January 28, 2015

Freedom House: Turkey drifting further from democratic reforms

US-based watchdog Freedom House has stated that Turkey has drifted further from democratic reforms, with former Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan rising to the presidency and overseeing government attempts to quash corruption cases against his allies and associates as well as with greater interference in the media and judiciary.

Releasing its annual “Freedom in the World 2015” report on Wednesday, Freedom House, which describes itself as “an independent watchdog organization dedicated to the expansion of freedom around the world,” heavily criticized the anti-democratic developments in Turkey.

The report, in its section on Europe, stated that in Turkey, Erdoğan “consolidated power during the year and waged an increasingly aggressive campaign against democratic pluralism.”

“He openly demanded that media owners censor coverage or fire critical journalists, told the Constitutional Court he does not respect its rulings, threatened reporters (and rebuked women journalists) and ordered radical, even bizarre changes to the school curriculum. Having risen from the premiership to the presidency in August, he formed a ‘shadow cabinet' that allows him to run the country from the presidential palace, circumventing constitutional rules and the ministries of his own party's government,” the report stated.

Erdoğan's remarks from March 2014 about Twitter were one of the highlighted parts in the report, under the “Democracy's opponents” section, with a picture of Erdoğan next to it. “We'll eradicate Twitter. Everyone will witness the power of the Turkish state,” Erdoğan said back then.

Turkey was listed as a “partly free” country in the report in terms of freedoms in the world and was rated 3.5 -- one being the worst and seven being the best. With regards to civil liberties Turkey was rated 4 and for political rights 3. Turkey received a downward trend arrow in the report as well, “due to more pronounced political interference in anticorruption mechanisms and judicial processes, and greater tensions between majority Sunni Muslims and minority Alevis.”

In terms of press freedoms, Turkey was already among the “not free” countries in the last press freedom report of Freedom House released last year. The report also highlighted Erdoğan's intensified campaign against media freedom and civil society as evidence of a growing disdain for democratic standards in the world, along with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi's rollback of democratic gains and Russian President Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine.

The report stated that a troubling number of large, economically powerful, or regionally influential countries moved backward. Turkey was cited among those countries, next to Azerbaijan, Egypt, Kenya, Nigeria, Russia, Thailand and Venezuela.

Freedom House stated that the media and judiciary both faced “greater interference by the executive and legislative branches, including a series of raids and arrests targeting media outlets affiliated with Erdoğan's political enemies.”

The highly critical report stated that the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) won two elections last year despite a corruption scandal implicating government ministers as well as Erdoğan and his family, which emerged in December 2013 and “cast a shadow over Turkish politics throughout 2014.”

“Erdoğan dismissed the evidence of corruption, including audio recordings, as fabrications by elements of a ‘parallel state' composed of followers of Fethullah Gülen, an Islamic scholar who had backed the AKP [AK Party] but was now accused of plotting to bring down the government,” the report stated.

The report also highlighted that more than 45,000 police officers and 2,500 judges and prosecutors were reassigned to new jobs as part of a move the government said was necessary to punish and weaken “rogue officials,” but seen by critics as a move designed to stop anti-corruption investigations and undermine judicial independence. “Erdoğan and AKP officials spoke out against other so-called traitors, including critical journalists and business leaders as well as members of the Alevi religious minority. Media outlets bearing unfavorable coverage of the government have been closed or placed under investigation,” the report said.

Gülen movement being targeted

The government's crackdown on the media on Dec. 14 of last year was also mentioned in the report.

Ekrem Dumanlı, the editor-in-chief of the Zaman daily, was among the detained, but he was later released. Samanyolu TV General Manager Hidayet Karaca was also detained on Dec. 14, and he has been in police custody ever since. “In December, more than 30 people linked to Gülen, including newspaper editors and television scriptwriters, were arrested on charges of establishing a terrorist group; this sparked widespread protests,” said the report.

The Freedom House report also mentioned the government's issuing an arrest warrant for Gülen and a request to extradite him from the US, accusing him of running an armed terrorist campaign. “The latter two events signaled an escalation of the government's campaign against Gülen,” the report stated. “Gülen's faith-based Hizmet movement has been a prominent target of government action, including profiling of its members and closure of some of its schools,” stated the report.

The report also cited the situation in the predominantly Kurdish southeast Turkey. A cease-fire between the government and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) -- which is listed as a terrorist organization by the US, Turkey and the EU -- was in place for most of 2014, the report said. But it was also stated that in March 2014, the PKK started kidnapping Turkish officials, soldiers and civilians, a practice that continued through the remainder of the year.

The report mentioned that the spillover from the war in Syria has also complicated the Kurdish problem in Turkey. Citing that Turkey's hosting over 1 million Syrian refugees, and on top of that 130,000 Syrian Kurds entered Turkey in September alone, the report recalled the Turkish authorities have closed most border crossings to prevent Kurds from going from Turkey to Syria to join the local Kurds' fight against the terrorist Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Allied with Syrian Kurds, PKK attacks on Turkish soldiers along the border in October and related riots and clashes across southeast Turkey that left at least 33 people dead were also mentioned in the report.

Under civil liberties and political rights, the report cited that in the 2014 presidential campaign, Erdoğan made critical remarks about the ethnic heritage of the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party's (HDP) candidate, as well as the Alevi faith of the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) leader.

Corruption is a big problem in Turkey

“Corruption remains a major problem in Turkey,” said the report, citing Cabinet ministers who resigned after the corruption scandal in December 2013, which involved money laundering and government contracts.

The report also mentioned an audio recording that was posted on YouTube in February 2014 in which Erdoğan and his son appear to discuss hiding millions of dollars in cash. Erdoğan said the recording was a “montage” and that he had been subject to illegal wiretapping by elements of a “parallel state,” but opposition parties said the recording was genuine.

“In March, further recordings suggested, among other things, that Erdoğan had interfered in judicial cases, ordered media to run pro-government stories or silence the opposition, and approved the leak of a sex video featuring the former leader of the CHP,” stated the report. It was said in the report that the government denied the authenticity of the tapes and passed a series of laws to more tightly control information, particularly on the Internet.

The report also stated that following the release of recordings implicating Erdoğan and other officials in corruption cases, the government blocked access to YouTube and Twitter. In April and May, the Constitutional Court ruled the bans unconstitutional but the government has since used special courts to pressure Twitter to close the accounts of critical writers and journalists.

“In September, the government passed a new law giving the Telecommunications Directorate [TİB] more authority to block websites and collect individuals' browsing histories,” the report stated.

The report also mentioned problems on the freedom of religion front, saying critics have charged that the AK Party has a religious agenda and that it favors Sunni Muslims. Increased hate speech in the media against non-Muslim minorities in the past year were also cited.

“The Alevis, [who are] non-Sunni Muslims who make up as much as 25 percent of the population, lack protected status,” said the report, adding that Alevis have historically been targets of violence and discrimination, and noting that their houses of worship do not receive state support as Sunni mosques do. The Freedom House report also cited a mining disaster that left more than 300 people dead in Soma last year and subsequent protests. “Both Erdoğan and one of his advisers were caught on video assaulting people during a visit to the town, spurring additional protests,” said the report.

Published on Today's Zaman, 28 January 2015, Wednesday