GAZIANTEP, Turkey — This was to be an extraordinary week in my career and life. It has turned out to be just that — but hardly in the way I expected.
I arrived here Tuesday morning to receive a great honor. The mayor and city council decided several months ago to make me an honorary citizen in recognition of reporting I did years ago that resulted in saving exquisite Roman mosaics about to be lost to flooding.
A lavish ceremony was planned. Tickets were printed. A professional interpreter was engaged so I would not have to expose my fractured Turkish.
Upon my arrival, however, my acutely embarrassed hosts sat me down and told me the ceremony, and my honorary citizenship, had been canceled by personal order of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Gaziantep’s mayor was given the order while attending a United Nations conference in Paris. Later, according to one of my friends here, Erdogan’s office sent her a fax describing me as “an enemy of our government and our country.” Attached as evidence was a Jan. 4 column I wrote for the Boston Globe that included a critical paragraph about Erdogan.
It said, “Once seen as a skilled modernizer, he now sits in a 1,000-room palace denouncing the European Union, decreeing the arrest of journalists, and ranting against short skirts and birth control.”
In many countries, a head of state would not even acknowledge a few unflattering sentences published ın a newspaper thousands of miles away, or might shrug them off with no more concern than an elephant shows for a mosquito. Erdogan, however, takes an intense interest in what the press writes about him. Many of the country’s independent journalists have been forced from their jobs. Those who remain are expected to toe his party line.
Hasan Cemal is one of those who refuses to do so. When accepting a journalism prize at Harvard recently, Cemal said that the guidance Turkish editors give reporters who cover Erdogan boils down to: “The honorable gentleman should not be disturbed.”
According to protocol, the Gaziantep authorities had to ask permission from the foreign ministry in Ankara, the capital, before honoring me. It was duly granted. At the last minute, though, someone close to Erdogan evidently showed him my five-month-old Globe column and persuaded him to revoke approval.
“We never thought the long arm of Ankara would reach so deep into the local affairs of Gaziantep,” one crestfallen city official told me, “but it did.”
A few hours after I was given the bad news, a group of civic leaders took me to dinner to ease the pain. All were intensely apologetic.
“Everyone here was so proud about this,” one told me. “No one imagined that anything you wrote could be a problem. They couldn’t have, because our mayor and most of our city councillors speak no English and can’t read your columns. We are in shock.”
The reporting that earned me recognition in Gaziantep dates back 15 years, to when I headed the New York Times bureau in Turkey. My story about planned flooding of an ancient site set off an international reaction. Dozens of mosaics were saved. A world-class museum was built to house them. In 2010, the number of tourists coming to Gaziantep reached 1 million. I asked one entrepreneur here how many tourists came before the mosaics were discovered, preserved, and placed on display.
“None,” he replied. “We never saw a tour bus. There were no bıg hotels. You have changed the fate of Gaziantep.”
I never sought or even imagined the honor that the mayor and city council had decided to bestow on me. Even more surprising was Erdogan’s decision to order it revoked just as it was about to be conferred.
These have been a remarkable few days ın Erdogan’s escalating war on the press. Last week one of his faithful prosecutors asked courts to close two television stations for “promoting terrorism.” Then Erdogan denounced one of the country’s leading newspapers, Hurrıyet, for printing a headline he found offensive. In reply, Hurrıyet published an editorial asking, “Mr. President, you say we ‘live our lives in fear.’ Why should we live in fear? Why does the president of a democratic country tell his citizens that they live in fear? Are fear and democracy two concepts that can stand side by side?”
On Monday, during a speech ın Istanbul, Erdogan denounced The New York Times for publishing an editorial criticizing his “brute manipulation of the political process” in advance of parliamentary elections scheduled for June 7.
“You are a newspaper and you will know your place,” he snarled. “You are interfering in Turkey by running this story, and going outside the boundaries of your freedom.”
Those boundaries seem to be tightening in Turkey. For me, this means that the space on my wall reserved for my honorary citizenship certificate will remain empty. Perhaps I will hang an empty frame to remind me of the honor I almost won.
Stephen Kinzer is a visiting fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University. Follow him on Twitter @stephenkinzer.