May 8, 2015

New report says Turkey’s democracy is regressing

A new report has chronicled Turkey's dismal record on human rights over the past few years, blaming the country's powerful leader for reversing Turkey's recent progress and burying democratic gains.

The report, authored by US civil rights advocate James Harrington, draws a bleak picture of Turkey's poor civil rights record and warns against further regression if the current pace of anti-democratic policy continues unabated. The report argues that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, almost single-handedly, has "reversed the course of Turkey's forward trajectory."

According to the report, Erdoğan essentially seized power, overriding the nation's constitution, and continuing to assume more and more control, while attempting to crush any segment of civil society that won't bend it to his "myopic will," despite international condemnation.

The report claims that Erdoğan has undermined the nation's balance of powers, subjugating the judicial system, the media, regulatory bodies and civil society in general. "Turkey, although technically a democracy, is essentially a one-party state at this point," the report highlighted. This lack of political pluralism "deeply troubles the EU," the report stated, citing it as a major reason for the slowdown in Turkey's accession process in recent years.

Explaining that the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) began to reverse the very democratic reforms which it had once advocated, in order to gain the control necessary to rule without any checks to its power, the report reminded readers that Parliament has passed a contentious law restructuring the top judicial body responsible for the appointment of judges and prosecutors.

"As soon as the law took effect, all disciplinary staff overseeing the courts and prosecutors were removed from their posts. That opened the way to hire new staff to punish those who originally had brought forward the corruption investigations [that became public on Dec. 17, 2013]," Harrington stated in the report, stressing that authorities are tampering with the judiciary, trying to make it more "pliant to their will."

The corruption investigations Harrington cited as having spurred the government in its efforts to eclipse rights and freedoms implicated four ministers, several pro-government businessmen and one of Erdoğan's sons. Harrington pointed out that corruption has always been a persistent problem for Turkey, fueling other types of crime and poverty. He noted that the EU mandated that Turkey make about 130 changes to become more transparent as part of membership accession talks, most of which the government is now "systematically undoing or ignoring."

Explaining that Turkey had been in the process of drafting a new constitution to address many of the issues raised in the report, Harrington said Erdoğan and the ruling party have "stymied and hijacked the endeavor.” The report faulted Turkey for severely restricting the freedom of journalists and for forcing newspapers to exercise self-censorship, saying, "Never in Turkish history has a single person or party -- or even a military regime -- demanded the level of today's media subservience."

Western governments and international press advocacy groups have accused Turkey of suppressing dissent and muzzling critics, forcing the sale of newspapers to government-friendly businessmen and exploiting laws to lock up journalists. Reporters Without Borders (RSF), the world's largest press advocacy group, ranked Turkey 149th out of the 180 countries surveyed, while Freedom House labeled Turkey “Not Free" in its latest press freedom index. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), another leading group advocating press freedom, said Turkish authorities are using never-before-seen methods to stifle dissent in the country. Some 10 journalists remain behind bars in Turkey, while scores of others are facing criminal charges over their reporting.

The report said severe restrictions and censorship over the last few years have resulted in the government essentially controlling or running most of the media, explaining that media outlets generally self-censor, avoiding publishing or broadcasting anything seriously critical of the government.

"The [AK Party] has achieved this, in part by intimidating media enterprises that have other financial interests and hence depend on the government for permits, licenses, and contracts," the report stated, adding that media outlets loyal to the government have become "propaganda megaphones," leading the campaign to defame voices critical of the government. Harrington emphasized, "The independent media that do take the government to task are routinely harassed, blacklisted, threatened with fines, or blocked from access."

The report also extensively covered the massive crackdown on anything associated with the Gülen movement, a group that has been at the forefront of criticism against authorities in the recent past. The president accused the movement of trying to topple his government through the corruption investigations and has linked almost every one of the country's problems to what he calls a "parallel structure." Pro-government media publish and broadcast stories in an effort to defame the movement almost daily. The inspiration for the movement, Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen, denies the charges.

The report said Erdoğan's agenda is incredibly ambitious and contains plans that exceed a suppression of the Gülen movement, also known as the Hizmet movement among its sympathizers, though, according to the report, the president views the movement as a "major foil to his agenda." Harrington also claims that Erdoğan ascribes greater power to the movement than it really has, and tries to link all of his varying opponents to the movement.

Harrington reported that the Gülen movement has had a significant impact on Turkey's politics, helping to build a civil society in a country once dominated by military and autocratic regimes. It has played a part in bringing greater democracy to Turkey and has assumed an interactive role in Turkey's efforts to join the European Union, the report stated.

Published on Today's Zaman, 08 May 2015, Friday