Erdogan slams 'vulgar, worthless' headline, promises punishment

With more than 150 journalists and writers in jail in Turkey, president Erdogan's latest criticism of coverage wouldn't be a surprise – except this time it's directed at a female journalist considered to be close to the government.

Turkish journalist faces investigation for article that angered Turkey's president

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke to the media before travelling to Pakistan on Feb. 28, taking time out to rail against Hande Firat's item in the Hurriyet newspaper. (Kayhan Ozer/Pool photo via AP)

A chilling fog cloaked Istanbul this week, creeping up slowly, making a mess of daily life. The thick shroud offered an obvious metaphor in the country that has the highest number of jailed journalists in the world, and came just as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan took questions from reporters in Turkey's largest city.

Responding to an uproar this week about a headline in the well-known Turkish daily Hurriyet, Erdogan was unequivocal:

"The headline is vulgar, worthless," Erdogan said. 

Neither this newspaper nor its bosses have the power to publish a headline like that.- Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan

The offending words, this time, translate roughly to "The Commanders are Uneasy," and were splashed on the front page of the paper's Saturday edition.

The article cited military sources saying the military had not been consulted on a recent decision to allow female soldiers to wear headscarves. If the goal of the article, as the paper has said, was to clear up misconceptions about the army, it instead seemed to allude to discord between the military and Erdogan's government.

"Neither this newspaper nor its bosses have the power to publish a headline like that," Erdogan said, adding legal action has been taken.

Journalist faces investigation

With more than 150 journalists and writers in jail here and criticism regularly lobbed at many others, Erdogan's comments may not come as a surprise. What is a surprise is that the article was written by a journalist considered to be close to the government.

Hande Firat became a household name in Turkey on the night of the failed coup attempt on July 15 last year. She got Erdogan on the CNN Turk news network, live via the Facetime app, as the coup was unfolding. In that appearance, the president called on Turks to fill the streets in response to the rogue soldiers — and they did.

She has been a pro-government media star ever since.

Firat herself once said being a journalist doesn't ensure special protection, that a journalist can be charged with a crime just like anyone else.

Within hours of Erdogan's comments on Tuesday, the newspaper published an apology and explanation. By Wednesday afternoon, the paper's editor was removed from his job, and Firat was facing an investigation.

Turkish journalist Hande Firat faces investigation for an article she wrote in the Hurriyet newspaper that angered the country's president. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

"Those who are trying to turn us against each other are going to pay a heavy price," Erdogan said, referring to his government and the military. "I don't find it forgivable."

It's worth noting the headline's phrasing recalls major historical events in Turkey. Some journalists have pointed out that similar headlines were published before past military coups. The scars of last summer's coup attempt have not healed for many in this country, and certainly not for Erdogan or his supporters; the symbolism of the words clearly crossed the lines they've drawn.

Censorship comes ahead of referendum

Firat may emerge unscathed, but German-Turkish reporter Deniz Yucel is facing a potential 10-year sentence for what prosecutors allege is publishing terrorist propaganda.

Yucel, who writes for the German daily newspaper Die Welt, is the first German reporter to be arrested in Turkey. He is also a Turkish citizen. His article referenced emails purportedly from the account of the country's energy minister, obtained by hacktivists. That minister is also Erdogan's son-in-law.

Long before the developments of this week, international organizations were sounding the alarm about treatment of the media in Turkey. 

Protestors gather outside the Turkish Embassy in Berlin on Feb. 28 to support German-Turkish journalist Deniz Yucel, who was arrested in Turkey. (Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters)

Members of advocacy group PEN International visited Istanbul in January to meet with some of the country's government officials and with some of the imprisoned journalists and writers here. PEN says Turkey is the biggest jailer of journalists in the world

Canadian philosopher and writer John Ralston Saul, who was part of the delegation, told CBC News the group warned officials that censorship will compromise the upcoming referendum on a presidential system in Turkey.

The country of 80 million is set to vote April 16 on whether to approve greatly expanded powers for Erdogan.

"The authorities said to us repeatedly 'After the referendum everything will be quiet, everything will be fine,'" Saul said. "We said to them, 'Look, we can tell you that from our experience, this will backfire. If you force a vote without freedom of expression, the people inside the country who disagree with you will reject it. You've actually set the table for disorder," he said.

Another PEN member, Turkish novelist and once jailed journalist Burhan Sonmez, cautioned against the misconception that Turkey's situation is an isolated one. He pointed specifically to the United States.

"Trump?" he asked. "We've already got a more powerful Trump in Turkey. If America would like to see their future if they don't change their road, maybe they have to study the history of the recent Turkish political system." 

Taking sides

Though the number is shrinking, there are still many journalists and news outlets who freely report on what is happening in Turkey. Why are some targeted and others not? In some cases, it is tied to the media ecosystem here. Journalists write articles the government's supporters don't like, and are attacked on social media. After that, pro-government news outlets chime in. Then the government intervenes. 

Istanbul was shrouded in fog Tuesday and much of Wednesday; the rules for covering the current administration are also hazy. (Turgut Yeter/CBC News)

And while few would argue the importance of tackling sensationalist or unethical journalism, the government's rules don't appear to apply to media outlets that are closest to the administration.

So the rules are hazy.

In Istanbul, the fog finally began to lift on Wednesday evening. Life started to go back to normal for most.

Just not for the journalists still awaiting their fate.


Nil Köksal is the host of World Report, CBC's flagship national radio news show. She begins her mornings with more than a million loyal listeners. She returned from her post as CBC’s foreign correspondent in Turkey in 2018.