Turkish exile speaks on limit of free press

Amelia Brett

A Turkish newspaper executive in exile spoke Wednesday at Western Kentucky University about how the control of free press relates to political changes in Turkey.

Abdülhamit Bilici was the editor-in-chief of Zaman, formerly Turkey’s largest newspaper. It has since been shut down due to governmental conflict that resulted in tighter censorship of the media.

The talk covered Bilici’s firsthand experience of the building of an autocracy under its current president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Bilici said Erdoğan cracked down on anything that clashed with his terms of rule, and this included the newspaper.

“It was a very dark day,” Bilici said. Tear gas and water cannons were used against protesters as the government was shutting down Zaman, he said.

The problems started when some of Zaman’s reporters asked questions Erdoğan did not like, Bilici said. He said Erdoğan began limiting reporters from attending meetings, and eventually the newspaper was attacked and silenced.

“I’m fortunate I am free now,” Bilici said. He said he was receiving regular threats and left Turkey 20 days after Erdoğan took power.

Bilici said Erdoğan also called for boycotts of publications and attempted to ruin the reputations of other newspaper owners. He said many of his close friends are now in jail.

“I picked that career because there were very important principles that newspaper stood for,” Bilici said. He said they fought against fake news and discouraged violence.

The publication had eventually grown to reach international audiences. Bilici said the newspaper also promoted the possibility of Turkey joining the European Union and hoped for peace.

“It was an important news source for the world,” Bilici said. He said the halt of the newspaper happened in a very short time.

“If you are not able to protect press freedom, you cannot protect yourself,” Bilici said. He said Turkey should join together to protect basic rights.

Bilici said Americans can help by petitioning politicians to gain a voice for the issue. Turkey currently ranks as 155 out of 180 in terms of press freedom in the world, he said.

“A country that was taking great progress towards democracy has started to reverse,” Carol Alicie, a WKU School of Journalism and Broadcasting adviser, said after the talk concluded.

WKU’s School of Journalism and Broadcasting and Department of History helped make the event possible.

“It gives students the opportunity to meet and hear from individuals from other parts of the world,” Dr. Robert Dietle, an associate professor at WKU and interim director of the School of Journalism and Broadcasting, said. He said the overall lesson is the importance of maintaining the free press in the democratic system.

Digital reporter Amelia Brett can be reached at [email protected]