On September 18, 2020, the front page of Dimokratia, a right-wing Greek newspaper, featured the headline “Siktir Git Mr. Erdogan,” meaning “F*** Off Mr. Erdogan.” In response, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, leader of Turkey since 2014, filed an aggressively worded criminal complaint against the four people involved. Erdogan’s criminal report and the scramble by Greece and Europe to respond reveals the degree to which Erdogan’s desire for total control over his public image has expanded beyond Turkey’s borders, impacting the way he engages diplomatically with both allies and rivals. This diplomatic tension, unfolding against the backdrop of Turkey’s resumption of talks with Greece over energy control in the Eastern Mediterranean, highlights Erdogan’s use of journalists as leverage in his broader fight for regional hegemony. By weaponizing his abuse of the free press to serve his international agenda, Erdogan is signaling his increasing willingness to push the boundaries of international norms in his overall campaign for more geopolitical power.
Erdogan and the Press
Erdogan has had a rocky history with the press: the Committee to Protect Journalists reports that 47 journalists are currently jailed in Turkey, and Erdogan has sued over 2,000 people for insulting him since taking office. The legal consequences for insulting the president as well as restrictions on vaguely defined “terror propaganda” and content that allegedly threatens national security contribute to an atmosphere of media self-censorship in Turkey. Even for journalists who don’t face legal consequences, the professional pressure to refrain from censuring the Erdogan government is strong, aided by government policies after the 2016 coup that forced over a hundred media outlets to shut down and required others to be transferred or sold at below-market rates to businessmen who are friends or allies of Erdogan. This functional cartel of business interests, which are intimately linked to Erdogan, transforms nearly all Turkish journalism, even privately-owned news outlets, into de facto state media. Because of this tight control, Turkey ranks 154th out of 180 on the 2020 World Press Freedom Index, lower than Russia and Pakistan.
An International Incident
While Erdogan’s relationship with the press in Turkey has consistently worsened since he took office, international outlets have, naturally, remained largely outside of his sphere of influence. The recent Dimokratia dispute, however, has appeared to change this norm: although the offensive headline was published in Greece, Erdogan has attempted to use the same aggressive legal threats that granted him full control of the Turkish press to silence international journalists as well. Rather than address his concerns with Dimokratia to the newspaper directly or to relevant Greek officials, Erdogan has attempted to resolve his dispute exclusively within Turkey’s bureaucracy, a major affront to Greek sovereignty. Inflating the severity of the headline from a personal slight to a perceived international crime, Erdogan’s complaint was submitted directly to the Ankara prosecutor’s office. Although the only “suspects” named in the complaint were the four journalists directly involved in the publication of the article (Manolis Kotakis, Andreas Kapsampelis, Yorgos Giatroudakis, and Dimitris Rizoulis), Erdogan’s complaint also implicated broader Greek society; it asserted that, “considering the silence of the Greek public, it is understood that this moral collapse is not limited to marginal segments.” This view that all of Greece was somehow involved in the headline’s aggressive view of Erdogan’s administration was echoed by Dimokratia itself, who responded to the backlash by saying that their headline “said everything that all the Greeks wanted to say.”
Acting on his complaint implicating the entire Greek public, Erdogan has mobilized all levels of Turkey’s government to fight the perceived slight against him, treating it as an affront to Turkey rather than to Erdogan as a private citizen. Fahrettin Altun, Communications Director at the Turkish Presidency, wrote a letter to the Greek government spokesman Stelios Petsas, stating: “on behalf of the Turkish government, I condemn in the strongest terms the publication of insults directed at our President.” In a letter to Greek Justice Minister Kostantinos Tsiaras, Turkish Justice Minister Abdülhamit Gül goes even further: “I strongly condemn and find this immoral and shameless act unacceptable that is presented under the guise of freedom of the press but is far from the objective of freedom of the press and in no way compatible with the peaceful intentions required by international law.” This understanding of the “objective of freedom of the press,” apparently defined by Gül as media that does not offend the sensibilities of foreign leaders, was not fully embraced by the Greek foreign ministry, which was summoned by the Turkish government over the incident. In response, the Greek ministry wrote:
Freedom of expression and freedom of the Press are fully protected in Greece. This fact does not negate the obligation to refrain from insulting the personality of any individual, particularly a foreign leader. The use of offensive language is contrary to our country’s political culture and can only be condemned.
Although they did not accept Turkey’s broad assertion that insulting Erdogan should be internationally illegal, the Greek officials’ willingness to condemn the headline reveals Erdogan’s surprising influence in Greek matters. By garnering a somewhat receptive response to his rather aggressive claim, Erdogan has succeeded in his goal of pushing the boundaries of Turkish influence a little further, thus encroaching on Greek sovereignty.
