Trump's Threat to Press Freedom: Insights from the Turkish Experience

President-Elect Trump’s expressions of distaste for and hostility towards the press were a regular feature of his election campaign.  He blacklisted certain media outlets from his rallies, repeatedly threatened to sue the New York Times, and vowed to “open up” the libel laws to make it easier to sue the press.  Whether he intends to follow through with his threats—and indeed, many of his campaign promises—is far from clear.  But based on his statements and actions to date, President-Elect Trump appears to pose a truly unprecedented threat to freedom of the press in the United States.

If Trump is looking for advice on how one might beat a nation’s press into submission, he might pick up the phone and call Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.  Under Erdogan’s leadership, Turkey has become the world’s leading jailer of journalists.  His efforts to intimidate and silence the Turkish press date back to at least 2012, but they have taken on a new force since the failed attempt to overthrow the government in July of this year.  At least 120 journalists have been jailed just since the coup.  Some 150 news outlets have been shut down; others have been transferred to businessmen with ties to the government.

Two facts about this assault on the press are particularly unsettling.  First, the campaign appears to be working.  The surviving independent newspapers have, it appears, been successfully intimidated to some degree.  The perception among observers is that they are “beginning to pull their punches” on the Erdogan government.  And the effect is unlikely to be confined to journalists.  In an eloquent essay in the New Yorker, Turkish novelist Elif Shafak explains that while authoritarianism poses a risk to all forms of art, the prose writer is at particular risk.  Citing George Orwell, Shafak notes that the prose writer cannot control his thoughts without “killing his inventiveness,” and that the choice for the writer in an authoritarian regime is between “silence” and “death.”  This silence can be corrupting:

Silence is a strange thing, a gooey, sticky substance that sours the longer you keep it inside your mouth, like a gum gone rotten without your being aware. And it carries a contagion: strangely, silence loves company. It is easier to remain silent when others, too, do the same. Silence hates individuality. Silence hates solitude.

A second disconcerting fact is that no end to this campaign—and to Erdogan’s attempts to expand his power more generally—is in sight.  Predictably, Erdogan’s popularity soared in the aftermath of the failed coup.  This is so because the forces who orchestrated the coup—Fethullah Gulen, a cleric living in exile in Pennsylvania, and his followers—presented a very real threat to the stability of the Turkish state.  As a close friend put it to me, the Turkish people see Erdogan as the lesser of two evils.  They are “sick and tired” of his government, but recognize that a successful coup would have plunged the country into instability and chaos.  Stability is hard to come by in that region, and it is worth fighting for—even if it comes at the cost of authoritarianism.

It may be hard for some to imagine such a brutal attack on the press transpiring in the United States.  American courts have, by and large, shown themselves to be guardians of the First Amendment, and efforts to jail journalists would be met with an outcry from the American public.  That may be so—for now.  Threats to national security, real and imagined, can displace deep-seated principles overnight.  The inconceivable becomes normal—even obvious.  And even if he doesn’t replicate Erdogan’s campaign, President Trump could maintain or intensify efforts that President Obama undertook to stymie the press, including seeking to jail journalists who refuse to identify their confidential sources and vigorously resisting freedom of information requests.  One hopes, however, that these actions would be met with more scrutiny from the public than they were under President Obama.

Amy Sanderson28/12/16