Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Reports show Turkish democracy - held up as a regional model - is under threat at home

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As Islamist parties and groups gain power in countries such as Egypt, Tunisia and Libya in the aftermath of the upheavals in the Middle East, and with growing chaos and uncertainty in neighbouring Syria, Turkey has been seen by many analysts as a model for balancing political Islam and democracy. But in this debate about whether the "Turkish model" can be exported and successfully implemented in other countries in the region, the many flaws of the Turkish democracy have often been ignored, overlooked or downplayed. Some concerning new reports from Turkey suggest that, rather than regarding Ankara as a possible model to be exported, the question that should be asked is whether democracy will survive even within Turkey itself.

One key indicator of how much essential democratic principles have come under threat in Turkey is freedom of press. A new report, "Turkey's Press Freedom Crisis" (October 2012), published by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), exposes the severity of the crackdown on journalists and freedom of press in Erdogan's Turkey. It notes:

"The government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has waged one of the world's biggest crackdowns on press freedom in recent history. Authorities have imprisoned journalists on a mass scale on terrorism or anti-state charges, launched thousands of other criminal prosecutions on charges such as denigrating Turkishness or influencing court proceedings, and used pressure tactics to sow self-censorship. Erdoğan has publicly deprecated journalists, urged media outlets to discipline or fire critical staff members, and filed numerous high-profile defamation lawsuits. His government pursued a tax evasion case against the nation's largest media company that was widely seen as politically motivated and that led to the weakening of the company."

According to the report, as of August 1, 2012, there are 76 journalists imprisoned in Turkey. The Turkish government disputes CPJ's numbers of imprisoned journalists and claims that the "assessments of the country's press freedom problems are exaggerated" - arguing most journalists named have been arrested for other crimes that are separate to their professional work. However, CPJ's case-by-case investigation comes to the conclusion that at least 61 of the imprisoned journalists were arrested directly due to their published work and news gathering activity. In addition, CPJ's reports an "alarming use of detention prior to trial or verdict," with over 75% of imprisoned journalists await resolution of their cases without yet being convicted of any crime.

The charges against journalists seen to range from bizarre to paranoid, as the report reveals that:

"About 30 percent of journalists jailed in August 2012 were accused of taking part in anti-government plots or being members of outlawed political groups. Several have been linked to the alleged Ergenekon conspiracy, which prosecutors have described as a vast plot aimed at overthrowing the government through a military coup. According to the government's theory, journalists were using news coverage to create the kind of societal chaos conducive to a coup."

Journalists who are not being held for allegedly taking part in an anti-government conspiracies, are likely to be charged with terrorism-related offences:

"About 70 percent of those jailed in August 2012 were Kurdish journalists charged with aiding terrorism by covering the views and activities of the banned Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, and the Union of Communities in Kurdistan, or KCK.
[...]
Throughout the Kurdish prosecutions, CPJ found that the government conflated reporting favourable to the PKK or other outlawed Kurdish groups with actual assistance to such organisations. Basic newsgathering activities - receiving tips, assigning stories, conducting interviews, relaying information to colleagues - were depicted by prosecutors as engaging in a terrorist enterprise."

The Turkish penal code reflects the Erdogan government's highly circumscribed approach to media freedom, according to the CPJ. Its vaguely and broadly phrased articles allows basic journalism to be seen as a conspiracy linked with banned political movements or terrorism. Other articles limit and, according to the report "effectively criminalise", objective and free coverage of the police and courts. This is mainly done with the intention of imposing self-censorship on journalists and editors:

"Although these articles rarely lead to imprisonment, they serve to intimidate journalists into self-censorship. They have also been used with disturbing frequency: Turkish press groups say up to 5,000 criminal cases were pending against journalists at the end of 2011."

Another set of legislation used by Turkish authorities against journalists is the anti-terror law, which mainly targets Kurdish journalists. The definition of "terrorism," analysts argue, is so broad it allows imprisonment of "journalists sympathetic to the Kurdish cause as though they were members of a terror group." The report also stresses that this stands in contradiction with the European Convention on Human Rights, violating freedom of expression.

In modern Turkey, journalists are likely to face charges of terrorism and anti-state conspiracy merely for reporting about banned movements or terrorist organisations, or for expressing positive attitude towards Kurdish claims. This stems from a purposefully vague penal code and anti-terrorism laws, coupled with what the report describes as "a harsh anti-press tone set at the highest levels of government." The Turkish limits on freedom of press are not only far behind the democratic standard, the reports argues that they are worse than those in many avowedly authoritarian countries. "Today, Turkey's imprisonments surpass the next most-repressive nations, including Iran, Eritrea, and China," it says.

The implications of all of this for the "Turkish model" of Islamic democracy appear severe. As noted American foreign policy pundit Walter Russell-Mead noted in a recent blog post ('Turkey's Islamists Persecuting Journalists?', 22.10.2012):

"The AK Party in Turkey is the best the Islamists have on offer-the brightest hope now around for reconciling Islamist power with democracy and tolerance. But if this is the best there is, the situation is bleak. Dark days are coming throughout the Middle East. The best hope is that pressure inside Turkey, as well as outside pressure generated by damning reports such as this one, may still tip the balance inside the AK Party to those who believe that real freedom is compatible with Islamic ideals. A failure in Turkey would be historic, with consequences that could reverberate for decades across the region and beyond. Unfortunately, at the moment failure seems much more likely than success."

Meanwhile, recent reports also highlight that the Turkish educational system is allegedly subjecting Turkish children to increasingly religious intolerance, as well as rejecting basic scientific theories - most notably the theory of evolution. According to the Financial Times ('Turkish book on Darwin sparks outrage,' 19.10.2012 ), a teachers' union took legal action following the distribution of books to school children in the Maltepe district, Istanbul whose content is antisemitic and describes important figures in modern science in a bad light, apparently to undermine their scientific contribution, achievements and ideas for religious reasons.

A book, intended to be a short biography, about Charles Darwin claims that he preferred throwing nuts to monkeys at the zoo rather than going to school and that he "had two problems: first he was a Jew; second, he hated his prominent forehead, big nose and misshapen teeth." Darwin, of course, was not Jewish. The attack on the father of the theory of evolution, which seems to be associated with atheism in Turkey, is not new - last year an internet filter restricted access to sites discussing evolution in Turkey. Other historical figures are also described in a similar antisemitic manner. In a book about Albert Einstein, he is described as "filthy and slovenly", and it claims that he ate soap. Shockingly, especially since the target audience is primary school children, the book than reads: "The sad part is during that time the Gestapo was putting Jews into ovens and making them into soap."

This incident is even more alarming in its wider context. The Turkish government is pushing education reforms which will increase the number of religious schools and introduced optional lessons on Mohammed into state schools. The government argues that such reforms increase freedom of choice after decades of the exclusion of religious content from public schools, which neglected the religiously conservative majority.

However, critics and opponents of such reforms argue that these steps harm the secular educational system. Mehmet Aydogan, an official in the union protesting the distribution of the books, warned that:

"The education system is becoming reactionary; imams are now teaching religion in schools. These books are discrediting worldwide accepted artists and scientists and forcing students to think unscientifically."

The European Commission and other bodies have also complained about passages in Turkish textbooks that paint minorities as untrustworthy and treacherous. If the education system is meant to shape the next generation and leadership, this is cause for concern - especially in light of the increasing and significant restrictions on the Turkish media which have been documented.

 

Or Avi-Guy

 

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