It appears that Turkey’s powerful prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has adopted a two-pronged assault on the right to freedom of expression and free press in Turkey against the background of increased criticism of his government amid outrageous revelations that the government has been running a massive profiling program on unsuspecting innocent citizens with no reasonable cause whatsoever.
The damaging exposé came right after the government’s plot to forcefully close all privately funded college prep schools that was seen as a violation of the right to engage in free enterprise and the right to education in Turkey. That has sparked a huge public outcry, leading to unrelenting social media campaigns against the government on Twitter, with hundreds of thousands up in arms with millions of protest messages communicated each and every night for three weeks now.
What we used to see when powerful generals came after journalists with civil and criminal charges filed in court to muzzle the free press in Turkey has now effectively been replaced with Erdoğan’s civilian government that adopted a scorched-earth policy to get rid of anybody or any institution that stands in the way of imposing a highly politicized Islamist agenda on Turkish society. Two recent cases that violate the right to freedom of the press and speech are a clear indication that Erdoğan’s government is committed to curbing free press while tilting fast towards a more authoritarian way of government.
One such case involves Emre Uslu, a columnist for Today’s Zaman and the Taraf daily, who was sued by Erdoğan over an opinion piece on the prep schools’ ban in which Erdoğan’s lawyers claimed that Uslu attacked Erdoğan’s character and insulted him. The other is the case about Turkey’s one of leading investigative reporters, Mehmet Baransu of Taraf daily, who was being subjected to criminal charges following a government petition that he revealed a controversial 2004-dated National Security Council (MGK) document indicating that Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) signed on to a planned crackdown on Turkey’s well-respected faith-based community. He later exposed further leaked documents proving that Turkey’s notorious spy agency has been running a massive profiling program under the government’s watch, targeting people and groups that are not closely aligned with Erdoğan’s political party.
Both cases highlight the growing worry on the state of affairs in the media landscape in Turkey where the government has by and large pressured most media groups to acquiesce to Erdoğan’s wishes. Instead of coming clean and apologizing to the nation for a massive violation of citizens’ rights, the AK Party government has opted for a policy of denial while throwing anything, such as legal and financial sanctions, at the free media in order to intimidate and silence it. Yet this represents a futile attempt considering how vibrant Turkish society is and how public expectations are running high from the sitting government in Turkey. I suppose Erdoğan, encircled with a core group of Islamist-leaning advisors who seem to be out of touch with reality, is making the same mistake Turkey’s condescending and meddlesome generals had once made. Generals who used to see themselves as above the law were also targeting the media with impunity during the turbulent years of a painstakingly difficult era. But justice has eventually caught up with them.
It feels as if the Erdoğan government has ventured into a fight that it cannot win over the long haul. Turkish society has transformed fundamentally in the past three decades. It will not accept any imposition of an Islamist agenda just as it refused the militarist-Kemalist agenda of past governments. Public awareness is high on many issues and civic groups/non-governmental organizations have been strengthened considerably. The young population with an appetite to learn and a keen interest in what is happening beyond the borders of Turkey, coupled with an affluent and growing middle-class, demands more from the government in terms of rights and liberties. Turks have been emancipated and empowered with a new conscience now.
For example, just from a legal point of view, the government‘s move to censure journalists appears very weak considering the case-law of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) whose judgments are binding on Turkey. In its rulings, the court made it clear that state officials cannot be protected against criticism and insult at a higher level than ordinary people through penal laws that carry a higher penalty. What is more, journalists should not be imprisoned or media outlets closed for critical comments, according to the Strasbourg-based court.
