March 8, 2016

Democracy in Turkey is a European matter

Theodoros Benakis

Turkey has drawn international attention for its key role in the refugee crisis, as well as Russia’s aggressive behaviour following the Kremlin’s decision to intervene in the Syrian crisis. The European Union has recognized the challenged Turkey is facing, appreciated its strategic significance, and has in turn tried to support Ankara, politically, materially, and diplomatically.

For both the security and social challenges Turkey is facing, it is deserving international sympathy and solidarity, especially by its European partners.

But Ankara is not interested in international sympathy, and does not care for solidarity unless it is material and tangible. Rhetoric and policy stemming from Ankara in recent months indicate a sinister strategy of trying to leverage its geopolitical significance to force Europe to connive with primarily domestic objectives. In exchange for working with Europe to address a complex security challenge with significant humanitarian repercussions, Turkey is demanding from Brussels to look the other way, if not connive in human rights suppression, including the suppression of media.

As people of the press we care when suppression of the media happens, anywhere. But, there are policy and political considerations that we should take into account when it comes to Turkey in particular.

Press Under Fire

Turkey’s government is trying hard to consolidate its authoritarian rule over the country. To achieve this, it is systematically undermining human rights, media freedom and the constitution itself in order to eradicate any opposition and silence critical voices. The “Freedom of the Press” indicator shows Turkish standards of journalism tumbling for a fifth consecutive year. Currently, Turkish press is “not free,” according to Freedom House. On The Reporters without Borders World Press Freedom Index, Turkey ranks 149th among 180 states, that is, below Myanmar, Zimbabwe, and Mali.

Turkey’s biggest newspaper, Zaman, was placed under state control on Friday 4 March. Up until March 4, Zaman boasted a daily circulation of approximately 650,000 papers. Paradoxically, Zaman’s editorial line was originally supportive of the Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) administration. In time, the paper turned into one of its staunchest critics. The shift was largely due to AKP’s entourage involvement in corruption scandals.

In addition, Zaman is associated with the Hizmet or more commonly referred to as Gülen movement. Spread across Turkey and Central Asia this is a movement spiritually led by Fettulah Gülen, who resides in the United States as a preacher of a modern and tolerant version Islam, and was originally an ally of the AKP. Now, Erdoğan considers Gülen his nemesis and, therefore, he is taking on his movement as a whole, Zaman being the tip of the iceberg.

By a court decision issued on March 4th, police forces were given the mandate to occupy the newspaper’s premises, using tear gas against the protesters, journalists and democracy activists who arrived to defy them. Since March 5, the newspaper circulates under government supervision of its editorial lines, without even mentioning the news of its own occupation.

The Turkish government has now made a habit out of seizing and supressing critical media outlets and prosecuting journalists. Last year alone, more than 30 journalists were arrested for expressing their opinion and over 2,000 citizens have been charged with “insulting the president.”

A few days ago, Turkey’s Constitutional Court ordered the release of two leading journalists of the traditional newspaper Cumhuriyet. All three have been detained on charges of leaking state secrets. The Court decision was summarily ignored. The journalists remain in custody.

A blow to democracy that must be dealt with

Everything mentioned above constitutes a major blow to democratic rights in Turkey. But, that is also a matter of concern to the EU, which Turkey wants to join. As Ramazan Guveli, the Executive Director of Dialogue Platform in Brussels, has said “the seizure came just before the Turkey-EU summit which means it is an important test for defenders of European values.” It is one thing for Europe to tolerate the suppression of human rights and quite another to make this ignorance part of a tit-fot-tat diplomatic exchange. That is becoming an accomplice. That is why what how Turkey deals with freedom of speech should be our concern; this is not a statement against Turkey, it is a statement about the EU.

The EU has declared that the management of the refugee crisis is not part of a diplomatic give-and-take that will affect Turkey’s future admission to the EU. But that’s probably not a convincing statement to make. Real politics is about giving and taking, without letting go of what is non-negotiable. The EU is founded on specific principles that when questioned, they seize to apply. To stick to principles is not about being idealistic but very much about having the realism of integrity. There are certain compromises that when made once, they tend to be repeated. Setting a precedent of “looking the other way” would be the beginning of a very slippery slope. That is why we should care: because if we do not care today, we may not be allowed to care tomorrow.

Against xenophobic and Islamophobic cries, Turkey is part of Europe and has been for centuries. Its future can and perhaps should be in the EU. Alas, it is for this reason too that democracy in Turkey is also a European matter.

Published on New Europe, 8 March 2016, Tuesday