January 29, 2015

Freedom House slams Erdoğan’s anti-free press stance

The heads of the US-based watchdog Freedom House have expressed concern over the state of freedom of the press in Turkey, criticizing President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's role in wiping out dissident views.

“An independent media is absolutely crucial for a functioning democracy. A democracy is not only based on elections. It requires tolerance, all groups of society having access to justice, and most importantly an independent media. We are deeply concerned about the trajectory in Turkey and it's one of the reasons Freedom House is looking at Turkey among a small handful of countries of concern,” said Mark P. Lagon, president of Freedom House, when speaking with Today's Zaman on Wednesday.

He went on to say, “The detention of senior journalists is one of the most worrisome signs about freedom of expression in a country and whatever a pretexts are used, a government which seeks to squelch dissent by detaining journalists without due process is a significant problem for democracy and human rights.”

Lagon continued, “I have great faith in the Turkish people, but in the last year there has been a decline in the areas of political and civil liberties. It remains in the ‘partly-free' category, but we're concerned about areas of dissent, people being able to speak their minds to be able to be part of a truly pluralistic system. The most acute problems lie in the area of freedom of expression, press and the Internet. We worry about the models that the current government of Turkey looks to -- of a strong government that does not accord to full dialogue and dissent.”

The rate of detention and charges brought against journalists has become more prevalent within the last year. On Wednesday an indictment was accepted by the Adana 6th Criminal Court of Peace in which a journalist is facing two years' imprisonment over claims that she insulted then-Prime Minister Erdoğan on Facebook. On the same day, columnist Mehmet Baransu, who writes for the Taraf daily, was detained for the fifth time in recent months. Journalist Sedef Kabaş was also taken into custody after her house was searched by the police, relating to criticism of the Justice and Development Party (AK Party). Furthermore, a police operation was carried out on the Zaman daily and the Samanyolu media group -- two prominent media outlets affiliated with the Gülen movement, also known as the Hizmet movement -- on Dec. 14, 2014.

“One of the great problems of human rights in the world is impunity -- when criminal activity is not punished. Corruption is a problem for economies, it is a problem for accountability, it's a problem for human rights. This is a clearly the case with the government in Turkey,” Lagon also noted.

These comments were in reference to corruption probes that went public on Dec. 17 and 25, 2013, implicating senior AK Party ministers and Erdoğan himself. Then-Prime Minister Erdoğan accused the Gülen movement of masterminding the probe in an attempt to topple his government. The Dec. 14 police operations against Gülen-affiliated media outlets is believed to be a culmination of a battle launched by the AK Party government and Erdoğan against the Gülen movement following the graft scandals.

“When President Erdoğan was elected 10, 11 years ago, Freedom House was initially happy about the reforms that Erdoğan pushed through Parliament. We thought the elections were more democratic, we thought the way that the government treated the Kurds was better than how it had in the past. There were a number of important changes and we thought, in the media area, that there were some improvements. Then about five years ago, things began to move in the wrong direction. The first bad signs were the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer trials, which we thought were simply preposterous and concocted charges against these potential coup-makers. And then the next thing we saw was the campaign against journalists, and some Kurdish journalists, but not all. And we've seen a continuation of this anti-journalist, anti-free press campaign up until now, and it's obviously a major factor in the decline of Turkish democracy. We're very concerned about the direction in which its moving, and we're especially concerned when we see President Erdoğan tell this delegation of press freedom advocates, led by Joel Simon of the Committee to Protect Journalists [CPJ], that Turkey does not need an independent press, and that he would be happier without an independent press. [And] if you have a political leader who is willingly to say that publicly, then you know you have very serious problems,” the vice president of research of Freedom House, Arch Puddington, told Today's Zaman.

Regarding Turkey's potential for European Union accession, Puddington also explained, “Freedom House was in favor of Turkey being brought into the EU and we were critical of EU countries that were begrudging about it, who went along with talking to Turkey but didn't want Turkey as part of the EU, and we thought that was the wrong strategy -- but I think the idea today is just preposterous.”

Published on Today's Zaman, 29 January 2015, Thursday