Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan delivered remarks Sunday promising that his government would continue to work on expanding rights and freedoms, after a week in which the disappearance of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi has triggered renewed scrutiny of Erdoğan’s ongoing media crackdowns.
Khashoggi disappeared on October 2 after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, seeking marriage paperwork. The Saudi government admitted late Friday that Khashoggi died in the consulate, claiming that an altercation occurred between the 59-year-old journalist and 18 other men.
The Turkish government has largely abstained from on-the-record statements about the investigation into what happened to Khashoggi. Erdoğan personally accused the Saudi government of “painting over … toxic materials” at the consulate, however, and anonymous Turkish government sources have planted a variety of sensational stories in domestic and international outlets regarding Khashoggi’s fate.
While Khashoggi’s disappearance and the subsequent Saudi admission of his death have prompted global condemnation of the Saudi government, that the events occurred in Turkey have also renewed interest in Erdoğan’s campaign against journalists he calls terrorist sympathizers, particularly ones accused of supporting exiled Islamic cleric Fethullah Gülen. Erdoğan addressed those concerns on Sunday while speaking at the Turkey Youth Foundation (TÜGVA) headquarters, according to the newspaper Hurriyet.
“We will continue to work on expanding rights and freedoms, as well as improving democracy, although some people have made a habit of distorting the reality,” Erdoğan reportedly said. He defended his ruling Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) from claims that it had limited Turks’ exercise of their rights, instead claiming the AKP had “never intervened with people’s lifestyles and has not narrowed the freedoms of any ethnic or religious group.”
“Those who are disturbed by Turkey’s last 16 years are the ones who have lost their privileged status,” he argued. “Terror organizations and their supporters are also the ones who have lost their grounds in the last 16 years.”
Erdoğan also reportedly addressed the ongoing Khashoggi investigation, promising an official statement on the matter Tuesday.
“We are looking for justice here and this will be revealed in all its naked truth, not through some ordinary steps but in all its naked truth,” Erdoğan said. “Why 15 people came … why 18 people were detained … These things have to be told in detail.”
Erdoğan spoke to President Donald Trump on Sunday, according to the Turkish government, to discuss the handling of the Khashoggi case. The official government report did not specify in detail what the two spoke of, although according to pro-Erdoğan newspaper Sabah, the two men “agreed all aspects surrounding the death of Khashoggi.”
Erdoğan’s remarks will be highly anticipated, as he has not issued any clear statement on if whether believes the official Saudi version of how Khashoggi died or the anonymous Turkish government reports that have alleged a variety of gruesome fates for Khashoggi – among them that he was dismembered alive, or dissolved in acid, or carried out of the embassy rolled up in a rug. Erdoğan has received some credit in domestic American media, notably the New York Times, for weaponizing leaked investigation details in a “remarkably effective” way to pressure the United States to condemn Saudi Arabia in Khashoggi’s name. Perhaps to highlight this sort of coverage, the top story at the official website of government news outlet Anadolu Agency declares that a new survey has proclaimed Erdoğan the “world’s top influential Muslim.”
The Khashoggi case does not erase the history of Turkey’s relationship with journalists under Erdoğan, however. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) declared Turkey the “world’s worst jailer” of journalists in 2016 and 2017. A third of the world’s imprisoned journalists are believed to be held in Turkey, Fox News noted this week, citing a Mideast expert who called Turkey’s role in the Khashoggi story “absolutely hypocritical.”
Khashoggi’s disappearance became an international news story just as Erdoğan increased pressure on Germany to hand over Can Dündar, the former editor-in-chief of secularist newspaper Cumhuriyet. Dündar and former Istanbul bureau chief for the newspaper Erdem Gül were arrested and charged with aiding terrorists after publishing a detailed report accusing Ankara of shipping weapons to Sunni rebels in Syria. Cumhuriyet has also lost 17 other editors to arrests on similar charges.
Dündar fled to Germany after being the target of an assassination attempt before the steps of an Istanbul courthouse in 2016.
“This individual [Dündar] is convicted by Turkish courts for spying and disclosing state secrets,” Erdoğan had declared in late September, demanding Germany return the “convict and spy.” Dündar’s case remains ongoing.