The repercussions of the deportation of Today’s Zaman journalist and blogger Mahir Zeynalov due to allegedly critical tweets about Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan snowballed this weekend with statements from international rights and freedoms organizations as well as stories in major media outlets, while the US reiterated its clear stance against restrictions on freedom of speech.
Spokesperson for the US State Department Jen Psaki called on the Turkish government to adhere to the basic principles of democracy, with particular reference to the critical role of an independent, pluralistic media in a strong and healthy democracy.
At a regular press conference on Friday, Psaki was asked about the decision to expel Zeynalov, replying: “We are looking into these unsettling reports. As we have said, we have been and continue to be strong advocates for freedom of expression around the world, and we believe that democracies are strengthened by the diverse voices of their people. We look to Turkey as a democracy and ally to uphold the fundamental freedoms of expression, assembly, and association.”
Zeynalov, an Azerbaijani national, has been put on a list of foreign individuals who are barred from entering Turkey under Law No. 5683 because of “posting tweets critical of high-level state officials.” The directive, dated Feb. 4, was signed by Deputy Police Chief Ali Baştürk on behalf of the interior minister. The Interior Ministry document said that due to Zeynalov’s Twitter comments, his “residence in Turkey is considered detrimental to public security and political and administrative requirements.”
But on Feb. 7, Baştürk issued another document, which appeared to have been hastily put together, indicating that the reporter was expelled because his residence permit had expired. Zeynalov denied this claim and displayed his residence permit, proving that he actually had the right to stay in the country for a further two-and-a-half months. Zeynalov, in an article in Sunday’s Zaman that he sent from Azerbaijan, shared the details of his deportation process, claiming that the government’s struggle to fabricate extra documents to link his deportation with work permit issues was due to the tremendous outrage his case had caused in the international community.
The US-based Freedom House said in Twitter comments on Thursday that the deportation of Zeynalov is press intimidation. On Monday, Freedom House also released a report titled “Democracy in Crisis: Corruption, Media and Power in Turkey,” roundly criticizing the Turkish government’s attitude towards the media. The report said the government places heavy pressure on the press in Turkey through the intimidation of critical journalists with verbal assaults from high-level government officials, mass firings, buying off or forcing out media moguls, wiretapping and imprisonment.
SEEMO: an assault on human rights
Oliver Vujovic, secretary-general of the South East Europe Media Organization (SEEMO), an affiliate of the International Press Institute (IPI), was also very critical of the Turkish government’s intolerance of freedom of expression.
Speaking to the Cihan news agency, Vujovic said: “I see this as an assault on a human right. It is a fundamental right for a journalist, working for one of the leading newspapers of Turkey, to stay with his family in the country where he is working, and with the decision [to deport him] this right has sustained serious damage. The problem gets even more complicated since the person in question is a reporter. This situation is an offense to the basic dynamics of press freedom.”
1Vujovic asserted that it is surprising for this to have occurred in Turkey considering its ambitions to become a “leading nation” with a special position between Europe and Asia. He described the government’s handling of critical media as an “absurdity” given its high-level political aims on the international stage. “Turkey will continue to develop only through respecting basic rights,” Vujovic argued.
Azerbaijani media: Erdoğan ejected him
Zeynalov’s expulsion had wide repercussions in the media of his native country as well. The highest-selling dailies, as well as TV channels and Internet media, all placed special emphasis on the news. Musavat, for instance, a prominent newspaper in the country, ran the event on its pages with the headline “Erdoğan gets Azerbaijani journo ejected from Turkey,” reflecting rumors that Erdoğan himself ordered Zeynalov’s deportation. Newspapers largely reported international reactions to the reporter’s banishment, particularly from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
Well-known online news channel Slate.com ran an article on Saturday titled “Things Have Gotten Really Bad for Journalists in Turkey,” in which it drew attention to the fact that the deportation came soon after the passage of new laws granting the government increased powers of Internet censorship. “Turkey already led the world in both the number of journalists in prison as well as attempts to remove material deemed offensive from Google. But things appear to be getting worse in the wake of last year’s Gezi Park protests and the ongoing dispute over corruption investigations launched into Erdogan’s party,” ran the commentary.
Slate said a new item has been added to these instruments, namely deportation, adding, “The consequences for irritating the prime minister seem to be getting more severe.”
Another article in The New York Times also dealt with Zeynalov’s story from the broader perspective of media freedom. “For Turkish journalists who have faced government repression, censorship, unemployment or jail time as a result of their work in traditional news media, the Internet has been a lifeline. Now, some feel their freedom is also being curbed in the virtual world,” it said.
The Wall Street Journal also informed its readers about the problems facing freedoms in Turkey with an article titled “Turkey’s Latest Media Crackdown Weapon: Deportation.” Zeynalov’s expulsion from the country has coincided with a law allowing government control of online content, it said, adding that these steps signal “an increasingly dangerous landscape for foreign journalists as authorities scrutinize their stories and social-media activity for anti-government reports.”
Zeynalov’s flight information leaked, THY denies wrongdoing
Meanwhile, another scandal erupted when the flight details of Zeynalov and wife, Sevda Nur Arslan, were leaked to social media. A Twitter account known for its dissemination of government propaganda shared details of the couple’s tickets, which is a clear infringement of their personal data. The ticket, issued by Turkish Airlines (THY) for flight number TK 332, caused the perception that Zeynalov’s every step is being followed, violating clear rules in the constitution and laws concerning the privacy of individual life and the protection of personal data. THY Press Director Ali Genç said the company never shares passenger’s details with third parties, but the question of how the Twitter user obtained this information remains unanswered.
On Saturday Zeynalov’s wife, Arslan, who is a Turkish national, sent a message to President Abdullah Gül from her Twitter account, calling on him to pay attention to their situation: “My revered president, you have been too silent recently. We were worried about whether you’re all right. I just wanted to let you know that we have been deported.”