The Update – Turkish Politics, 11 January 2012

Our Never Ending Shame: Persecuting Thought

Freedom of Thought

The author has finally come across the most definitive article on press freedom and human rights violations in Turkey, which appeared in no less a publication than New York Times. It is worth reciting it here to provide a full record of what AKP has done to Turkish spirit of freedom, so similar to what Romans did to Carthage[1]:

A year ago, the journalist Nedim Sener was investigating a murky terrorist network that prosecutors maintain was plotting to overthrow Turkey’s Muslim-inspired government. Today, Mr. Sener stands accused of being part of that plot, jailed in what human rights groups call a political purge of the governing party’s critics.

Mr. Sener, who has spent nearly 20 years exposing government corruption, is among 13 defendants who appeared in state court this week at the imposing Palace of Justice in Istanbul on a variety of charges related to abetting a terrorist organization.

The other defendants include the editors of a staunchly secular Web site critical of the government and Ahmet Sik, a journalist who has written that an Islamic movement associated with Fethullah Gulen, a reclusive cleric living in Pennsylvania, has infiltrated Turkey’s security forces.

There are now 97 members of the news media in jail in Turkey, including journalists, publishers and distributors, according to the Turkish Journalists’ Union, a figure that rights groups say exceeds the number detained in China. The government denies the figure and insists that with the exception of four cases, those arrested have all been charged with activities other than reporting.

Turkey’s justice minister, Sadullah Ergin, last month blamed civic groups for creating the false impression that there were too many journalists in jail in Turkey. He said a new plan to enhance freedom of expression this year would alter perceptions.

In court on Wednesday, a defiant Mr. Sener, looking gaunt and pale, blamed the police officials he had investigated for setting him up. “It has been 11 months that I have not been given the chance to utter a single word to defend myself,” he said, speaking to friends during a brief intermission. “I have been a victim in a revenge operation — nothing else.”

European Court of Human Rights

The European Human Rights Court received nearly 9,000 complaints against Turkey for breaches of press freedom and freedom of expression in 2011, compared with 6,500 in 2009. In March, Orhan Pamuk, a Turkish writer and Nobel laureate, was fined about $3,670 for his statement in a Swiss newspaper that “we have killed 30,000 Kurds and one million Armenians.”

Orhan Pamuk, a Turkish writer and Nobel laureate

Human rights advocates say they fear that with the Arab Spring lending new regional influence to Turkey, the United States and Europe are turning a blind eye to encroaching authoritarianism there. “Turkey’s democracy may be a good benchmark when compared with Egypt, Libya or Syria,” said Hakan Altinay, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “But the whole region will suffer if Turkey is allowed to disregard the values of liberal democracy.”

In late December, Turkey drew fresh criticism after the police detained at least 38 people, many of them journalists, saying they had possible links to a Kurdish separatist group. But critics say dozens have been arrested whose only offense was to have expressed general support for the rights of Kurds, a long-oppressed minority here.

Over the past year, the government has been arresting prominent critics

Over the past year, the government has been arresting prominent critics like Mr. Sener, as well as dozens of current and former military personnel, intellectuals and politicians who have been linked to what officials say was a plot to overthrow the government by an organization called Ergenekon.

Four years into the investigation, no one among the more than 300 suspects charged in the case has been convicted, even though courts have heard more than 8,000 pages worth of indictments, many of them based on transcripts of surreptitiously recorded private telephone conversations.

Advocates for press freedom say that the government has also moved to mute opposition by using punitive fines and by intimidating the ownership of leading media companies.

In a celebrated case in 2009, the Dogan media group, a large conglomerate, was saddled with a $2.5 billion fine by the Tax Ministry for unpaid taxes. Dogan officials say privately that the real reason was that its publications had given prominent attention to a series of corruption scandals involving senior government officials.

The European Union has expressed concerns about the chilling effect of the fine, which was negotiated down to about $621 million, officials familiar with the case say, as part of a tax amnesty issued last year.

A cover of the humour magazine Leman, a frequent target of Erdoğan's political and judiciary pressure

Now, some journalists who work for the Dogan group say there is an unwritten rule not to criticize the governing party. Mr. Erdogan, who has previously called on his supporters to boycott the Dogan group, strongly denied any political motives behind the fine.

After Mr. Erdogan swept to power in 2002, human rights activists initially lauded him for expanding free speech. But after an unsuccessful attempt by the secular opposition to ban Mr. Erdogan’s party in 2008, critics say, Mr. Erdogan embarked on a systematic campaign to silence his opponents.

.

They say the curbs on press freedom also reflect the fact that Turkey no longer feels obligated to adhere to Western norms at a time when it is playing the role of regional leader and its talks on joining the European Union are in disarray.

Mr. Sener and Mr. Sik were defiant in March as police officers took them into custody at their homes before television cameras. “Whoever touches it gets burned!” Mr. Sik shouted, referring to the Gulen movement, whose members, analysts say, have infiltrated the highest levels of the country’s police and judiciary.

