December 16, 2014

Turkey puts seal on authoritarianism; NATO, EU should act

Lale Kemal

The detention of senior journalists this past weekend in fresh operations against those opposed to the Turkish government has put the seal on the ruling party's authoritarianism; it can no longer be described as merely a tendency toward authoritarianism.

The final step to formalizing an autocratic regime requires inflicting a heavy blow to free speech, i.e., media freedom, so that the public will be deprived of true and objective information and henceforward autocrats are able to do whatever they like.

This last blow to media freedom, a right guaranteed under international law, came this past Sunday, on Dec. 14, when Turkish police staged operations in 13 provinces detaining journalists and scriptwriters, as well as some police officers, on charges of establishing an “armed terrorist organization” and “usurping the sovereignty of the Turkish state,” among other things.

The US-based Freedom House had already rated Turkey as “Not Free” in its “Freedom of the Press 2014” report in May.

Sunday's police roundup targeted the media outlets that are affiliated with the Gülen movement, headed by the US-based Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen, the government's one-time ally-turned-enemy. Among those detained in Sunday's operations were Ekrem Dumanlı, the editor-in-chief of Turkey's bestselling Zaman daily, and Hidayet Karaca, the general manager of the Samanyolu Broadcasting Group.

The police operation came just ahead of the first anniversary of the disclosure of high-profile corruption and bribery on Dec. 17 and 25 of last year that has already forced four Cabinet ministers to resign and implicated President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who was at the time prime minister of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Thus, it is not a coincidence that there are operations against the media in an attempt to threaten and intimidate those media outlets about their coverage of the corruption and bribery scandal.

Turkish opposition parties, some foreign media outlets and local and international press organizations have described the media operations as punishment for those covering the corruption allegations that the government has already prevented the judiciary from pursuing.

In fact, in a statement released on Sunday, Dec. 14, Freedom House said, “These arrests appear to be government retribution against journalists reporting on corruption and criticizing the government. The crackdown on speech in Turkey must end.”

The government's authoritarian tendencies first surfaced during month-long anti-government protests in the summer of 2013, when then-Prime Minister Erdoğan made remarks encouraging the police to use disproportionate force against demonstrators who were protesting the government's poor environmental policies.

The government's unacceptable methods of silencing the opposition peaked following the disclosure of the corruption and bribery scandal.

To cite one among many examples that have already displayed the government's bizarre mood and psychology regarding events, there are constant accusations of what it calls “international circles,” including Western media outlets, having allegedly worked with the opposition in general, and the Gülen movement in particular, for what the government believes is a plan to unseat the AKP's more than 12-year rule.

However, such a bizarre mood has led to a belief that the government has constantly and consciously been hiding behind conspiracy theories to excuse its transition to an authoritarian regime.

In this sense, a senior AKP official's recent remarks are quite striking.

Mahir Ünal, one of the deputies to the AKP chairman, was interviewed by the local TV channel Habertürk on Saturday, Dec. 13, a day before the media operations were launched, and said that Today's Zaman, this English-language daily and sister publication of the Turkish Zaman daily, has been giving logistical support to international media, including the British Broadcasting Company (BBC), in their coverage of anti-government events.

In other words, he was interpreting the routine journalism of Today's Zaman and its normal interaction with the international media as an activity indicative of an alleged cooperation with, for instance, the BBC, to unseat the government.

Turkey is a NATO member that demanded adherence to democratic principles before accepting former Eastern bloc countries into the alliance. Similarly, the European Union, to which Turkey is a candidate member country, sets respect for freedom of expression as a first and foremost condition for full membership.

It is time for both the alliance and the union to reconsider their relations with Turkey, whose rulers have long been violating these basic democratic and universal principles.

Published on Today's Zaman, 15 November 2014, Monday