Turkey

A New Press Crackdown: Is Turkey Really A Model For Democracy?

Op-Ed: Ankara's is coming down hard against Kurdish opposition forces, including dozens of new arrests of journalists. It is a bad sign for the health of Turkey’s democracy, with the West watching and the Muslim world holding it up as a model in

Ozgur Gundem newspaper features its own troubles
Ozgur Gundem newspaper features its own troubles
Sedat Ergin

ISTANBUL – It was the most sweeping series of arrests directed at the media in Turkey in recent memory: last Saturday, 49 journalists and media employees were detained, with 36 ultimately placed under arrest.

Let me say this first: The arrests of my colleagues and the raids on their homes and newspaper offices is an extraordinary event that has no parallel in other democracies. This latest wave of arrests casts a long shadow over press freedom in Turkey.

Most of the journalists arrested work for Dicle News Agency and Ozgur Gundem newspaper, both press outlets whose views are aligned with the Kurdish political movement, and who closely follow all developments related to the (Kurdish terrorist group) PKK.

Aside from this group - the ‘Kurdish press' - there were also reporters for mainstream newspapers like Vatan and left-leaning Birgun.

(Update: according to press reports Thursday, a Turkish air strike along the heavily Kurdish border with Iraq has killed 35 people)

The wave of press arrests is the latest in a series of operations directed since the fall against the Kurdish Communities Union (KCK) – allegedly the urban wing of the PKK. It began with the detentions of officials from the Kurdish party BDP, followed by academics, then a large group of lawyers involved with the BDP and KCK trials. This latest move is directed against journalists.

The fact that these KCK operations are proceeding, as if by category, proves that a well-planned, integrated road map is being put in place, step by step.

Interior Minister İdris Naim Şahin's recent hawkish statements appear to hint at what the next steps will be. Sahin declared that the BDP was an extension of the PKK; he said "we will show their true faces' and spoke of "terrorism's backyard." Describing the inhabitants of this backyard, he referred to artists, poets, universities, associations and NGOs, without naming names.

This latest wave of arrests will certainly hurt the ability of the Kurdish political movement to communicate with its constituencies.

FROM KCK TO VIOLATION OF PRIVACY

Freedom of the press includes the right to get news and spread news within a society. As lawyers for the defendants have pointed out, it is disturbing that in their interrogation the suspects were questioned about their ordinary journalistic activities.

The interrogation was not just limited to the KCK and journalism; one suspect was faced with records relating to his personal life and asked to give information about them. This is a frightening dimension.

It is up to the Interior and Justice Ministers to explain how an investigation that began as counter terrorism has turned into an investigation of someone's private life.

The real food for thought is this: the government in Ankara recently promised both the European Council and the European Union that it would carry out a series of legal changes to improve press freedom. This commitment led to optimistic expectations.

A technical study on this issue was due to begin with the European Council next month. Yet coming just as the government gained some credit in the West, these latest developments will damage its standing.

The problems related to freedom of expression and the number of journalists under arrest has become the most important thorn in Turkey's side in its relations with the West. This image problem is likely to worsen now.

In the end, 36 more members of the press have been added to the much-debated roster of how many journalists are under arrest. That the precise number of journalists detained by authorities in Turkey has become a matter of statistical debate is another sign of how problematic press freedom has become.

It is apparent that the ruling AKP party feels it has a free rein at home on these issues because of the West's need for Turkey in the wake of the Arab Spring and the crisis in Syria. But how can a country that throws 36 journalists behind bars overnight be a democratizing inspiration to the Arab Spring?

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