Friday, May 5, 2017

On Turkey’s freedom of expression (or lack thereof)

Last year, Turkey imprisoned more journalists than any other country in the world. After the failed coup in July 2016, the state of emergency Erdogan imposed was specifically aimed at squashing dissident voices. The media took the hardest hit: more than 100 journalists arrested, almost 200 news outlets, TV networks, radio stations, newspapers and publications closed downYouTube, WhatsApp and other social media were temporarily blocked. 


The crackdown and censorship continues, however: after narrowly winning a referendum which considerably expands his power, Erdogan blocks Wikipedia and restricts TV dating shows and purges close to 4,000 more public officials. The reasons for these recent actions are, as usual, vague: Wikipedia contained posts that “smeared Turkey internationally, the Communications Ministry claimed. The matchmaking shows were against the “Turkish family values, culture and faith” and the fired public servants were, of course,” Gülen sympathizers”- the most facile accusation the Erdogan government likes to throw around. This is a democratically elected president who does not like democracy at all, it seems. One of the fundamental tenets of democracy in general, and the European Union in particular, is freedom of expression to which freedom of press and freedom of assembly are connected. In a functioning democracy, the free press- the fourth estate- is a powerful tool the people use to inform themselves on the actions of their representatives and to hold them accountable. Free speech guarantees that pro and against voices will be allowed and heard; in a democracy it is safe to have unpopular views. Not so in Turkey. 


The government and the president are shutting down everything that sounds even slightly critical. The case of the opposition newspaper Cumhuriyet is a famous example as in November 2015 its editor-in-chief Can Dündar and one of his colleagues were arrested on charges of disclosing state secrets and espionageThey spent 3 months in solitary confinement and were then released for trial. The trial was also marred with irregularities: the prosecutors asked for the Turkish Intelligence Agency and the president himself to be the official plaintiffs, which the judge allowed. The trial was then abruptly closed to media and the public. While Dündar was outside on a break talking to journalists, a man tried to assassinate him. On that same day, both the editor and his colleague were sentenced to seven years in prison, six respectively. They appealed the decision and subsequently, Dündar fled the country. A year later, in October 2016, the police raided the newspaper’s offices in Istanbul and arrested 12 of the journalists on trumped up propaganda charges many of whom are still in jail awaiting trial. 


Following the referendum, the European Christian Political Movement has organized a conference at the European Parliament to which they have invited a Constitutional Law professor from Turkey to speak on the most recent changes in his country (we will keep his name anonymous, for his protection). The professor has politely declined the invitation, informing ECPM that his passport was taken and he is not allowed to leave the country. The reason for his persecution was not revealed to ECPM but it is known that thousands of academics have been fired and censored because Turkey claimed that they are connected to Gülen, Turkey’s "enemy of the statewho is thought to be behind the coup and believed by Turkey to be maintaining a “parallel state structure” in Turkey from his self-imposed exile in the United States.  


Because of these cases (and hundreds of others!), the Council of Europe has placed Turkey under human rights monitoring, the first time such a probe is reopened regarding one of the council’s members. One of the main concerns stated by the council is precisely the imprisonment of journalists and it asks for their immediate release! Ankara has, of course, slammed the Council’s decision and accused it of Islamophobia. It is shocking and horrific to see how, time and again, whenever the Turkish government is accused of grave violations of human rights and anti-democratic measures, instead of correcting course, it doubles down and defends its abuses. It signals a sort of defiance and contempt on the country’s part like we have not seen since Ottoman Empire time. It is high time Europe takes this matter head-on and stops accession talks with Turkey. Sign the petition!