ISTANBUL (AP) — Ebru Umar was sleeping in her summer residence on Turkey's Aegean coast when police arrived at her door and took her away for questioning about two of her tweets that were deemed offensive to Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The Dutch-Turkish journalist, a columnist for The Netherlands' Metro newspaper, was released the next day but has been barred from leaving Turkey as authorities continue to investigate whether she should be charged for insulting the Turkish leader.
"I thought it was a joke," said Umar, who tweets so frequently she wasn't even clear which of her missives caused offense. "I saw three police stations in one night. It's stupid. This is just intimidation."
Umar is not alone. There are nearly 2,000 cases open in Turkey against individuals, including celebrities and schoolchildren, accused of insulting the president, whose zero tolerance for criticism is the subject of a growing litany of zingers in Western mainstream media and comedy shows.
Turkey's independent media landscape is rapidly shrinking as a result of government-sanctioned takeovers and forced closure.
Journalists have lost their jobs for critical tweets and retweets. Others are on trial on charges ranging from espionage to making terrorism propaganda. Gag orders are common.
Erdogan, who became Turkey's first directly elected president in 2014 after serving 11 years as prime minister, was once hailed as a reformist. In the eyes of supporters, he had done more than any other leader in advancing Turkey's bid to join the European Union, injected new life into the economy and came closest to resolving a decades-long conflict with Kurdish militants.
But as he has consolidated power with successive electoral victories, the Turkish leader has backtracked on many of the EU-oriented reforms and is taking increasingly drastic measures to safeguard his reputation, which has taken a hit with a corruption scandal ensnaring people close to him in 2013 and with his progressively authoritarian style of governing.
The judiciary has been a key instrument in the crackdown on dissent, with Erdogan prosecuting critics not only at home but also abroad.
Press freedom defenders say Erdogan himself triggered this downward spiral. The Turkish president has advocated loosening the legal definitions of "terror" and "terrorism" to include anyone — including journalists, legislators and scholars — who voices support for "terrorism."
Turkey's war on terrorism encompasses three fronts. While being part of the international coalition against the Islamic State group, Ankara has domestic foes of equal concern — Kurdish militants waging a renewed insurgency in the southeast and loyalists of a U.S.-based cleric opposed to Erdogan, who are not known to have used violence at all.
Umar is one of many journalists — local and foreign — facing problems for tackling such issues critically or using social media in a manner that offends the authorities. "You can't investigate people for doing their job," Umar said. "If people feel offended, it's their problem. Get a life! Get a skin!"
In a recent column, Umar lambasted an appeal sent by Turkey's consulate in Rotterdam urging Turks in the Netherlands to report cases of people insulting Turkey or its leader.
Her case is one of many to strain EU-Turkey relations, but concern over freedom of expression is only one of the issues shaping the way Turkey and EU countries deal with each other.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel triggered an uproar when, on the basis of an archaic law that criminalizes insulting foreign heads of state, she allowed prosecutors to consider charging a German comedian who mocked Erdogan in a profanity-packed poem.
"I am very glad America doesn't have a similar law or I would be in a maximum-security prison right now," British comedian John Oliver, the host of HBO's Last Week Tonight, joked. Britain's Spectator magazine responded to the diplomatic fiasco by setting up an "Insult Erdogan" contest.
Critics saw Merkel's concession as evidence the European Union is willing to overlook rights abuses in Turkey as long as it helps address the migrant crisis.
While representatives of rights groups and even diplomats have shown up at controversial legal proceedings in Turkey — a move that has earned the foreign envoys public rebuke from Turkish officials — European leaders have largely pulled their punches when tackling the topic of press freedom in Turkey.
European leaders should stop making the migrant issue their priority "because it is really dangerous for Europe itself if Turkey becomes a country where democracy step by step disappears," said Reporters Without Borders Secretary-General Christophe Deloire.
"In the long-term, it is really dangerous to have a country, with so many crises — migrants, Islamic jihadism, terrorism — so close to the borders where independent journalism would be impossible," he added.
On Saturday, EU Council President Donald Tusk was walking on eggshells, trying not to offend his Turkish hosts while at the same time condemning moves to prosecute the German comedian. Tusk said that as a former Polish prime minister he had himself "learned and accepted to have a thick skin."
"The line between criticism, insult and defamation is very thin," Tusk added. "The moment politicians decide which is which can mean the end of freedom of expression."
U.S President Barack Obama, in contrast, has been more outspoken. On April 1, Obama said he had told Erdogan directly that Turkey's approach toward press freedom could take the country down a "very troubling" path.
Turkish officials insist that no journalist is in prison for their work, but they have been arrested for other criminal activities, such as links to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK.
Others, like German magazine Der Spiegel correspondent Hasnain Kazim, have been denied renewal of their accreditation or, like U.S. journalist David Lepeska, refused entry at the airport.
The government denies shortfalls in freedom of expression or that it is clamping down on the free media. Erdogan has famously said the fact that the media is "full of insults" to him and his family is proof that the press is free.
At the joint news conference with visiting EU leaders on Saturday, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said: "Democracy, press freedoms are our rising values. We respect them and will continue to do so."
He questioned, however, whether insulting Erdogan can be considered a freedom.
"Press freedom should not ignore human rights and respect to a person's honor," Davutoglu said. "We need to be able to debate whether strong insults to the president of a nation can be assessed as press freedoms."
Fraser reported from Ankara. Michael Corder in The Hague contributed reporting.