June 9, 2016

High time civilised world intervened in Turkey

Suleiman Uba Gaya*

In composing his famous tripartite epic poem, The Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri included in the first part called Inferno, what has since become one of the most meaningful quotes of all time, emphasising that “the hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in times of moral crisis preserve their neutrality.” The quote was made more popular by late American President J.F. Kennedy, who aptly used it very often in 50s and 60s.

Perhaps more than anything else, the two major things that happened in quick succession last week, namely the wicked misclassification of the noble Gulen-inspired Hizmet (Service) Movement by Turkish President Erdogan as a terrorist group, as well as the sentencing of former beauty queen, Miss Turkey for the ridiculous offence of “insulting” Erdogan, should serve as a final warning to the civilised world that this man it keeps tolerating, mainly because he is a NATO member and his country holds a major key to resolving the European refugee crisis, has since become a loose canon, a major threat to world peace, freedom, liberty and everything all sane societies hold in awe.

For those who may not know, the Hizmet Movement, a group dedicated to rendering selfless service, providing critical aids and emergency interventions, as well as killing of ignorance, and President Erdogan were best of friends. In fact, members of the group helped bring him to power. Suddenly, however, Hizmet realised that the man they innocently thought was going to serve Turkey selflessly and honestly, was fast becoming something else. Seeing Ankara becoming more and more enmeshed in corruption, and knowing the bitter ills of that cankerworm and how it inhibits societal growth, the independent media in Turkey launched an intensive investigative reporting that uncovered large-scale fraud and corruption involving some members of Erdogan’s government and immediate family, with the first such reports published on December 17, 2013.

Since then, Turkey hardly knew peace, in real terms. Instead of addressing the message by stopping the widespread corruption, Erdogan blamed the media investigation on Hizmet Movement and started labeling them with all sorts of names. He swooped on all businesses and investments that have even one Hizmet member as owner or co-owner, closing down newspapers (including the famous Zaman newspaper that was publishing more than a million copies, daily), broadcasting houses, banks, etc, using the flimsiest pretext. He also embarked on dangerous propaganda aimed at rubbishing the Hizmet Movement, and when he realised he was not making much headway in Turkey, Erdogan strangely decided to export his hate campaign abroad. Going from one country to another, he kept asking presidents and parliaments to close down schools, hospitals and other foreign investments he suspects to be Hizmet affiliated.

But the one thing Erdogan, obviously in desperation keeps forgetting is that he who wears the shoe knows where it pinches. If Hizmet were a terrorist organisation as being bandied about by the Turkish President, the nationals of these countries having Hizmet-inspired schools should know because the children attending the institutions are their own. A terrorist organisation should never be at the forefront of clear efforts at killing ignorance, or set up schools and run them in full concert with approved curriculum of their host country, and in a most transparent manner. Also, you cannot call an institution a terrorist school when after several years since its establishment, not even one of their products or graduates has engaged in crime or terrorism. All over the world, students that passed through Hizmet-inspired schools are at the frontline of contributing to the growth and well being of their societies.

It also amounts to an insult on the intelligence services and citizens of these host countries for Erdogan to think that on their own, they don’t have the wherewithal to differentiate light from darkness. And because no one can fool people all the time, Erdogan keeps deservedly getting the cold shoulder from these countries, with the citizens and their leaders angry that he is importing his desperate politics to their sane climes.

However, now that, instead of toeing the path of decency and reason, Erdogan is even digging deeper in his trenches, the civilised world must rise beyond rhetoric to tame the Turkish President. To be fair to the rest of the world, a lot of efforts are being put in place to call Erdogan to order. There are several examples:

On May 29, last year, the European Association of Judges (EAJ) released a damning report that condemned Erdoghan for foisting a regime of tyranny in Turkey, dismissing 49 judges basically because they passed judgments in favour of adherents of free speech. He desperately wanted to jail. And this was a month after the Venice Commission, the Council of Europe’s advisory body on judicial and constitutional reform issues, harshly criticised Turkey on June 20, 2015. The Venice Commission said it had found “serious interference with the independence of judiciary in Turkey.”

On June 2, 2015, in far away Washington DC, the World Editors Forum and the World Association of Newspapers issued a strong-worded statement in form of petition condemning Erdoghan for making life most miserable for independent journalists in his country. As a Nigerian delegate to that conference, I was privileged to be a signatory to that petition, which was co-signed by seven hundred other top media personalities from 80 different countries of the world and sent to President Erdoghan.

Similarly, the Nigerian Guild of Editors, the apex body of the journalism profession in Nigeria, has on two major occasions last year issued a communique strongly condemning President Erdoghan and asking him to ensure freedom of the press in Turkey as well as freeing of all journalists jailed by his government.

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. The Reporters Without Borders, the world’s largest press advocacy group, ranks Turkey 159th out of 170 countries surveyed, while Freedom House classified Turkey “not free” in its latest press freedom index. The Committee to Protect Journalists, another major group advocating press freedom said “Turkish authorities are using never-before-seen methods to stipple dissent in the country. Scores of journalists are either behind bars or facing criminal charges over their reporting in Turkey.”

The report said severe restrictions and censorship over the last few years have resulted in government essentially controlling or running most of the media, explaining that many media outlets avoid publishing or broadcasting anything seriously critical of the government, even if they serve public interest.

Investigation has shown that Erdoghan has achieved this by intimidating media enterprises that have other financial interests, and hence, depend on the government for permits, licenses, etc. Many media establishments that could not withstand the heat have been forced to become propaganda megaphones of the government of the day, leading the campaign to defame and label voices critical of the government.

In February last year, a columnist for the Milliyat newspaper, Nuray Mert, was sacked and her television show cancelled because she was publicly singled out for criticism by the Prime Minister, who was also later forced by Erdogan to resign. Similarly, a conservative columnist for the pro-government newspaper Yeni Safak, a certain Ali Akel, was fired for daring to write a rare, critical article about Erdoghan’s handling of the Kurdish issue. For the last few years, Turkey has been jailing more journalists than any other country on the surface of the earth.

The global outrage occasioned by his highhandedness served nothing in dissuading President Erdoghan to change from his bad ways. In less than a month, the government succeeded in seizing two major news channels and two newspapers. Seventeen television stations were also shut down, and several journalists arrested. During the raid of Zaman newspaper, riot policemen came with water canons and a helicopter hovering above the media house, in a clear act of intimidation.

* Gaya is the Vice President (North) of the Nigerian Guild of Editors.

Published on Peoples Daily, 8 June 2016, Wednesday