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GTE Question of the Month, February 2015


There are Growing Concerns in Turkey and Europe about Deteriorating Freedom of Expression in Turkey, Particularly Freedom of the Media. Can Europe Intervene to Reverse the Trend?

Emiliano Alessandri

Media freedom and freedom of expression in Turkey have been under pressure for a long time, largely as a result of securitization processes in a country in which state consolidation was perceived as under constant threat. In such an environment, some perspectives and ideas were seen as the continuation on paper of a conflict on the ground. The prospect of European integration significantly helped mitigate state insecurity, and for some time the combined effects of EU scrutiny, the standards imposed by the accession process, and de-securitization raised the expectation that progress could be made on many levels, from the fading out of taboo issues to the emergence of a pluralistic public debate. However, the recent escalation in attacks on the media clearly demonstrates that this stage was never reached. Though recent episodes have often targeted specific groups that have involvement in the ruthless, internecine battle within the ruling conservative bloc, the fact that political infighting is entangled in media cases should not make repression seem like less of a crime. The reality is that the repression of dissenting views is now in full force not because the state is perceived as at risk, but because certain inconvenient truths may expose a self-perpetuating political elite. This represents a clear regression. Unfortunately, as nobody can save a political class from the damage it inflicts on itself, a less revered EU is largely powerless. Conditionality through the accession process may be something, but with an already-stalled negotiation process the EU has limited levers; more traditional political pressures may stand a better chance. But as this is not about Turkey's stability as a state but about the future of its democracy, only the Turkish people and Turkish civil society can ultimately stop this trend by speaking up and mobilizing. In order for this to happen, however, the fight of some has to be felt as affecting the freedom of all. In other words, as long as Turkish politics remains factional and polarized, media freedom and freedom of expression may remain an elusive quest—however unacceptable, detrimental, and inexcusable this outcome may be.

(Emiliano Alessandri is a non-resident fellow at the German Marshall Fund)

Ergun Özbudun

The downward trend in freedom of expression and especially media freedom in Turkey has been commented upon by a large number of Turkish and foreign analysts. This trend is generally seen as an important aspect of the increasing drift toward authoritarianism. Thus, a Freedom House report, prepared after a visit to Turkey in November 2013, begins with the sentence "Turkey's democracy is in crisis," and seeks to "analyze in depth the government's effort to marginalize and suppress independent voices and reporting in Turkey's media" (Democracy in Crisis: Corruption, Media and Power in Turkey,” Freedom House Special Report, p. 3). Similarly, the European Commission's "Turkey 2014 Progress Report" observes that, in 2014, "legislation further limiting freedom of expression, including on the Internet, was adopted and the effective exercise of this freedom, and press freedom, was restricted in practice. The blanket bans on YouTube and Twitter raised serious concern, even if later annulled by the Constitutional Court. Intimidating statements by politicians and cases launched against critical journalists, combined with the ownership of the media sector, led to widespread self-censorship by media owners and journalists, as well as sacking of journalists" (European Commission, “Turkey 2014 Progress Report,” Brussels, 8 October 2014, SWD (2014) 307 final, p. 15).

The problem is manifold, as indicated by these reports. Part of the problem stems from the structure of media ownership in Turkey. As analyzed in the Freedom House report, most media groups are also involved in other business sectors, and therefore either benefit from or are vulnerable to the government’s discriminatory rent-distribution policies in these areas. Thus, in recent years, the AKP government has established total control over a large part of the media through crony or proxy capitalists. Some groups that have tried to maintain a more independent stand have been threatened with the discretionary use of legal instruments such as tax laws and libel laws. This has led in turn to widespread self-censorship and to the firing of many distinguished journalists. These are familiar techniques of “competitive authoritarian” regimes, as explained in a recent book by Steven Levitsky and Lucan A. Way (Steven Levitsky and Lucan A. Way, Competitive Authoritarianism: Hybrid Regimes After the Cold War, Cambridge University Press, 2010).

Other problems adversely affecting media freedom are legal limitations on the freedom of expression and the freedom of the press. Many such laws do not clearly distinguish between criminal statements, such as terror propaganda or hate speeches, and the legitimate expressions of opinion, thus leaving a large area of discretion to judges and public prosecutors. A very regrettable example of this took place on 14 December, when the police raided the headquarters of Zaman, one of the largest selling dailies, and Samanyolu, a popular TV channel, and detained the chief editors of both along with a few other people, on the absurd charge of forming an "armed organization." Both establishments belong to the Gülen movement, against whom the government has engaged in an all-out war since the disclosure of corruption investigations on 17-25 December 2013. The raid was thus the culmination of a long series of restrictive measures, and is rightly characterized by a Freedom House Program Officer as "the end of Turkey in Europe" (Nate Schenkkan, “The End of Turkey in Europe,” Freedom At Issue Blog, 16 December 2014). We need all the help we can get from our European friends to reverse this trend and to put Turkey back with Europe. .

(Ergun Özbudun is Professor of Political Science and Constitutional Law at İstanbul Şehir University)

Özgür Ünlühisarcıklı

There are two prerequisites for the EU to play a role in reversing the democratic backslide in Turkey. First, Turkey’s EU accession prospects need to be strengthened, as the EU will not have much leverage in Turkey as long as there is not a credible accession process in place. Unblocking Chapters 23 and 24 would obviously be important symbolic steps. Second, the Member States should regard Turkey as a future member rather than a third country to cooperate with on strategic issues. Rejecting Turkey for who the Turks are, while at the same time refraining from criticizing their divergence from EU norms and values for pragmatic reasons, will not be helpful. What the Member States could do instead to increase the EU’s leverage in Turkey is to embrace Turkey as a future member and thereby remind Turks to be true to European norms and values.

(Özgür Ünlühisarcıklı is Ankara Office Director at German Marshall Fund of the United States)