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Prospect Roundtable: What is the future of press freedom in Turkey?

Sir Edward Garnier and selected guests discussed press freedom in Turkey

By Prospect Team  
In 2013 protestors in Gezi Park, Istanbul were filmed by police (©PA/TURKPIX / TT News Agency)

In 2013 protestors in Gezi Park, Istanbul were filmed by police (©PA/TURKPIX / TT News Agency)

On 15th October 2015, Prospect hosted a roundtable meeting at the House of Commons to discuss the subject: “What is the future of press freedom in Turkey?” The discussion was based on a report looking into human rights abuses in Turkey since December 2013, co-authored by Lord Woolf, Sir Jeffery Jowell, Sarah Palin, and Sir Edward Garnier.

As principal guest at the event, Sir Edward opened the discussion with a precis of the report. “I’m afraid our conclusion is that there are quite a number of breaches of human rights which constitute breaches of the European conventions,” he said. Indeed, the authors discovered evidence of government attacks on both the independence of the judiciary and the freedom of speech of journalists. Sir Edward concluded his opening remarks by saying that the “machinery of democracy is being subverted to the detriment of the Turkish people.”

Kerim Balci, the Editor-in-Chief of Turkish Review, said that one of his colleagues, Today’s Zaman Editor-in-Chief Bulent Kenes had been arrested on 9th October and been accused of belonging to a terrorist organisation. The evidence against him, said Balci, were tweets that Kenes had posted on Twitter, and retweets from the Chairman of the main opposition party criticising President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The chair Sameer Rahim pointed out a line in the report quoting Erdoğan saying to his supporters in 2014: “We will wipe out Twitter. I don’t care what the international community says at all. Everyone will see the power of the Turkish Republic.”

Alp Aslandogan, from the Alliance of Shared Values, said the Gülen movement—which follows the Turkish Muslim leader Muhammed Fethullah Gülen, currently exiled in the United States—originally supported Erdoğan, not because of shared Islamic values, but because his AKP party supported  democracy. However, since serious corruption allegations against government figures surfaced in 2013, Erdoğan, he said, “chose to sacrifice democracy to save the people involved in corruption,” and began to “subjugate the media, subjugate the judiciary, subjugate civil society.” He urged pressure from the western nations to “remind Erdoğan that this isn’t a dictatorship: this is a Nato member and an EU candidate country.”

Lord Maginnis of Drumglass said that it wasn’t his job to defend Erdoğan, but that his actions needed to be seen in context: “This year alone Turkey has been subject to 2,000 terrorist attacks with 140 members of the police and 187 civilians killed…they bear an inordinate burden that we do not appreciate.” He said that although he respected the Turkish army, he did not want to see it take charge of the country.

Clara Usiskin from the Justice Forum spoke about the work she has been doing with VICE News to help release their journalist Mohammed Ismael Rasool. He was detained on 27th August with two other VICE journalists (subsequently released) while reporting from the southeast of Turkey on clashes between the authorities and the PKK. He was accused of being in a terrorist organisation. Ususkin said that he had “no access to lawyers for 24hrs and was not allowed to call family or employers.” She added that he had been “held in a prison full of ISIS suspects.” Since then there has been, she said, “a chilling effect” on journalism in Turkey, especially on freelancers.

Ozcan Keles, the Chairperson of the Dialogue Society, said that the Turkish government was tactical in its approach to human rights. As freedom of speech was being curtailed in Turkey, he said, “we have progress on Cyprus—which is welcome…but we should not be fooled. This is just a strategic step.” He added that international pressure could do a lot of good. “They haven’t completely lost their bearing, but they’re at the brink.”

Dr Katerine Dalacoura from the London School of Economics asked why the report concentrated on the Gülen movement and did not cover abuses more generally. Alp Aslandogan replied that previous human rights reports had not properly taken into account the Gülen movement’s suffering because they were seen as “unholy allies” of the government. “We wanted to ask credible experts to examine it from an objective, third-party point of view,” he said, referring to Sir Edward’s report. Dalacoura emphasised that the way forward was for Turkey to join the EU. When that process was alive, she said, “this had led to substantive reforms.”

Kate Morris from Article 19 said that Turkey still cared about its reputation and could be responsive to challenges. Keles raised the important issue of hate speech in the Turkish media. He showed a headline in one newspaper that read: “We will split them into molecules.” The “they” referred to was, he said, the Gülen movement. This  was part, he said, of the process of “dehumanisation” the state-supporting media took part in. Balci said that he felt sorry for his fellow journalists who were compelled to write such stories.

In conclusion Sir Edward said it was important for the United Kingdom to be a “critical friend” to Turkey, to remind Erdoğan that “if you want your country to grow, if you want western capital, try to behave as though you are really a part of the international community.”

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