November 10, 2015

EU needs to urgently ‘speak up’

Amanda Paul

Last week the European Commission organized a conference in Brussels called “Speak-up!” that focused on freedom of expression in Turkey and the Western Balkans.

The meeting took place at a time when journalists and media groups in Turkey are under an unprecedented amount of pressure by the government that seems set on wiping out voices of criticism. Main opposition party leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu put it well when he accused the Justice and Development Party (AKP) of trying to create a "pro-gov't media army." Anybody who criticizes President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan or government officials on social media or elsewhere is subject to criminal proceedings, while media groups are seized and rebranded as pro-government mouthpieces. Unfortunately the EU's reaction to this has been rather feeble, with efforts to cement a deal with Ankara over the Syrian refugee crisis the main focus these days.

Things are set to get worse because with his goal of creating an executive presidency, President Erdoğan will want to further silence his critics. If we are to believe reports from whistleblowers such as Cem Küçük, then within a matter of weeks or even days the authorities will seize and swallow up Today's Zaman, its parent paper the Zaman daily and all other media related to the Feza group. Hence this column will probably be one of my last. This is expected to happen after this weekend's G-20 Summit in Antalya.

The process will be more or less the same as it was for the recently seized Koza İpek Holding, which owned among other things the Bugün newspaper. The entire staff of Bugün, including apparently the tea lady, were fired and replaced by pro-AKP people. In the case of İpek and Zaman there is an additional element because they are linked to the Gülen movement, also known as the Hizmet movement, and President Erdoğan has sworn to eradicate Hizmet, which he claims is a terrorist organization, as part of a witch hunt that has been going on since the corruption scandal linked to a number of senior AKP officials of Dec. 17, 2013. Thereafter, a systematic policy of eradicating thousands of police, prosecutors, judges, etc. who he claimed wanted to bring down the government began.

With the AKP's Nov. 1 election victory, the last stage of this purge has begun. After they bring down Hizmet-linked media and TV, they will move on to schools, universities, businesses and just about any other organization that has a link to the group. Last week Ankara's attorney-general kicked off an investigation into the Turkish Confederation of Businessmen and Industrialists (TUSKON) by searching the offices of its member group the Federation of Anatolian Businessmen (ANFED) and associations. Yet during a speech in 2012 then-Prime Minister Erdoğan stated: “I declare my deepest gratitude on behalf of my people and country to TUSKON for introducing Turkey's name and flag to different parts of the world. … I truly appreciate the efforts of the TUSKON board and its business people for their vision for a greater Turkey.” Today he is declaring TUSKON the enemy of Turkey and, unless I am badly mistaken, by the end of this year TUSKON will be eradicated.

Coming back to the EU. Despite the fact that EU officials are fully aware of the deteriorating situation in Turkey, they postponed publishing Turkey's EU progress report until after the Nov. 1 election. During the “Speak-up!” conference, European Parliament Vice President Ulrike Lunacek said Turkey's progress report should have been issued “not after the election but before it.” European Commissioner for Neighborhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations Johannes Hahn said freedom of the press was not negotiable, but this is clearly not the case at all. Newspapers are being seized, journalists are being intimidated and fired from their jobs but what action is the EU taking? More or less nothing. Rather, they seem to be taking a pragmatic approach because of the ongoing negotiations with Turkey over the refugee issue. The EU is sending a very wrong signal to Ankara, more or less saying that freedoms, rights and even rule of law can be exchanged for Turkey's cooperation in ending the flow of refugees.

What is going on in Turkey is deeply disturbing and profoundly unlawful. A dark black cloak has fallen over the country and unfortunately this situation is going to get worse before it gets better. The EU must speak up and speak up loudly over what is happening.

Published on Today's Zaman, 10 November 2015, Tuesday