Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on Thursday argued with a student of journalism who asked him a question about the state of freedom of the press in Turkey, with the president insisting that there is press freedom in the country, Turkish media reports said on Friday.
The debate took place during a sahoor, or pre-dawn meal, at the presidential palace in Ankara on Thursday where students were invited by Erdoğan’s wife, Emine, for sahoor on the occasion of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
The student, who is in his second year at Ankara’s Gazi University journalism department, told Erdoğan he thinks there is no press freedom in Turkey and that the president should be open to criticism.
The student’s name was not revealed.
In response, Erdoğan said: “You are free just by being able to ask a president such a question in the president’s own house.”
When the student said he did not want to see journalists being jailed in Turkey, Erdoğan said the freedom of a journalist ends when they violate another person’s freedom.
“If a journalist who humiliates my family members in the worst way with insults is arrested within the scope of the law, will you still say, ‘It is a journalist’s freedom [to do such things]?’” Erdoğan said.
Currently, there are around 250 journalists in Turkey’s jails, which makes the country the number one jailer of journalists in the world.
When the student recalled the dismissal of journalist İrfan Değirmenci from Kanal D last year on the grounds that he announced he would vote against a government-sponsored constitutional reform package, which was presented to a public vote in April 2017, Erdoğan said the firing of Değirmenci had nothing to do with him because he was fired by the boss of Kanal D, which was businessman Aydın Doğan at the time.
In response, the student told Erdoğan that the boss of the Kanal D is under Erdoğan’s control.
“Shame on you. The entire world knows how Kanal D’s boss has feelings of animosity for me, but you don’t know this,” Erdoğan told the student.
Turkey is ranked 157th among 180 countries in the 2018 World Press Freedom Index released in April by Reporters Without Borders (RSF).
The most recent figures documented by the Stockholm Center for Freedom (SCF) show that 259 journalists and media workers were in jail as of April 21, 2018, most in pretrial detention. Of those in prison 200 were under arrest pending trial while only 59 journalists have been convicted and are serving their time. Detention warrants are outstanding for 141 journalists who are living in exile or remain at large in Turkey.
Detaining tens of thousands of people over alleged links to the Gülen movement, the government also closed down about 200 media outlets after a coup attempt on July 15, 2016.
The Turkish government accuses the Gülen movement of masterminding the coup attempt while the movement strongly denies any involvement.