Freedom of speech in Turkey has been imprisoned

In Turkey liberal freedoms and human rights are under attack. While the civil society responds with protests, the political leaders are far from taking action.
Photo by Allen Warren / CC by Universal (CC0 1.0) / Source: Flickr

Since July 2016, when a section of the Turkish military led a coup attempt to unseat President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the state of emergency in Turkey has repeatedly been extended. This constant state of emergency has allowed the President and his administration to take decisions and act without parliamentary approval nor constitutional court supervision.

The extension of the state of emergency endangers the rule of law and, consequently, civil rights protection. Human rights organizations, like Amnesty International, denounce the “catastrophic impact” of the unstable political situation on human rights, first of all, and the “arbitrary process” in which more than 100,000 people have lost their freedom.

Ensuring rights by taking them away

To provide the “continuance of measures aimed at securing the rights and freedoms of citizens,” as declared by Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus, many questionable actions have been taken. According to the New York Times, more than 40,000 people have been accused of conspiring against the government, more than 140,000 have been fired or suspended without proofs of crime,  about 1,500 civil groups have been shut down, more than 120 journalists have been arrested and more than 150 news media outlets have been closed. In November 2016 the government decreed the suspension of 370 nongovernmental associations, among them children’s and women’s rights protection groups. Citizens describe Turkey like an “open-air prison.”

Turkey: a prison for journalists

The severe repression of freedom of expression in the country has been analysed in detail by the Human Rights Report for 2017 from Human Rights Watch.

The censorship imposed by the government on media makes the country a one-voice show. The state television platform removed television stations that feature opinions that diverge from that of the government. Moreover, there has also been pressure on the media to replace critical journalists by government-approved employees. Working as a journalist in Turkey has become one of the riskiest professions as far as there is no tolerance for dissident opinions. Among the many journalists who have been detained is Erol Onderoğlu of Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF). The arrests took place without solid proof of misbehaviour, but based just on fanciful accusations by governmental authorities. It is no surprise that among those accused there were also government opponents.

Some true stories

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Turkey accounted for a third of all journalists imprisoned worldwide in 2016.

There are many disturbing stories of threats, arrests and disappearances of journalists, activists, professors, lawyers and others. In all of these cases, the targets are victims of the abuse of power exercised by the Turkish authoritarian regime. Among those is Zehra Doğaneditor of JINHA newspaper. In March 2017, she was “convicted of making terrorist propaganda on the basis of shares on social media, none of which contained incitement to violence,” according to Amnesty International. Describing her experience in detention Zehra said:

They threatened me with torture. One of them suggested I should become his lover, that if I did so, he would save me. It was awful. I kept on saying I am a journalist.”

Neither has the Chair of Amnesty International Turkey, Taner Kılıç, been spared by the government’s hunting. Taner was arrested in June 2017 and he is currently on trial, charged with “membership of an armed terrorist organization.” He faces a prison sentence of up to 15 years.

Several weeks after Taner’s arrest, the Turkish authorities also detained Amnesty Turkey Director İdil Eser and ten human rights defenders. They are currently still in jail waiting for a trial, and many others are facing the same harmful injustice.

While people march…

Amnesty International activists and supporters keep speaking up for freedom and human rights protection.

These brave activists are on trial for no reason except for their belief in human rights. While they defend themselves against baseless accusations, we will march for them. While they are gagged, we will speak out for them.”

More than 10,000 demonstrators from all over Turkey joined the 280-mile March for Justice from Ankara to Istanbul on 15 June 2017 to protest against the government crackdown on politicians, journalists and civil servants. T-shirts and banners call for “adalet”, or justice. The authoritarian deviation in Turkey also worries its neighbours. The European civil society has mobilized to support the Turkish citizens’ fight. In July members of Amnesty International protested  in front of the Turkish Embassy in Paris, trying to capture international attention to pressure the Turkish government to free the human rights defenders arrested

…Leaders watch

The freefall of democracy in Turkey has been looked at with concern from European leaders.  Condemnation of Erdogan’s regime violations have become regular, and therefore empty. Erdogan’s politics are “in blatant contradiction to our European value system,” as affirmed by the German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel, but no serious commitment has been made by the European Union (EU) to pressure the Turkish government about human rights violations. Salil Shetty, the secretary general of Amnesty International, said the EU should use a “host of levers, including its funding to the Erdogan’ regime,” and Manfred Weber as chair of the centre-right European People’s party made calls for the EU to end the accession talks with Turkey. However, Federica Mogherini, EU’s high representative for foreign affairs, replied that it is important to keep a dialogue open with Turkey.

A new appeasement strategy

The EU faces a conflict of interests and needs in the chaotic Turkish situation. It is undeniable that Erdogan’s style is degenerating into an actual dictatorship and it clashes with all the democratic principles on which the EU is based. However, essential strategic interests rely on EU-Turkey understanding: first of all, an agreement on the refugee crisis. Furthermore, Turkey is an important ally in the fight against the Islamic State and the war in Syria, not to mention the Western fear of Turkey falling under Russia’s sphere of influence.

The appeasement strategy used by the British between 1935 and 1939 (to prevent war by accepting territorial claims made by Hitler) is now adopted in a new form by the EU and its members regarding Turkey. In fact the EU seems to be willing to cheat on democratic and liberal values for security and geopolitical calculations. Fortunately, civil society in both the EU and Turkey has shown a strong voice on the international scene, but it is not enough. Policy-makers need to learn from the past and take forward-looking actions in front of a present and concrete threat for democracy.

Categories
Human RightsOpinion
Stefania Mascolo

Stefania is currently a student in International Relations, Security and Development Master program at Universidad autónoma de Barcelona, Spain. Previously graduated in International Relations and Diplomacy at Università di Bologna, Italy, she focuses her studies on European geopolitics and Foreign affairs, along with human and animal rights and environmental defense. She combines International Affairs with journalism and literature through publications and teaching experience in Europe and South America.

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