Sunday, March 7, 2010

Lest We Speak: the AKP and Freedom of Expression

In October 2009, when Israel protested a Turkish television, Turkey’s foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, stated the following, “there is no censorship in Turkey.”; if this was only the case. Jumping up to late February 2010, Prime Minister Erdoğan criticized Turkey’s columnists as negatively influencing the Turkish economy and called on the editors of the Turkish press basically to censure their work, stating: “I want to call the bosses of these newspapers. You cannot say, ‘I cannot intervene in what the columnist writes.’ Nobody has a right to increase tension in this country. I cannot let such articles upset financial balances. You pay the salary of that columnist and tomorrow you will have no right to complain.” It seems that Erdoğan, who has criticized the media harshly in the past, needed a quick scapegoat as a result of the massive speculation voiced by the media outlets following the arrest over 50 military officers (retired and active), related to the “Balyoz/Sledge Hammer Affair (see previous blog entry). This massive raid on army officials obviously turned into a media frenzy, as it would in any country that has its top military echelon arrested for attempting to overthrow the state! Further, it would not be normal for an economy like Turkey’s, which is tied closely to political stability, if the arrests did not throw the financial markets into disarray to begin with.

The Prime Minster’s words are worrying since he is the leading the campaign of constitutional reform, and for the very fact that censorship in Turkey has been able to prevail and has remained unscathed as the result of a general lack of interest by a great part of the population. Numerous websites are banned in Turkey, including Youtube, which are easily accessed via third party sites (and with PM Erdoğan ironically stating that he visits the site). Sites are banned for promoting terror, criticizing the founder of the Turkish Republic, and pornography, among on long list of other reasons. However, the line dividing issues of morality are blurred with 3 gay dating and social sites being temporarily suspended in October 2009, for example. Furthermore, during my last visit to Turkey, I can attest to the fact that the “free internet service” on Istiklal Caddesi, supplied as a courtesy of the Istanbul municipality, conveniently blocked an article which appeared on Bianet that covered a news story about a book in Turkey, which was being investigated by Istanbul’s prosecutors due to its containing stories alluding to same-sex love between women (not to mention the banning of a book for youth under 18-years of age, based on its subject matter: the life of a transsexual).

Most recently, the European Human Rights Court has fined Turkey (43,000 Euros) for the past closing/suspensions of newspapers due to their coverage of the Kurdish issue. As we will see with the case of Berivan, which I previously wrote about, the harshness of punishment is greater when dealing with Turkish citizens living in the Southeast. An editor of a local Kurdish language daily in Diyarbakir, Azadiya Welat, has recently been charged with crimes which call for a 525-year prison sentence.

While clearly, the judiciary is responsible for many of these cases, the government has also actively pursued some cases of censorship, making clear that freedom of expression does not top their agenda. An example of this is the fact was that in place of abolishing the controversial law 301, they opted to “reform” it. Lastly, since PM Erdoğan has set out to solve the “Kurdish question,” it seems that there has been an escalation in excessive punishments being handed down.

In this article, I have only touched upon a few cases of censorship, while many more exists; both in print and the internet.* The Turkish government seems suited on one hand to bring forth the democratization of Turkey; especially when it comes to settling accounts with the Ergenekon affair. However, without upholding the most basic right of democracy –freedom of expression- how can one take this conservative party truly as a democratizing force? And, as long as the groups being targeted remain on the fringes of the society, their struggle to freely express their aspirations and concerns will continue to be met with uphill battles.


*A detailed list of articles relating to issues of Freedom of Expression can be found on Bianet at the following site: http://bianet.org/english/freedom-of-expression

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