Turkish Troubles: Freedom of Expression Endangered in Turkey

April 14, 2011

Journalists and activists participate in a rally calling for the freedom of press in central Ankara. (ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Turkey, as almost any observer (or indeed, Turkish citizen), will tell you, is a country of remarkable contradictions.  For someone like myself, who has known and loved the country for so many years, these contradictions can be painful.  On the one hand, Turkey enjoys a vibrant and wildly creative culture, a strong economy, outstanding universities, and electoral politics that – despite many flaws – have been able to adapt to real political change.  Yet, despite these remarkable achievements, Turkey’s record on freedom of expression has, in many ways, suffered real decline.

Problems range from the banning of websites to lawsuits aimed at stifling free speech and debate.  Indeed, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan seems to file lawsuits almost weekly, normally at critical journalists, in what seems to be a concerted effort to use civil courts to limit political criticism and serious journalistic scrutiny.  More broadly, anti-terrorism laws have been used to attack peaceful dissent.

Journalism under attack

Perhaps the most visible evidence of this narrowing of freedom of expression has been the sharp increase of journalists in prison.  Remarkably, recent reports suggest that Turkey has more journalists in jail than any other country in the world.  Moreover, the number of jailed journalists, currently estimated at 57, has jumped in recent months.  Clearly something has gone wrong in Turkey; the arrests have begun to look like a sustained attack on press freedom and journalists are worried.

Currently, the most notorious case is that of Ahmet Şık, who was arrested in relation to an on-going investigation into “the Ergenekon Conspiracy,” an apparent attempt to destabilize the country and lay the basis for a coup d’état.  There are problems with the investigation, however, which seems to have bloated beyond recognition.  The list of “plotters” has grown very long now and includes a lot of the sort of retirees, journalists, and academics that one doesn’t normally associate with violent overthrow of the government.   Ahmet Şık seems like a particularly unlikely conspirator;  he is actually one of the journalists who unearthed the Ergenekon conspiracy in the first place!  Indeed, many believe that the Şık case has less to do with an investigation into a possible coup plot than in silencing Şık before he publishes a new book criticizing a religious movement close to the government.  As it turns out, efforts to ban the book before it was even published backfired badly: in a jubilant show of defiance, Turks have distributed it widely on the internet.

Turkey’s Anti-Terror Laws and Freedom of Expression

In contrast to the Şık case, which has received wide publicity, many of the journalists imprisoned in Turkey are Kurds imprisoned for voicing opinions deemed “separatist” by the courts.   Under Turkey’s laws, merely voicing these opinions can be construed as terrorism and, like so many countries, a “War on Terror” that has opened the door to a “war on basic rights.” Yet these journalists are being imprisoned not for throwing bombs, but for voicing opinions.  The punishments meted out to them have been shocking.  Only this month, Deniz Kılınç, at the Azadiya Welat Newspaper was sentenced this month to six years in prison.  Perhaps he should feel lucky.  Not long ago one of his colleagues at the same paper, Vedat Kurşun, was sentenced to over 166 years.

It isn’t only journalists who are being targeted.  Ferhat Tunç, a Kurdish musician, is being tried for using the word “guerrilla” to describe Kurdish fighters (“guerrilla” is perceived as being more sympathetic than “militant,” though “terrorist” is the only really acceptable word in official Turkish discourse).  The respected sociologist and expert on Kurdish identity, Ismail Beşikci, one of Turkey’s foremost social scientists, has recently been convicted for “making propaganda” in support of terrorism. Kurdish politicians are on trial too.  In the most notorious case, the so-called KCK Trial, over a hundred of the most influential Kurdish politicians, journalists, and civic leaders are being tried for endangering the state and supporting terrorism.

As a recent Human Rights Watch report noted:

Courts continued to use terrorism laws to prosecute hundreds of demonstrators deemed to be PKK supporters as if they were the group’s armed militants. Most spent prolonged periods in pre-trial detention, and those convicted received long prison sentences. A legal amendment by parliament in July will mean that convictions of children under the laws will be quashed. The laws remain otherwise unchanged.

Hundreds of officials and activist members of the pro-Kurdish party DTP and its successor BDP (which has 20 parliamentary members) were prosecuted during the year, including for links to the Union of Kurdistan Communities (KCK/TM), a body associated with the PKK’s leadership.

In October seven mayors, several lawyers, and a human rights defender (see below) were among 151 officials and activists tried in Diyarbakir for alleged separatism and KCK membership. At this writing the mayors have spent 10 months­­-and the 53 other defendants have spent 18 months-in pre-trial detention, while around 1,000 DTP/BDP officials and members suspected of KCK affiliation were in pre-trial detention nationwide, raising concerns about the right to political participation.

There was a time not too long ago, when the Turkish government seemed to be aggressively working towards improving its human rights record.  Today, however, the Turkish government seems more interested in placing the blame elsewhere.

The facts, however, speak for themselves.