Erdoğan seems to be trying to swim against the current in Turkey and perhaps in a bid to delay his day of reckoning. His government has set out on a path of creating a “friendly” media in Turkey through business dealings in public tenders and contracts. A political force that controls, influences and indirectly owns private media groups, coupled with the increased dominance of the ruling party on the news agenda in state media, is a danger to the well-functioning of democracy in Turkey. The increasing display of an antagonistic attitude by some pro-government media circles in Turkey towards anybody or any group that may have differences with Erdoğan’s line of thinking on a given issue should ring alarm bells. Prime Minister Erdoğan’s jumping the gun on attacking the critical media for what he calls a smear campaign and a big appetite to prosecute journalists for defamation and other offences indicate a pattern of intolerance towards the media.
Furthermore, the ugly face of abusing state power has started to show its teeth with administrative decisions to block journalistic inquiries and deny access to press events and meetings. The accreditation system is used to prevent critical media from covering press events and this practice was unfortunately defended by AK Party officials as routine and standard procedure common in other countries as well. There are substantial rumors in the Turkish capital that public broadcasting agencies as well as pro-government media maintain informal blacklists of individuals who are barred from appearing even as a guest commentators.
The hope for Turkish journalists to check on this abusive power is the relatively independent judiciary in Turkey. Thanks to a major overhaul in the 2010 public referendum, Turkey’s higher judiciary has become more democratic, accountable to people and pluralistic in its composition of judges and prosecutors. Changes introduced, for the first time in Turkey, the individual right to petition to the Constitutional Court on violations of fundamental rights and freedoms. On top of that, the ECtHR stays as a last resort to remedy any injustice that might be sustained in Turkish courts. There are many examples of judicial investigations of journalists on various charges that the ECtHR found violated standards on access to information and freedom of expression.
For example, in the case of Erbil Tuşalp vs Turkey, the ECtHR issued a landmark verdict in 2012, sending a strong signal to the Turkish prime minister that his libel cases have no standing in the court of law considering the rights enumerated in the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). The court said journalist Tuşalp had exercised his right to freedom of expression as protected by Article 10 of the ECHR. The court underlined that the limits of acceptable criticism are wider as regards a politician than as regards a private individual. Therefore, the court said, Erdoğan was obliged to display a greater degree of tolerance. The court also reiterated that journalistic freedom also covers possible recourse to a degree of exaggeration, or even provocation. In the opinion of the court, Article 10 is applicable not only to information or ideas that are favorably received, but also to those that offend, shock or disturb. The court said that without pluralism, tolerance and broadmindedness, there is no democratic society.
Although the convention recognizes that freedom of speech may be restricted in order to protect the reputation of others, defamation laws or proceedings cannot be justified if their purpose or effect is to prevent legitimate criticism of public officials or the exposure of official wrongdoing or corruption. The court believes that the right to sue in defamation for the reputation of officials could easily be abused and might prevent free and open debate on matters of public interest or scrutiny of the spending of public money. The court is also of the opinion that any sanction on journalists for libel cases cannot be substantial lest this may deter others from criticizing public officials and limit the free flow of information and ideas. Under these standards, Uslu’s criticism of Erdoğan should be rejected by Turkish courts.
As for the exposure of secret government documents, the rule of thumb is that criminal penalties for the protection of public order or national security must be balanced with the right to freedom of expression. Baransu exposed profiling documents and served public interest by letting people know what their government is up to with secret files. The government’s filing a criminal complaint against him violates Baransu’s freedom of expression and the public’s right to know. The Erdoğan government cannot hide behind state secrecy protections to restrict freedom of expression and information. If Turkish courts agree with the government’s position on this one, Turkey will stand out from the crowd of 47 members of the Council of Europe where prosecutions for breach of state secrecy are very rare and usually lead to light sentences.
In all likelihood, legal complaints will end up with the acquittal of journalists against government charges. In the meantime, however, perhaps Mr. Erdoğan simply wants to buy some smooth-riding time until the elections are over. He probably thinks that the proceedings will take some time to sort out. The downside is that the chilling effect on the Turkish media with government attacks on free press will continue to loom large.
This article first appeared in Today’s Zaman, one of leading newspapers of Turkey.