May 9, 2015

Being in the same league as Turkey

Sevgi Akarçeşme

During a panel discussion on media freedoms by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation and the Turkish Confederation of Businessmen and Industrialists (TUSKON) in Brussels, when one of the speakers, a Hungarian colleague, Attila Mong, said that it is a strange feeling to be placed in the same league as Turkey, I could not help but feel deep sorrow for my own country.

CPJ panel on press freedom in Turkey

Despite a brief period of hope for democratization during the first term of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), Turkey has never been in the top tier of nations as far as freedom of expression and media are concerned. However, without a doubt it descended to a lower league in which nobody would like to be categorized. That said, the Hungarian journalist did not try to hide his displeasure at Hungary being in the same category as Turkey despite the obvious deterioration of press freedom in his own country.

With the latest arrests of judges due to their decision to release journalist Hidayet Karaca, the arbitrary rule in Turkey, or as I call it “arbitrocracy,” broke its own record of unlawfulness. There is currently a consensus abroad that Turkey lost the faltering rule of law in the hands of single-party rule. People at home could still be lured by the misinformation of pro-government pundits whose sole motivation is the huge salaries they receive in return for their loyalty to the AKP. In the meantime, Turkey's image suffers terribly for the right reasons.

I hate to sound like an “orientalist” who glorifies anything “Western.” However, comparing the substantial debate in Brussels with the media structure in Turkey, which resembles nothing more than a poorly written play, I wondered why we lack this culture of compromise and debate not only in politics, but also in our media. My Hungarian colleague's open discomfort with his country's inclusion in Turkey's league did not add insult to injury because his reasoning is justified. Yet, based on what he said, if Hungary's popular Prime Minister Viktor Orban continues in this track, Hungary's media structure will be no different from the suffocating Turkish example. Parallels have already been drawn between Orban and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, or as someone in the audience called him, “Erdoban,” but the tactics are strikingly similar: encouraging friendly businessmen to own media outlets, allocating big chunks of ads to pro-government papers and TV channels, increasing self-censorship among journalists and introducing an Internet tax to limit access to free news outlets.

These methods are not unique since all authoritarian governments first target the media to diminish people's right to information. However, the Hungarian case is especially important because it is a member of the European Union. It is almost scary that even EU membership cannot guarantee freedom of expression and media when power corrupts. For this reason, Brussels correspondent for the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) Jean-Paul Marthoz urged that EU bodies to take action and introduce sanctions if necessary both for Hungary and Turkey. In response to possible objections based on sovereignty, he said that this is not interference in domestic affairs, but questioning the countries' commitment to EU values. But what leverage does the EU have, especially in the case of Turkey? What if the one-man rule in Turkey no longer cares about EU membership? How to deal with authoritarian regimes still seems like a valid debate in the absence of effective leverage. Turkey is no exception, especially while growing authoritarianism provides a convenient excuse for those who are already against Turkey's membership in the EU.

Despite all this, Marthoz the EU to make a commitment to media freedoms a membership criterion and ally with the “best of Turkey” who fight for democracy. Probably under the influence of my hurt national pride, I joined him, saying that the people of Turkey deserve better than arbitrocracy, although things will not improve with a magic touch in the foreseeable future.

As I listened to the CPJ's concerns over media freedoms even among EU countries, since two-thirds of the member states have laws that somehow criminalize libel, though not consistently enforced, I remember democracy is a work in progress. Some countries are still working on the construction of the building of democracy while others are worried about interior design. Indeed, struck by the earthquake of one-man rule, Turkey wonders whether even its half-completed building will remain intact or not.

Published on Today's Zaman, 09 May 2015, Saturday