Once the Editor in Chief of the largest daily circulation newspaper in Turkey, Abdülhamit Bilici now lives in exile in the United States, searching for a job, and doing what he can to bring the injustices of the Erdogan regime to light.
In the Appen Media conference room, in Alpharetta, Georgia, Bilici sits calm, cool and collected at the head of the table. He is sharply dressed and speaks softly; each word calculated.
Just a year ago, Bilici was living in Turkey and leading the Zaman newsroom that boasted nearly a million daily readers of its print edition. That was before the government shut it down after last summer’s failed military coup. By comparison, Appen Media publishes 75,000 copies of Herald newspapers per week.
Bilici explained that the government was able to take over Zaman, and control its editorial direction, by adding members to its board of trustees who were sympathetic to the Justice and Development Party, led by Erdogan.
“They fired any journalists who didn’t like the government and Erdogan, the man who is ruling Turkey now,” Bilici said. “They changed the editorial policy in 24 hours, and made us the mouthpiece of the government. And then, when there was a military coup in July of last year, they shut down the newspaper, together with 160 other news organizations including newspapers, TV and radio stations.”
While the newspaper planned its 30th anniversary, the government started to jail its reporters one by one.
When that occurred, Bilici, a vocal critic of President Erdogan’s, was fired.
“The newspaper was critical of the corruption, and the authoritarian tendency,” Bilici said. “Like other newspapers that were critical, that angered Erdogan. And since he was controlling the judiciary, it was very easy to jail journalists. Now, there are 50 journalists from my newspaper alone [in prison].”
“Almost 90 percent of media is now under control of the government and Erdogan,” Bilici said. “The critical media is limited to maybe 10 percent, and they are struggling to survive. Some of the editors are in jail and have lots of problems.”
In total there are 200 journalists in Turkish prisons, according to Bilici. The Committee to Protect Journalists has kept statistics on jailed journalists since 1990 and reports that 2016 saw a record number of journalists jailed, with Turkey representing nearly a third of all cases.
“Turkey is not a perfect democracy,” Bilici said. “But it was the only Muslim secular democracy in NATO and has been an ally of the United States for 60 years.”
Now, Turkey is headed in a very authoritarian direction.
“We have experienced what happens when freedom of expression is not possible, when the judiciary is not independent, and when the country is ruled by one man,” Bilici said. “Look at Syria. There, one man ruled, and look at the result. Turkey is in a very political region. It is neighbors to Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Russia. Almost 99 percent is Muslim. But it is the only secular Muslim state among  Muslim countries.”
Bilici said Turkey had an exceptional position. With one leg, it was in the West, as a member of NATO and other European institutions. And with the other leg it was among other Muslim countries. So, it could bridge different cultures, religions, and continents.
When asked if he saw any parallels to the attack on media in Turkey, and those in the United States today, Bilici paused.
“Right now, there are no journalists in jail [in America] despite being very critical of the Trump administration,” he said. “There are no judges in jail for deciding cases Trump does not like, and there are no professors fired for teaching things the president disagrees with.”
But, right now, there is a kind of solidarity among journalists covering Trump, and that helps, Bilici explained. Specifically, he cited Fox News’s Shepard Smith’s defense of CNN’s Jim Acosta. They have decided that while each news organization’s coverage may represent different viewpoints or arrive at different conclusions, an attack on one member of the press as an attack on all members of the press.
“When U.S. journalists were denied access to a White House briefing — we had that in Turkey, at press conferences, where press cards were revoked. But in America, there were other press organizations that protested this, together. In Turkey, this did not happen.”
Bilici pointed to several examples of a slow erosion of democracy in the United States. President Trump making declarations about which news organizations are legitimate and which are “fake,” is an attack on the media. Congress ignoring President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court politicizes the Judicial Branch.
“In my view, freedom of expression, and an independent judiciary are two critical red lines for any democracy,” Bilici said.
Bilici warned Americans should keep an eye out for signs of an attack on democracy:
• Using the IRS to target those who disagree with the government or people that the president does not like.
• Labeling individuals “un-American” to erode their reputation or damage their brand.
• Attacking the character or professionalism of what the government deems “controversial” reporters.
• Trading government contracts in exchange for favors, like agreeing to no longer advertise in certain publications.
• Loaning money to media groups in financial distress and then selling the loans to companies sympathetic to the government in power.
Bilici said the media has never been very popular in Turkey. Because of that, it was easier for those in power to get rid of journalists or entire news groups.
Scarier still, Bilici said with the media neutralized, the government is now targeting private businesses, universities and trade unions. In Turkey, 7,000 members of academia have been fired in the past eight months.
“Turkey is very divided today,” Bilici said. “Half of it is very much in love with Erdogan, and the other half hates him. This is very dangerous. We should not hate each other, we should not encourage people in that direction even if politicians would like us to do that. We should love our neighbors, we should love other people that have different opinions. Thus far, we have not been able to do that in Turkey.”