In March, the unpublished manuscript of Mr. Sik’s book on the movement, “The Army of the Imam,” was confiscated by police officers. But the police were unable to stop its publication on the Internet, where at least 20,000 users downloaded it.

While the Internet has become the main weapon against censorship, more than 15,000 Web sites have been blocked by the state, according to engelliweb.com, which tracks restricted pages. For more than two years until last fall, YouTube was banned on the grounds that some videos on the site were insulting to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey.

The monitoring agency last summer called on Web sites to ban 138 words, including “animal,” “erotic” and “zoo” in English and “fat,” “blonde” and “skirt” in Turkish. It is a tribute to Turkey’s still vibrant media culture that the prohibition inspired an online competition to create the best short story out of the banned words.

A few very important points need to be made here.  First, the investigations about Ergenekon, Sledgehammer, Moonray and others are completely discredited, not only by the Western media but in the eyes of the Turkish people as well. According to a recent poll, only 40% of participants believe in the accusations. These only serve the aim of silencing AKP’s critics and dismantling the army. Any more statements from EU to the effect that AKP’s actions serve to establish civilian control over the army in Turkey will amount to full hypocrisy. What we in Turkey is a party that condemns its bravest sons who lay down their lives to protect the nation to years in prison on false charges.

A second and very important point is that AKP can no longer claim that the judiciary is free and independent.  AKP has become the state, it should accept full accountability for the crimes against innocents committed by the judiciary.   This fact is acknowledged now in ZAMAN, the temple of Gulenist conservatism and the most loyal supporter of AKP[2]:

In short, the AK Party was in government but not in control of the military, judiciary and high bureaucracy, largely regarded as the “state.” This historical binary between the state and the government worked to the advantage of the AK Party and made the ruling party almost immune from criticism. The priority of the AK Party was to take the state under the control of the democratically elected government. This, to a very large extent, was achieved by a constitutional referendum on Sept. 12, 2010, which changed the balance of power within the state in favor of the elected government.

Now the AK Party seems to hold the state power while at the same time representing people power. And here comes the predicament for the ruling party: No longer can it hide behind the excuse that it cannot control the “reactionary forces within the state.” Thus, the AK Party government is accountable for whatever the “state” does, including bombing to death 35 civilians in Sirnak.

The intelligence mistakes that the National Intelligence Organization (MİT) makes, whose president is the appointee of the government, are the mistakes of the AK Party government. It is no longer possible to escape criticism by pointing to the state. Such a defense is no longer possible. The state is the AK Party.

The operational mistakes of the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK), whose commanders are appointed by the government, are the mistakes of the AK Party. So when the Taraf daily runs a headline like “The state bombs its own people,” it is a state that includes the AK Party. Knowing this, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan comes out and says, “The state does not bomb its own people.” But it was him who apologized only a week ago for the massacre of the people in Dersim by the state, which bombed the entire area back in 1937-1938. A government in control of the “state” is accountable to the people for whatever the state does.

Any judicial mistakes made by the courts, whose central institutions — including the High Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK) — are determined by the government, will be the mistakes of the AK Party. So, for all the detentions, long prosecution periods, miscarriages of justice, etc., it is the government that is accountable and responsible.

The AK Party cannot hide behind the excuse that it cannot control certain “reactionary” institutions within the state. It is now in a position — and proud to be — where it can determine all these institutions. Yet by “defending” the state, the AK Party risks becoming a pro-status quo power and diminishing its democratic credentials.

This article, too, makes a few noteworthy points. Clearly, the conduct of the National Intelligence Service and the army has not improved under AKP’s strict oversight.  Or, perhaps the truth is that the institutions were not culpable of the crimes that were pinned on them.  They were used and abused by AKP’s effort to attract a hapless EU, the Western media and Turkey’s glass menagerie intellectuals into a broad coalition to cement its power.  Perhaps, in the name of preserving our faith in the central tenet of universal justice that all shall be presumed innocent until found guilty, we should consider the thought that “Turkey’s dark past” is not caused by the evil machinations of the military, but corrupt  centre-right politicians and fundamentalist  sects who pitted Sunni against Alevite, secular against pious, Turk against Kurd to march to power.

There is no place left for AKP to hide.  It has two options.  The first is  to repent and immediately introduce a democracy package including earnest judicial reform to release all the detainees in these Kafkaesque trials.  Secondly, to write a new constitution that will open the way for Mr. Erdoğan to capture the presidency and to become the Putin of Turkey. The author bets that AKP will opt out for the second choice.

And, it will do so under the guise of once again increasing the scope of individual liberties and the rule of law.  EU and the White House should be warned against this ploy. The 12th of September referendum so loudly applauded by these powers surrendered key institutions to AKP’s unchecked and entirely arbitrary whim.  There is not much left behind to protect democracy in Turkey.  All it will take is another authoritarian constitution sugarcoated by a few cosmetic improvements to bring about the eternal darkness.

Atilla Yesilada

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One Response to The Update – Turkish Politics, 11 January 2012

  1. Donald says:

    You ought to take part in a contest for one of the best websites on the internet. I most certainly will recommend this website!

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