Conflict in the Eastern Mediterranean
Erdogan’s decision to use Turkish bureaucracy to fight the headline makes sense, as his complaint argued that “the target of this despicable act was not only the president, but the interest of Turkish nation that Erdogan defends with determination in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Aegean Sea.” Erdogan’s determination to be the sole defender of the Eastern Mediterranean has been the topic of significant international scrutiny lately as Turkey, Greece, the European Union, and NATO have recently resumed talks over energy control in the Eastern Mediterranean. Ever since large amounts of hydrocarbon were discovered in the Mediterranean, Turkey and Greece have struggled to delineate their maritime borders in the region. Typically, such disputes would be decided by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS), which governs the boundaries of exclusive economic zones off the coast of countries. However, Turkey has not acceded to UNCLOS (Greece has), and both countries claim historical control over islands in the Eastern Mediterranean that would make the region their exclusive economic zone. Because of these disputed territorial claims, the issue of regional control remains hotly contested. Control of the Mediterranean is especially important to Turkey, as Cem Gürdeniz, a former Turkish admiral, described gaining control over the sea as “defending our blue homeland [...] after our continental shelf was stolen by Greece and Cyprus,” singling it out as “the greatest geostrategic challenge of the century.”
In pursuit of total control, Turkey has deployed two research vessels near Cyprus over the past few months, ratcheting up tension in the region. These tensions peaked in August, when Turkish and Greek military vessels collided in the Eastern Mediterranean, causing years of slowly bubbling tensions to reach a boiling point. While Turkey has since removed the offending ship from the waters, its recent aggressive moves—the continued deployment of more naval vessels—have exacerbated the consistent tensions between Turkey and the EU over maritime control. In treating the Eastern Mediterranean as Turkey’s exclusive territory before the dispute has been settled, Erdogan has demonstrated his willingness to presumptively act as if he has control over other sovereign states, then occasionally pull back when challenged. While none of these disputes have escalated into military confrontations, Erdogan’s tendency to push the outer bounds of international acceptability demonstrates a deeply concerning trend. The recent criminal complaint against Dimokratia is only the latest in Erdogan’s series of nonviolent but unmistakably aggressive moves toward Greece, which strategically pushes them into a constantly reactive, defensive position when entering talks.
Erdogan’s consistent challenges to Greek control through military actions and attempted media censorship have certainly upset some Greek officials, including Greece’s Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who has stated, “one thing is certain: Turkish provocation, whether manifested through unilateral actions or through extreme rhetoric, can no longer be tolerated.” However upsetting they may be to Prime Minister Kyriakos, Erdogan’s consistent “provocations” may make sense for Turkey’s long-term geopolitical strategy, as they allow Erdogan to regain the perceived upper hand in diplomatic talks mediated by Germany and the European Union (EU). Maintaining dominance in diplomacy is clearly important to Turkey, as Erdogan has repeatedly warned the EU that they must be impartial in negotiations and expressed concerns about possible biases toward existing EU members, specifically Greece and Cyprus. In forcing the Greek people to respond to his complaint against Dimokratia, Erdogan could be attempting to regain some of the influence he feels he has lost in the EU’s mediation.
While Turkey may be somewhat disadvantaged in negotiations with the EU, it is ostensibly on equal footing with Greece within NATO, in which both countries are members. On October 1, Greek and Turkish negotiators agreed to a bilateral de-confliction mechanism through NATO that includes the establishment of a hotline between the two countries to prevent military conflict in the Eastern Mediterranean. Assuming this mechanism will be effective in preventing military conflict, which is far from guaranteed, the NATO resolution only sets the basic groundwork for diplomatic discussions of long-term control over the hydrocarbon reserves. These broader discussions, as of right now, are still being mediated by the EU and its member states.
Erdogan’s decision to target members of the Greek press, whether as a strategic provocation to gain leverage in energy negotiations or simply the protection of a totalitarian strongman’s ego, reveals his disregard for the free press of other sovereign states. Erdogan’s attempted encroachment on Greek press not only highlights his willingness to treat journalists as pawns in his geopolitical power struggles, but also advances his concerning pattern of provocations toward Greece in particular and Europe in general, including his recent assertion that French President Emmanuel Macron needs “some sort of mental treatment.” This comment, coupled with Erdogan’s increasing military aggression, has caused the EU to threaten to impose sanctions against Erdogan if his affronts toward EU nations continue. As Greece and the EU head into energy talks with Turkey, how they choose to respond to Erdogan’s more aggressive maneuvers, both military and diplomatic, may be pivotal in the broader struggle over regional dominance.