As we slowly make our way through three separate security checks, a helicopter lands on the grounds of the Turkish president's offices in Istanbul. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has flown in from a different part of the city. The offices in Istanbul – which the president hardly uses, in contrast to the presidential palace in Ankara – are located in the European part of the city and is painted a vivid green. From the building's forecourt, where we are scheduled to meet with the president, one has a view across the Bosphorus to the Asian side of Istanbul. The facility also includes two swimming pools, which can be seen in the photo that Erdoğan had someone take of him following our interview. Before we begin, Erdoğan withdraws for a time to his private quarters and we wait in a drawing room where a television camera has been set up – for the official archive, we are told. The adjacent room has been prepared for a meeting that is set to take place later in the day, Erdoğan's preparatory meeting ahead of this week's G-20 summit. Finally, the Turkish president sits down between two Turkish flags – an interpreter is on hand to translate our conversation in real time. We have been allotted 30 minutes – Erdoğan's standard interview length, we are told. But it will go over by about 20 minutes. It is Erdoğan's first interview with a German print-media outlet in more than five years. During the entire interview, his press adviser repeatedly hands him notecards bearing key words and phrases.
DIE ZEIT: Mr. President, you haven't given an interview to a foreign newspaper for a long time. Is this discussion with a German media outlet a deliberate message – at a time when relations between your country and Germany are at a low point?
Recep Tayyip Erdoğan: Almost six years ago, there was an interview with Bild, and seven years ago with ZEIT, with you. If we now ask ourselves why our connection with Germany in particular has begun to fracture, my answer is very clear: The German media is pursuing a campaign of denigration against us. Part of this campaign has included talks with terrorists.
ZEIT: Why would the media, which is independent in Germany, engage in anti-Turkey propaganda? What kind of interest would it have in doing so?
Erdoğan: I don't believe there is such a thing as "independent media" anywhere in the world. At some level, they are all – whether print or broadcast media – dependent, either ideologically, or they are pursuing their own interests. If there were such a thing as independent media, we wouldn't have all these problems. We see things quite clearly: They head in whichever direction the wind is blowing. The German media is no different. Nobody can say that isn't the case. We know very well that's how things are.
ZEIT: Every newspaper has its own ideological affiliations. There are papers that are more liberal, and others that are more conservative. Some lean more to the left. But as a rule, no publisher – and certainly no politician – in Germany can tell newspaper journalists or editors-in-chief what to write. That is what I meant by independent.
Erdoğan (smiling): Am I supposed to believe that?
ZEIT: I’ve been editor-in-chief of ZEIT for 13 years; and I’ve never experienced any sort of interference, either from a politician or from our publishers. And were that to happen, I would resign immediately because then I would no longer be independent.
Erdoğan: Well, that hasn't been my experience so far. I have gotten to know a great many media heads, spending a lot of time with them and speaking with them. And there have been times when I have had to show them their own newspapers. I have said: "You all speak of ethical rules, but this here is your newspaper. What about this is supposed to be ethical?" It has gone as far as slandering my own family. You have spoken of "financial connections" and of "connections with IS." You have imputed some kind of connections to my children. Do you have proof? No. But you have continued to defame. And because I use very clear words, we are on poor terms with many of these journalists. Why? I speak frankly about everything. Many German newspapers, for example, have written that Tayyip Erdoğan is a dictator. Well, to that, I would ask: How does this outlet define a dictator?
ZEIT: Are you asking why the German public sees you as a dictator? Because in no other country in the world are there as many journalists behind bars as there are in Turkey, more than 150. Because German journalists like Deniz Yücel and Meşale Tolu are in prison, and nobody knows why. Yücel is even in solitary confinement. Because tens of thousands of people lost their jobs because they are suspected of having participated in last summer's attempted coup. Because your intelligence agency has spied on German parliamentarians. Those are a few of the reasons why you enjoy such a reputation.
Erdoğan: The information you are receiving is incorrect. And based on this incorrect information, you develop false assumptions. (He picks up some notecards full of text.) Forty-eight of the people currently in correctional facilities, whose names have been circulated as imprisoned journalists, were convicted of numerous crimes – of terrorism first and foremost – and these verdicts have been upheld by the highest court. That is one point. Five individuals were convicted by local courts, and appeals are ongoing. Of those currently in prison, 177 have claimed to be journalists. Of those, 176 were arrested on suspicion of terrorism, and one due to a different offense. Of those people arrested, 152 have been accused of having participated in the FETÖ coup ...
ZEIT: ... in other words, of being members of the Gülen movement, which is considered a terrorist organization in Turkey and which has been accused of being behind the coup ...
Erdoğan: ... three have been accused of being FETÖ members, 18 of belonging to PKK, three of belonging to DHKP-C (Eds. Note: Revolutionary People's Liberation Front), and one is jailed on suspicion of murder. We should be aware of all of that so that we avoid publishing anything inaccurate.
Then there is – and German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been deeply preoccupied with him – Deniz Yücel. On Feb. 27, 2017, he was accused by the 9th Istanbul Criminal Court of openly inciting the public to hatred and hostility, and of conducting propaganda on behalf of a terror organization, and he was arrested. On March 8, 9 and 22, on April 12 and 17, and on May 9, 2017, he was examined by a doctor. Public prosecutors in Istanbul have discovered that Deniz Yücel spoke with one of the PKK leaders in the Qandil Mountains, that he participated in meetings organized by the PKK, and that he conducted propaganda on behalf of the separatist terror organization. There are currently 29 German citizens in our prisons whose cases are similar to this one. You say that there are thousands of people in our prisons, and that they have lost their jobs. I want to tell you something: When East and West Germany reunified, do you know how many people lost their jobs then? More than 500,000!