A warn­ing from and for a trou­bled land

The Denver Post - - PERSPECTIVE - By Chuck Plun­kett

Re­cently a mes­sen­ger came to Colorado with dark warn­ings from a trou­bled land: Ab­dul­hamit Bilici, the for­mer edi­tor-in-chief of Za­man, Turkey’s go-to news­pa­per be­fore Pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Erdogan’s bru­tal crack­down.

In the Mile High City to speak be­fore World­den­ver, the ex­iled jour­nal­ist also spoke with mem­bers of our editorial board.

A pri­mary Bilici goal th­ese days is to raise aware­ness of Erdogan’s au­thor­i­tar­ian ad­ven­tur­ism that has jailed jour­nal­ists, judges, in­tel­lec­tu­als and se­cu­rity forces, fired tens of thou­sands shut­tered two hun­dred news or­ga­ni­za­tions and gen­er­ally made a mess of things in a coun­try that only a few years ago served as a model free-mar­ket democ­racy for the re­gion.

You don’t of­ten meet peo­ple like Ab­dul­hamit Bilici in the United States. You al­most can’t believe that some­one with his back­story sits be­fore you.

Imag­ine. Last March, af­ter con­flat­ing any crit­ics of the ad­min­is­tra­tion with per­pe­tra­tors of ter­ror­ism, the Turkish gov­ern­ment took over Za­man. While Bilici and fel­low jour­nal­ists were hard at work in the news­room on a Fri­day af­ter­noon, storm troop­ers tot­ing se­ri­ous weapons sur­rounded the build­ing. When crowds gath­ered to protest, po- lice hit them with wa­ter can­nons and tear gas.

Po­lice en­tered to re­place se­ri­ous jour­nal­ists and ex­ec­u­tives with gov­ern­ment-con­trolled mouth­pieces. Bilici found him­self forced out of his own news­room by gov­ern­ment thugs.

Won­der­fully, the edi­tor had the pres­ence of mind to tell a news agency cov­er­ing his ejec­tion: “I believe that free me­dia will con­tinue even if we have to write on the walls. I don’t think it is pos­si­ble to si­lence me­dia in the dig­i­tal age.”

Such op­ti­mism faded in the days that fol­lowed. Threats ac­cu­mu­lated. The ex­pert on Turkish pol­i­tics feared for his safety and that of his fam­ily. Un­sure his pass­port would be hon­ored, Bil­imore, ci bought a ticket to Europe and slipped into the In­stan­bul Ataturk Air­port at 3 a.m. alone and with­out bag­gage.

Soon enough he was in Amer­ica. His fam­ily fol­lowed. Here he con­tin­ues to try to re­port the news back to his home­land against tall ob­sta­cles. His ver­i­fied Twit­ter ac­count, for ex­am­ple, is blocked by gov­ern­ment de­mand in Turkey, where he is de­scribed as an en­emy of the state. (Thanks Twit­ter!)

In our boardroom, Bilici de­scribed the cir­cum­stances that brought him to Amer­ica.

A pres­i­dent elected by a pop­ulist surge, who deftly plays to na­tion­al­ist de­sire for a re­turn to the glory days of Turkish dom­i­nance — of the Ot­toman Em­pire — finds him­self en­meshed in shady scan­dal af­ter mem­bers of his in­ner cir­cle are ac­cused of tak­ing bribes to over­look il­le­gal ac­tions by a for­eign coun­try.

A pres­i­dent who works a nar­ra­tive that too many of the coun­try’s judges, aca­demics, jour­nal­ists and hu­man rights ad­vo­cates are part of a cor­rupt ur­ban elite — in­deed part of the op­po­si­tion — and there­fore danger­ous to the coun­try’s fu­ture.

A pres­i­dent who seeks to amend the con­sti­tu­tion to

con­sol­i­date power — against the will of half the peo­ple in his coun­try — and who suc­ceeds in do­ing so.

One month af­ter Erdogan forces took over the largest news or­ga­ni­za­tion in the coun­try as part of his crack­down, a nar­row mar­gin of vot­ers agreed to shift ex­ec­u­tive power from the par­lia­ment to the pres­i­dency, and to grant pres­i­dents three, five-year terms, con­ceiv­ably al­low­ing Erdogan the high com­mand un­til 2029.

Now the death penalty is back. Crit­ics are tor­tured in the jails. A state of emer­gency means ar­rests can oc­cur for the most du­bi­ous of charges, and no one be­lieves the courts are in­de­pen­dent of Erdogan.

Bilici let it all sink in.

In hardly any­time at all, a func­tion­ing democ­racy re­spon­si­ble to the peo­ple has been dis­man­tled and re­placed by a strong­man tyrant whose power de­pends on di­vid­ing the na­tion into loy­al­ists and en­e­mies.

Should Erdogan win re-elec­tion in 2019, his power would only grow.

What hap­pened in Turkey is an ex­treme re­sult of what hap­pens when pop­ulist move­ments and the op­por­tunist politi­cians who en­thrall them lose sight of what’s im­por­tant to main­tain in their tear-it-all-down zeal. Con­cepts like democ­racy and free speech, re­spect for the in­sti­tu­tions that pro­vide checks and bal­ances and the rule of law are too easy to shed while in the throes of raw emo­tion and anger.

You don’t re­ally think it could hap­pen. And then you meet some­one who just lived it first­hand.

Email editorial page edi­tor Chuck Plun­kett at cplun­kett@ den­ver­post.com.

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