Turkey tightens the screws on critics

By bne IntelliNews January 12, 2015

David O'Byrne in Istanbul -


Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu on January 11 took his place alongside his Western counterparts marching through Paris at the head of the demonstration organised in the wake of the brutal killing of 17 people at the satirical journal Charlie Hebdo and subsequent incidents. However, while Davutoglu’s presence at the demonstration against extremism and in favour of freedom of expression was likely welcomed by the European leaders he walked alongside, it struck something of a discordant note given recent events in Turkey.

These include the arrest of two prominent figures in the Turkish media and a Dutch journalist on suspicion of promoting terrorism, and the arrest of a 16-year-old student on charges of insulting Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan – an arrest that Davutoglu has publicly defended. Then there was the barring of members of Turkey's professional chambers from attending overseas congresses without government permission, pending a new law designed to replace the existing chambers with a new body under firm government control.

These moves are less in keeping with the tone of the Paris demonstration of inclusiveness, freedom of expression and transparency, and more with the kind of unabashed hypocrisy that France's Charlie Hebdo has made a career of ridiculing. Indeed, the French president, François Hollande, embarrassingly snubs Davutoglu in this excruciating video.

Commenting on the presence of Davutoglu and representatives from other countries with poor records on media freedom, Christophe Deloire, secretary-general of press freedom group Reporters Without Borders, pointed out that Turkey ranks 154th out of 180 in terms of press freedom. “It would be unacceptable if representatives of countries that silence journalists were to take advantage of the current outpouring of emotion to try to improve their international image and then continue their repressive policies when they return home."

Je suis arrêté

Davutoglu returns to a country where 845 reporters are reckoned to have been sacked since the anti-government protests that swept the country in mid-2013 and where over 70 journalists are facing prosecution for reporting on allegations of government corruption.

The recent arrests on terrorism charges of Ekrem Dumanli, editor-in-chief of Turkey's Zaman newspaper group, and Hidayet Karaca, head of the Samanyolu TV group, are perhaps the most indicative of the way Turkey is moving.

Both organisations are strongly affiliated with exiled Turkish religious leader Fetullah Gulen, whose shady "Hizmet" organization was until around three years ago a prominent supporter of President Erdogan's governing Justice and Development Party. But their subsequent fallout led to the launching by police on December 19, 2013 of a surprise anti-graft investigation, and the emergence of evidence of widespread and deep-seated corruption in the higher echelons of government. The investigation resulted in the forced resignation of four senior ministers, which in turn resulted in the government furiously purging senior police and prosecutors responsible for the probe, and the eventual dropping of all legal efforts to have the corruption claims investigated.

Blamed for the launch of the probe and the subsequent leaking of tapped phone conversations implying yet more corruption, Hizmet was labelled first by the government as "the parallel state" and subsequently accused of terrorism, allegations which culminated in the above arrests on December 19 – the first anniversary of the launch of the graft probe. Timing scarcely less sinister than Hizmet itself, whose supporters blithely refer to it as "the movement" – albeit one which has no offices, no officers and no formal membership, and whose current predicament has worried many in Turkey more for the process it results from and less for the fate of those arrested, whose own record on supporting media freedom is less than spotless.

Commenting on the prosecution of journalists in an interview published in 2013, Bulent Kenes, editor of Zaman's English-language daily Today's Zaman, offered this: “Those who are jailed... are not people accused and convicted of journalism. Being a journalist cannot allow you to commit crimes.” A statement he shamefacedly admitted in a press conference in late December following the arrest of his colleagues was a "mistake."

Whether or not those arrested have committed any crimes remains to be seen. However, if the arrest of Hizmet supporters on allegations of terrorism represents a new twist to Turkey's chequered record of press freedom, the arrest in January of Dutch journalist Frederike Geerdink on charges of making propaganda for a terrorist group is a sad return to an earlier paradigm of accusing anyone who reports on the PKK Kurdish terrorist group, of supporting it.

Geerdink's arrest has been widely condemned for lacking any justification, with the reporter herself claiming on her blog that the "evidence" against her consisted of no more than any "15-year-old" could have compiled in half an hour on the internet.

Torturing the chambers

More worrying even than increasing pressure on the media is the move by Davutoglu's government to clamp down on dissent from within the country's professional chambers – many of which have been at the forefront of launching legal challenges against government policies.

Unusually, Turkey's professional chambers are organised under the constitution, making them simultaneously part of a state apparatus that regulates and codifies the professions and NGOs, which operate independent from and often in opposition to the government.

Over the past decade the main chamber, of Engineers and Architects (TMMOB), which acts as an umbrella for 23 separate chambers, has emerged as an increasingly independent voice of opposition, repeatedly challenging everything from privatizations, approval for construction projects and even government legislation. "Of the 23 chambers [under TMMOB], only one is pro-government," notes Oguz Turkyilmaz, head of TMMOB's energy committee and the organisation's former deputy head, explaining that the government has become increasingly angered by the chamber's legal challenges.

That anger has resulted in new regulation barring TMMOB members from attending events outside Turkey without permission from the environment ministry, and the enacting of a decree formulated by the military junta that ruled Turkey after the 1980 coup allowing the government to audit and inspect the chambers' operations. "That decree was never implemented – for 60 years the chamber has been entirely self governing," says Turkyilmaz, adding that the government recently published plans to abolish the 23 chambers altogether and replace them with one national body, organised through local offices.

"They just don't want anyone to criticise them," he sighs.


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