European Union has become. His reaction made a fool out of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the EU. He can toy with the EU, provoke it and use it to tighten his own grip on power.

The reason is clear. Without Erdogan's Turkey, the refugee compromise would fail and the EU wouldn't know how to deal with the hundreds of thousands of people heading north from Syria and Africa. Even more border fences would be built and borders closed. Europe, as a free continent, as an open community of nations, would be in danger.

Since the deal with Turkey was negotiated, Erdogan has made it clear just how much power he wields. The German ambassador was first summoned to the Foreign Ministry in Ankara on Feb. 19. Ambassador Martin Erdmann had to answer questions pertaining to a handout about genocide given to teachers in the German state of Saxony-Anhalt. The handout dealt extensively with the massacre of the Armenians during World War I, which Ankara denies. Included is a caricature showing Erdogan walking on the skulls of the victims.

Then came the satire affair. Erdogan was actually only the third choice of targets for the NDR satirists. They first considered doing a song about the right-wing populist party Alternative for Germany, and then thought Social Democratic Party leader Sigmar Gabriel might make a good target. In the end, though, they came up with the idea of transforming an old Nena hit into an anti-Erdogan ditty.

The resulting video is much less caustic than many of "extra 3's" satirical treatments of other politicians. One of the authors says that he has rarely produced a satire with so little exaggeration. "Actually, we just sang about reality, one-to-one," he says. Erdogan's war on the Kurds, his approach to the opposition, equal rights for women: All such issues were addressed.

A Tweet and a Scandal

But on March 22, just a few days after the piece was broadcast, the Turkish Foreign Ministry summoned Erdmann again. Initially, the summons was not made public, with Erdmann preferring to keep it under wraps.

On Good Friday, though, he told the story to Left Party parliamentarian Sevim Dagdelen. Dagdelen is her party's spokesperson for international affairs and she had traveled to Istanbul to monitor the beginning of a trial against two journalists from the Turkish daily Cumhuriyet. She met with Erdmann while there.

The diplomat told her that he was grilled about the video by a Foreign Ministry division head for a full hour. In preparation for the meeting, he had brought along a Turkish-language version of the German constitution and a few unflattering caricatures of Angela Merkel, hoping to use the material to elucidate Germany's understanding of freedom of the press.

That Sunday morning, Dagdelen wrote a tweet with a link to the satirical song: "This fantastic video from @extra3 has angered #Erdogan so much that he summoned the German ambassador in Ankara." The story was out.

In response, "extra 3" received myriad expressions of solidarity while Erdogan became a target of derision. The editors of the "heute show," aired by public broadcaster ZDF, joked that Erdogan had summoned the full moon "for insulting the Turkish flag." Twitter users began sending around unflattering photo compositions featuring the Turkish leader and the staff of "extra 3" chose Erdogan as "Employee of the Month."

The German Foreign Ministry suddenly found itself in an awkward situation. Normally, the country that summons an ambassador is responsible for making the incident public. But Turkey had said nothing. How should the German government now react? The Foreign Ministry in Berlin decided to simply confirm that the summons had taken place.

Still, the issue quickly became a source of diplomatic friction, and not least because of the German media's extensive coverage of it. The Turkish side didn't let it drop either. Last Tuesday, exactly a week later, Erdmann was again summoned to the Turkish Foreign Ministry. This time, the issue was his participation in the trial against the Cumhuriyet journalists.

Given that Erdogan himself had commented, it was not a summons that could easily be ignored. "This is not your country. This is Turkey," he said in reference to Western diplomats who had observed the trial. "Who are you? What were you doing there?" Nowhere, though, is it written that diplomats are not allowed to observe trials.

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