Is Turkey fast losing its right of freedom of speech? This hypothesis seemed a bit surreal and almost unrealistic in the beginning but proved to be alarmingly true. Turkey stands tall amongst many Muslim countries offering freedom of religion, and as a modern example of a strong economy which encompasses the beauty of East and West alike. When I say it blends the beauty, I mean it quite literally. As you take a ferry ride on the sapphire blue waters of the breathtakingly beautiful River Bosphorous, you pass by the bridge which separates Asia from Europe. Istanbul has the unique privilege of residing in two separate continents and symbolically epitomizes the struggle facing the new Turkey today.
Fears loom that the promise of beauty and freedom could soon become an eye wash as serious challenges are emerging to free speech in Turkey. This was the message given to me during a four day trip to Istanbul as part of a media interaction workshop between Turkey and Pakistan.
Sevgi Akarçeşme, who was the most prominent amongst panelists of top journalists and academics, said that the curb on media is not just restricted to print and electronic but even social media.
Akarcesme who is writing weekly columns for Turkey’s top selling daily Zaman in Turkish and its sister version in English with the name Today’s Zaman said that the detention of journalists has become routine with the new trends being set by the arrest of Turkey’s two leading media executives recently.
Turkish officials also threatened to shut down Twitter in the country unless the social-media company blocked the account of a left-wing newspaper that had circulated documents about a military police raid on Turkish Intelligence Agency trucks that were traveling to Syria last year.
The demand came a day after a local court in Adana, a southern Turkish province, issued an order barring coverage of the investigation, warning of a possibility of an overall ban on social media networks where documents on legal proceedings of the raid had been circulated.
Networks like Twitter, Facebook and Google Plus complied with the court order removing content from accounts to avoid a ban as there has been an earlier shutdown of these sites by the government. But the BirGun newspaper, as well as other Twitter users, continued to be resilient by posting new messages. Twitter refused to block the newspaper’s account but did block specific messages that BirGun had posted showing images of leaked documents in which the military police were said to have confirmed that the trucks contained weapons and explosives. The documents also said the weapons were destined for Al Qaeda.
Sevgi is not an isolated whistle blower. Many more media persons have been protesting against dangers lurking for a free media under Tayyip Erdogan’s government. According to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, more than hundred journalists are behind bars in the country.
This number is jarring and in direct conflict to the image of a modern, secular, western-oriented Turkey, with its democratically elected government which in near past was all set to join hands with the European Union endorsing their standards of freedom and civility. The math also reminds us that the present government of the soft imaged Turkey has locked away more members of the press than China and Iran combined.
“Many now believe that Erdogan’s wish to join the European Union was a treacherous attempt to get rid of Army control. He actually may have never wanted it to happen.” Akif Emre, working for a renowned Media group, Samanyolu, said. Samanyolu’s CEO, Hidayet Karaca, an executive with a leading Turkish TV network was behind bars during my stay in Turkey, causing deep unrest amongst the journalist fraternity.
This view was largely shared by many of the journalists I met during my visit to Istanbul. Further endorsement of this view came from Erdogan’s earlier message to the European Union. The European Union, which Turkey is seeking to join, has said clearly that the media raids ran counter to European values.
EU Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn described them as “not really an invitation to move further forward” with Turkey. Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan was unimpressed. Undeterred, he clearly said that the raids on media outlets were a necessary response to “dirty” actions by the government’s enemies and told the European Union to mind its own business. Today, many in Turkey believe that the dream of being a part of the European Union is forgotten and the chances of it coming true are more dismal than ever before.
The automatic response from members of the government is to blame the imprisonment and intimidation on Turkey’s “independent” judiciary which many shrug aside as an excuse. There have been blatant instances when the pressure and interference in high-profile cases was quite unmistakable.
In April 2011, at the Council of Europe, a defiant Erdogan, commenting on the controversial detention of the journalist Ahmet Sik, compared Sik’s then unpublished book to a bomb: “It is a crime to use a bomb, but it is also a crime to use materials from which a bomb is made.”
Turkish government is now pushing the boundaries with the tools they have invented to punish the free press. There is a general belief that the President has either influenced or bought at least 75 per cent of the media. This started when he created his own media mouthpiece to manipulate public opinion.
“As a result, today, Mr. Erdogan has direct control over seven national newspapers and 12 national TV stations,” said Dr Savas Genc, a professor at Fatih University. “In New Turkey, we have no forbearance to any dissident voice.”
Then there is the behind-the-scenes pressure that is exerted by the government on media organizations. “People are afraid of criticizing Erdogan openly,” says Mehmet Karli, a lecturer at Galatasaray University in Istanbul.
Turkey’s government is improperly using its leverage over media to limit public debate about government actions and punish journalists and media owners who dispute government claims, deepening the country’s political and social polarization, Freedom House concludes in a report.
“The government must recognize that its efforts to control a free debate are further alienating Turkey’s citizens and could potentially threaten the country’s stability,” the report said.
So where does the public stand? Amazingly and ironically, almost all the critics of the Erdogan government believe that there is a 70 to 90 per cent chance of him coming back to the government after the election.
Turkey to this day, stands as a strong economy and while the economy is growing, the debates of free speech seem to be remote and too intellectual a problem for the general masses who still seem to be romancing with the idea of a powerful Erdogan government. How long will this romance last is a point to debate but the issue at hand is how fast the Turkish European dream is becoming distant.
n The writer is the host of Eight PM with Fe’reeha Idrees
on Waqt News.