Monday, October 22, 2012

Journalists, Students, and a Pianist: Turkish Freedoms put to Test

During the last few years, more and more Turkish and international organizations have been criticizing Turkey over how many journalists have recently been jailed. Last week, a report was issued by the Committee for the Protection of Journalists, and it is another reminder that the Turkish government needs to take measures to fix this injustice. Turkey now has more journalists jailed than any country in the world and it is a stain on its democracy.

The report, entitled Turkey’s PressFreedom Crisis, lashes out harsh accusations, claiming that “Turkish authorities are engaging in widespread criminal prosecution and jailing of journalists, and are applying other forms of severe pressure to promote self-censorship in the press,” and adds that they, “have mounted one of the world’s most widespread crackdowns on press freedom in recent history.” According to the report, as of August 2012, 76 journalists are being held, mostly for anti-state crimes (or similar), with three quarters of them in jail for extended periods of times (months and even years) without being officially charged. In addition “scores” of others are awaiting trial for other reasons, such as “degrading Turkishness” with “between 3000-5000 criminal cases pending.”  

Commenting on the amount of arrests, the report states that “the imprisonments constitute one of the largest crackdowns CPJ has documented in the 27 years it has been compiling records on journalists in prison,” and highlights that Turkey far surpasses other countries’ violations, such as Eritrea (with 28 held) and China (with 27 held).

Unfortunately, this story is not a new one. For the last two years, Turkish government officials, including PM Erdogan himself, have been asked to answer claims that their government is excessively jailing journalists, but to no avail; usually, when questioned, the officials brush it off as if this does not constitute a problem.  However, the problem is very real and not only for journalists, but also for students.

In Turkish jails, according to Hurriyet Daily News, there is a staggering 2,824 students being held, with many charged with “being a member of a terrorist organization.” In the past, many students have been arrested just for demonstrating and holding banners; later to find themselves in jail for over a year awaiting trial. The Turkish government's claim that these students support terrorist activity is inflated and as a result damages Turkey's genuine need to protect its citizens. Simply put, the students' plight provides us with such a flagrant violation of civil rights that it is hard to remain indifferent at any level.

If this is not enough, this week we saw Fazil Say, Turkey's world renowned pianist, in court defending his right to free expression on twitter. This ongoing trial, which will reconvene in February 2013, is related to comments which he placed on his private Twitter account; according to the state prosecutor, Say should be found guilty for his tweets, claiming they insult Islam, and violate the law which states that it is illegal to "insult the religious values of a section of society." Similar to the Orhan Pamuk case, when in 2006 he was charged with "insulting Turkishness," only to have the charges dropped, Say is well known abroad and a guilty verdict will make waves not only domestically but also internationally.

What is most ironic is that while PM Erdogan, and his government, has been rightly chiseling away at the injustices of the 1980 coup and its legacy, Erdogan is now perceived by some as creating new injustices in their place. Moreover, in my opinion, Erdogan has grossly misunderstood that his electorate victories were driven by his non-compromising stance towards the conservative secular state, a policy which led to the ushering of new found freedoms. However, now, as he retreats from the path of reform, and with no progress being made on the Kurdish issue, it seems that his popularity is on the decline. In other words, it appears that the Turkish society is becoming weary of a polarizing Erdogan, who is perceived by many as clamping down on personal freedoms.

It is for this reason, that at the annual opening of the parliament earlier this month, so many Turkish citizens breathed a sigh of relief when the President of Turkey, Abdullah Gul, a former government member and a strong ally of Erdogan, stated the following: “If there are shortcomings, or wrong practices, or instances that harm our democracy, then these must all be removed without delay. There should be no doubt or concerns in anyone’s mind that Turkey is a democratic state respecting the rule of law.” Lets hope that the government heeds these words, and starts working to implement legislation that will hastily work to bring these injustices to an end.  

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