April 18, 2013

Why is the GYV statement on press freedom significant?

Bülent Keneş

As Turkey slows down its democratization and liberalization reforms, and occasionally backpedals on certain reforms, it runs into more serious problems. In particular, the slowdown in the democratization reforms Turkey is supposed to implement within the context of its European Union membership bid results in the deterioration of existing rights and freedoms. The more Turkey distances itself from the Copenhagen criteria -- which represent an important set of standards for democratization, transparency and accountability -- and moves toward, to borrow from Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the Ankara criteria, the more it turns into a country that is making no headway.

Of course, the deadlock in Turkey's EU bid cannot be attributed solely to Ankara's faults. We cannot ignore the braking effect from major European countries such as France and Germany as well as the hampering attitudes from the countries with problematic ties with Turkey, such as Greek Cyprus. But this shouldn't have constituted a pretext for turning our back to the criteria the EU set forth for its members concerning freedoms and democracy. But as we turned our face from the EU bid, we began to witness slowdowns and slackening in our bid to improve our democracy and turn the country into a true democracy. Recent years characterized with the deadlock in the EU membership process have proven that there is not a strong potential for Turkey to implement the democratization reforms with its own internal dynamics.

We all know how Turkey had performed outstandingly at a time when conditions for democratization were less favorable and suitable (for instance between 2003 and 2005) by sticking to the EU criteria. We know further what happens if the country loses its enthusiasm for EU membership. One would wish that democratization processes for the establishment of rights and freedoms our nation deserves should continue full throttle with or without the EU bid. But we have unfortunately observed that this is not the case. What we have witnessed is that when Turkey loses its enthusiasm for EU membership, liberalization regresses, the process of reducing the sphere of the state in the country is reversed and backward steps are taken in the institutionalization of the improvement of the military-civilian ties. Moreover, the indifference to the established problems of Alevis or non-Muslim groups that relate to their identities intensifies.

In particular, the lack of an effective political opposition that would be more democratic, liberal, reformist and human-rights oriented than the ruling party and that would make reasonable proposals about the country's issues has played a major role in the slowdown and regression of Turkey's democratization. Unfortunately, the opposition parties -- the Republican People's Party (CHP) and Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) -- can be considered decades behind in terms of democratization, rights and freedoms in comparison to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), despite some of the latter's highly criticized practices. Another unfortunate thing to note is that the country has neither a bold and independent civil society that would fill the void for a democratic, pluralist, liberal and reformist opposition nor a media network or initiative that would voice the general public's objections and concerns with no strings attached.

As a matter of fact, the media sector represents the domain where the democratic slowdown resurfaces in the most concrete manner. On one side is the government, which exhibits the flexibility of holding direct negotiations even with the leader of the terrorist organization Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) in an effort to create an atmosphere of peace, an initiative that is also tainted with certain personal political aspirations. On the other side is the psychological atmosphere created by this government that allows some iconic figures of the Turkish media sector, such as Hasan Cemal, to be quickly dismissed if they happen to voice the slightest criticism of the government's actions.

Turkey is quickly becoming a country where the quest to improve individual rights and freedoms or raise the bar on the freedom of press is abandoned and where people have to suffice with the rights and freedoms the government graciously bestow on them. Given the fact that citizens are now supposed to wait for the rights and freedoms given to them ex gratia, it is hard to say that such a relationship between citizens and the government is democratic. Serious doubts arise as to the democratic qualities of the media networks that maintain highly problematic ties with the government and that have questionable ownership schemes. Doubts rise as well over their capability to adopt a stance that upholds the honor, dignity and principles of journalism.

At this point, a manifesto-like statement issued by the Journalists and Writers Foundation (GYV) about the recent debate on the press freedom has emerged to place greater emphasis on freedoms as a common denominator for the country. Noting that the freedom of expression and press freedom are among democratic societies' essential fundamental rights, the GYV underlines that in accordance with international norms, it is essential in a democracy that people be able to express marginal and divergent opinions, while remaining outside the scope of hate crime or libel. The GYV further notes that as stated in EU norms, any practice that restricts freedom of the press, such as political oppression, commercial affairs and self-censorship, is undemocratic and unacceptable, and that the commercial and governmental affairs of media owners should not impact freedom of the press.

The GYV stresses that the oppression of the media by political actors with the collaboration of media owners, prioritizing their commercial interests or using their power as a means for blackmail, represent an intervention in freedom of the press. The foundation calls for journalists to take a stance against such pressures and defend the honor and principles of their profession. The GYV draws attention to a very delicate balance. "Freedom of the press neither opens the way for activities that target the abolition of democracy, nor does it provide immunity before the law. This limitation should be applied carefully, however, without abusing journalists working within the boundaries of freedom of expression and professional ethics," it says.

The GYV's statement also highlights the drawbacks of the slowdown and regression in the EU membership process. "Elimination of the problems and restrictions on freedom of expression and the press in Turkey is dependent on the acceleration of emancipatory reforms and the regulation of legislation in accordance with EU norms. In this context, the Press Law, Counterterrorism Law and Turkish Penal Code should first be brought into line with the principles of universal law and the European Convention on Human Rights," it states.

In addition to a number of steps backward that can hardly be reconciled with democracy and rule of law, such as the public procurement law, the match-fixing law and the Court of Accounts, the developments in conflict with freedom of the press have overshadowed Turkey's efforts to democratize in recent years and tarnished Turkey's image, as the GYV stresses. If something is not essentially bad, its image won't be bad forever. But before rectifying our image, we must seek to correct our problematic essence. I hope the GYV's historic statement alarms the government and related circles.

Published on Today's Zaman, 18 April 2013, Thursday

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