May 12, 2017
By Mary King
For me, recent events echo not only the Watergate investigation, but also a brief but pivotal period in Turkey. In the fall of 2015, my husband and I celebrated my retirement from teaching English as a Second Language in Pittsburgh Public Schools with a two-month trip to Turkey, visiting lots of tourist spots and also catching up with some of the Turkish families we’d come to know. I volunteered for three weeks in an Istanbul middle school alongside a Turkish friend who teaches English to 8th graders.
Do any of these descriptions of Turkish President Erdogan seem eerily familiar? “Tough talk, aggressive action and grandiose swagger are his hallmarks … but he does have a vulnerability: a thin skin. He cannot abide criticism.” He has built a gaudy 1000+ room palace said to exceed the opulence of King Louis XIV. He has used violence and the fear of violence to restrict freedoms of speech and of the press.
Erdogan called for a new election to be held November 1, 2015, following the loss of a majority of parliamentary seats in June. Even as an outsider we could feel the energy and anticipation as soon as we arrived in September.
Mid-trip we stayed in Ulus, an old quarter of the capital, Ankara. On the morning of October 10, the day of the bombing that killed 103, I grabbed a taxi to try to find (typical tourist) more comfortable shoes. Along the main road I started seeing people, mostly young but all ages, walking with signs and banners rolled up. Within a few blocks, shopkeepers were outside their doors peering down the street. Just as we reached a park, the driver abruptly took a sharp right turn. I later realized that this was the final turn before reaching the bombing site. No emergency workers were yet there and people continued streaming down toward the rally, unaware of what was ahead. An acrid odor hung in the air, but I was still clueless.
From an email home to my family:
“The massacre… sad sad sad. Turkey is in a three-day mourning period now. The government stance is that it was ISIS. The people we’ve talked to think it is more likely that some shadow operatives connected to the current president are the culprits. Theories abound. Impossible to figure out who could profit from this. . . . Turkey has made so much progress in so many areas, but most news accounts – English editions of local papers – indicate that this tragedy is further fragmenting the country. Neither of us feels unsafe, but we both feel sad, wondering if Turkey will be able to withstand regional and internal threats to continue to make economic and social progress.”
Jim and I became aware that a crackdown on journalists had greatly escalated in the lead-up to the election. Defamation and insulting the president are both criminal offenses. While we were there, a 14-year-old was jailed on charges of “insulting” Erdogan by ripping down a torn election poster to sell as scrap. Six broadcast channels were shut down following a raid on their stations. The offices of the Hürriyet newspaper were attacked twice by pro-AKP (Erdogan’s Party) protestors and the editor was attacked outside his home. Following the Ankara bombing, there was an immediate ban on reporting about the investigation of the bombing. Fear of reprisal or arrest is said to have led to self-censorship. That October, thousands of Turkish and international journalists held a rally decrying the growing restrictions on the press, citing increased harassment, intimidation and retaliatory violence.
On election eve in Istanbul a huge parade and rally was held. The crowds, representing all the major parties, were excited, many waving Ataturk and Turkish flags. A student I was tutoring invited me to her school to observe the election the next day. Single paper ballots marked with an X were held up, one at a time, for all to see and then a recorder marked the official tally. The government had declared three days of holidays for voting and turnout was 85% of registered voters.
All the major polls were wrong and the results were described as “shocking.” Erdogan won and has recently consolidated additional power through a referendum.
Since returning to Pittsburgh we hear bits and pieces from Turkey. About the dean of a department who no longer has any professors because all nine had been fired. Of a physician who lost his job with no explanation and then learned his passport had been invalidated.
I worry about our protecting and using our own rights – freedom of expression and freedom of the press. Things can change very quickly.
Mary King loves retirement, freelance editing, visiting family, and using her freedom of expression as a member of the Pittsburgh Raging Grannies.