Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has ramped up the pressure on foreign journalists – his most outspoken critics – with a new threat: deportation.
Mahir Zeynalov, 27, an Azeri journalist based in Turkey and writing for the English-language daily Today’s Zaman, was escorted through customs by Turkish authorities Friday for a flight to Baku. The reporter, who covered politics, was sued by Mr. Erdogan in December for inciting public “hatred and animosity” following remarks on the microblogging site Twitter.
“Mahir Zeynalov was deported and left the country,” an Interior Ministry official told The Wall Street Journal on Friday, declining to elaborate on the grounds for Mr. Zeynalov’s ouster.
“My deportation is only a small but a blunt part of this crackdown on the free media,” Mr. Zeynalov said in an email from Baku late Friday. “I allegedly damaged Erdogan’s reputation but they failed to anticipate that my deportation would make a worse damage to the image of the government.”
The move comes as Mr. Erdogan blames the international media for Turkey’s political and economic travails, signaling an increasingly dangerous landscape for foreign journalists as authorities scrutinize their stories and social-media activity for anti-government reports.
Since mid-2013, the premier has repeatedly targeted publications from the Journal to the BBC, Bloomberg, The Economist and Reuters, whose reporting from Turkey has contrasted sharply with domestic news outlets with a broadly pro-government stance.
Mr. Erdogan says international organizations are “foreign conspirators” and part of an “interest-rate lobby” seeking to destabilize the $800 billion economy for their own profit.
Turkey’s government has been under international and domestic pressure since June.
First, it was rocked by month-long nationwide anti-government protests. Then, it became a leading loser in the emerging market sell-off that saw the lira plunge 20% against the dollar, hitting inflation targets and a deteriorating economic growth outlook. Lastly, in December, Turkey was shaken by a bribery probe, ensnaring Mr. Erdogan’s allies and forcing a cabinet shuffle.
“Deporting a reporter for a couple of rude tweets demonstrates the mindset of the people trapped by the corruption probe… like a cat caught in the corner,” said Andrew Finkel, a co-founder of P24, a non-governmental organization supporting independent journalism in Turkey. Mr. Finkel added he does not recall another foreign journalist ouster since arriving in Turkey in 1989.
Mr. Zeynalov was also caught in the crossfire of a bigger fight.
His newspaper is owned by followers of Fethullah Gulen, a U.S.-based Turkish cleric and former ally of Mr. Erdogan. Yet amid widening rifts between the two men, the premier has blamed Gulenists for staging the graft investigation to topple his government ahead of critical elections in March.
Today’s Zaman, and its Turkish-language edition that is the country’s top selling newspaper, has become decisively critical of Mr. Erdogan after supporting the three-term premier for a decade, blaming him for rolling back the government’s reformist, Western-facing agenda. The prime minister denies the charges, and accuses the Gulenist daily of waging a smear campaign by collaborating with the imam’s followers in the judiciary and the police.
“Mahir was particularly vulnerable because he doesn’t have the protection of an international media organization behind him. It would not be as easy to target someone working for Reuters, for example,” Mr. Finkel said.
To be sure, Today’s Zaman is no angel. In 2011, Mr. Finkel lost his column in the paper after editors, then cosy with Mr. Erdogan, deemed his writing too critical of the government.
Still, the ouster of Mr. Zeynalov sets a dangerous precedent, analysts say. Today’s Zaman reported its journalist was sent back to Azerbaijan because the Interior Ministry deemed Mr. Zeynalow’s “presence in the country is detrimental to public safety, political and administrative necessities.” Officials declined to comment on the report when contacted by The Wall Street Journal.
The deportation comes just as international rights groups are sounding alarm bells about the worsening of free speech and press freedom in Turkey, the world’s top jailer of journalists with 40 people behind bars, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, or CPJ.
Just Wednesday, Mr. Erdogan’s government pushed through legislation that enables the authorities to shutter websites and track user information without court decisions, prompting CPJ, Freedom House and Human Rights Watch to call on President Abdullah Gul to veto the measure. The European Union, which Turkey seeks to join, condemned the move as restrictive.
Mr. Zeynalov’s deportation may mark the first instance of a foreign journalist’s ouster from Turkey.
In 1995, Reuters correspondent Aliza Marcus faced trial in Turkey for her coverage of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which is designated as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the E.U. and the U.S., and whose fight for autonomy in the country’s southeast has cost about 40,000 lives. She was acquitted from charges of “openly provoking hatred and enmity” and took a post in Cyprus, according to her website.
Mr. Finkel also faced charges in 1999 for criticizing Turkey’s military, the political heavyweight at the time. And just last summer, Turkish authorities denied Dutch journalist Bram Vermeulen’s request to renew his residency permit and press accreditation. Following a public outcry, officials renewed his paperwork, calling the glitch a “misunderstanding.”
“Deporting foreigners was a ploy by the government against those who said things that the government didn’t like in the ’90s, but which we hadn’t seen since,” said Andrew Gardner, Turkey researcher at Amnesty International. “That these measures are used again is worrying.”