December 13, 2014

I refuse to be intimidated

Abdullah Bozkurt

Against the background of shocking revelations by the anonymous whistleblower Fuat Avni in which he claimed the government would round up some 150 independent and critical journalists in a nationwide sweep, I refuse to be intimidated by the crooked political Islamists who have dealt a heavy blow against the democratic values of this nation, slid the country backwards in regards to democratic rights and liberties, squandered public resources and blatantly abused the religion of Islam for the purposes of amassing personal wealth and consolidating power.

Despite all manner of threats and intimidation campaigns that have been personally led by this country's beleaguered President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan -- who is himself incriminated in a massive corruption investigation -- as well as the suspension of the rule of law and violations of the Constitution, our dedication to fighting and exposing numerous abuses that have occurred under this government will not waiver. We are not sanguine about the prospect of a better democracy in the current conditions. We will relentlessly continue to pursue our journalistic instincts to lay bare the wrongs perpetrated by political hacks.

Erdoğan and his ilk, who have swamped themselves neck-deep in legal troubles, may orchestrate sham investigations by abusing the criminal justice system. They may very well tamper with evidence to transform entirely innocent statements into some kind of subversive activities as part of their plans to deceive the public and redirect attention away from their own legal troubles, thereby eliminating their wrongdoing from public discussion. Nevertheless, I strongly believe that justice will eventually prevail in the fight against oppressors, either through the Turkish justice system or in the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), whose judgments and case law have been a focus of my writings in recent years.

We fear that if we do not stand steadfast, acknowledging how difficult that may be at times, we will betray the cause of those defenders of freedom who proudly became a beacon of hope for all seeking the end of autocracy and injustice. Setting the right example for others, especially young journalists, is obviously a significant concern for us. This is the frontline battle against the massive attack on the right to freedom of expression and the right to freedom of the press in Turkey. If we do not defend the frontline, which may represent the single largest factor that will determine the future of this country, then creeping authoritarianism will forever rule in this land.

Our lobbying and advocacy for increased freedoms, democratic rights and the rule of law -- principles that Turkey publicly declared its adherence to as a member of the Council of Europe, values that it must uphold as a NATO member and benchmarks that it must comply with as a candidate country in accession talks with the EU -- will continue. Many before us led the charge against the criminal justice system that was manipulated to allow for flagrant abuses of individual rights and freedoms that permeated past governments. I feel it is our generation's turn to take the flag and continue waging the same campaign against oppression that is this time occurring at the hands of political Islamists.

Therefore I join the chorus of my colleagues in refusing to be silenced even when facing more pressure, threats of harm and even imprisonment. I have simply been ignoring the many messages warning me of dire consequences if I do not stop criticizing the government. I will continue to do so when warranted. In fact, my perseverance is further strengthened in the face of growing injustices and rights violations. I know from history that defending and promoting rights, freedoms and democracy has never been an easy task. But they have always prevailed over tyranny in the end.

There is no doubt that today's threat against journalists is unprecedented. Even the generals who staged coups in the past never thought of rounding up hundreds of journalists in a single raid. But let your heart not be troubled with that either. The government's recasting of peaceful, yet critical, writings into criminal acts will perhaps help raise awareness about the negative direction political Islamist zealots have been taking this country in. It will hopefully draw attention to the plight of millions who have been suffering greater marginalization, major discrimination, painful stigmatization and other injustices.

Zaman, Turkey's largest national daily with a million loyal readers each day, and its sister, the English-language daily Today's Zaman, have been leading voices in the call for reforms to address the democratic deficit in Turkey, while exposing the dirty laundry of political Islamist rulers. I am proud to be a part of this wonderful and highly professional group of editors, copy editors, reporters, page designers and distributors in the big Zaman family. They have done a remarkable job of raising issues that matter greatly to the public interest in the pursuit of scrutinizing the government, exposing wrongs and seeking social justice.

Despite all the interference in the judiciary, the Turkish justice system showed itself capable of asserting impartial and independent authority in a highly militaristic environment in the '80s and '90s. They will do so again in a highly politicized environment by standing up for the freedom of the press and freedom of expression. We know we have done nothing wrong and can easily prove our innocence against any fabricated charges provided our case receives an open, fair and due process that is in line with the commitments Turkey made to international bodies.

It is clear that Erdoğan and his allies in the government target us as journalists because we are highly critical of authorities involved in corruption, nepotism and pressure on civil society, business and media, as well as the flagrant abuse of power by political Islamists. I am personally proud of that record, and I know so many others feel the same. We see clearly that the government's goal is to suppress free and independent voices. That is why they have been plotting arbitrary arrests with the destruction of the rule of law in this country. We'll likely see further gross violations of fundamental rights and freedoms with the political instrumentalization of the judicial system. I strongly believe that this persecution and witch hunt, which was also seen in the McCarthy era, will not be sustainable for long given the dynamism of this nation.

Erdoğan does not want to see a robust and independent media, which is vital to ensure transparency, accountability and efficiency in any democratic governance. That is why he is pushing for a witch hunt that bears no merit in a court of law. Practically every group in this country, with the exception of political hacks and loyalists, have been experiencing some form of government harassment, intimidation or hostility in recent years. Now the oppressors are determined to victimize journalists en masse in their futile attempt to sustain power and prolong what is left of their political future. The detention of hundreds of journalists in a politically motivated operation will spark an unprecedented public condemnation of the government, raise tension in Turkey and mobilize more people.

The critical and independent media is a force that needs to be reckoned with because it is capable of mobilizing people, exposing wrongdoing in the government, encouraging citizen participation, advancing public interest on the national agenda and defending citizens' rights, the rule of law and democracy. This ill-advised plan against the media also shows Erdoğan's sense of despair about what the future holds for him. He has already been burning bridges at home with the ever-growing front of opposition groups and abroad by butting heads with Turkey's allies and partners without any consideration for the ramifications.

Rounding up hundreds of critics and independent journalists in the media may be the last straw to break the camel's back. This highly publicized plot is yet another example of the dramatic decline in the government's tolerance for dissent. Since 2011, the Turkish media have experienced turbulent years involving terminations, harassment, detention and conviction of media owners, editors, reporters, social media activists and Internet bloggers. Drastic measures were adopted to restrict the public's access to information, such as banning Twitter and YouTube and tampering with the bandwidth of the Internet to slow down traffic. All of this represents a serious backtracking in Turkey's human rights record.

The current leaders of Turkey have no respect for freedom of speech whatsoever. In their mind, the pen may be mightier than the sword and as such presents a dangerous challenge to authoritarian rule. They have been doing everything in their power, including an overt manipulation of the Turkish judicial system, to stifle dissent and mute the voices of critical and independent thinkers. This will not deter me or many others like me however. I'm not afraid of standing up for my strong belief in the freedom of the press and freedom of speech. I would say I am not going anywhere. Let them come and get me.

Published on Today's Zaman, 12 December 2014, Friday