Turkey’s Increasing Dilemmas: Old Routines, Gezi Park, Ergenekon and the Rule of Self-Censorship

Turkey’s Increasing Dilemmas:
Old Routines, Gezi Park, Ergenekon and the Rule of Self-Censorship

Introduction

The increasing political and administrative pressures on citizens, the human rights violations, censorship at all aspects of society including the media, jailed journalists, the final so-called Ergenekon verdicts on 5th of August, and the upcoming KCK trials, Turkey is again getting into the dilemma of very serious problems created by itself starkly.  As a fiction writer and representative of PEN (Poets, Essayists and Novelists) International I have chosen not to elaborate on the strictly judicial development and the rule of law in Turkey seen from a technical point of view, and whether the articles in the penal code harmonizes with international standards or not. We have already heard from several distinguished lawyers in what way Turkey falls short of these standards, and I am sure we will have the opportunity to go even further into this complicated but for every society so vital question. As a freedom of expression activist I have decided to concentrate on the human and social aspects of the matter and what, according to my view, the consequences of the recent developments and the present situation are for the citizens of Turkey.

Let me start by informing you that I have followed closely the developments concerning freedom of expression and human rights in Turkey for 20 years of which I have lived hear the last six and a half. As chair of PEN Internationals Writer in Prison committee, member of the board of the organisation, their International Secretary and at present Vice-President, I have had the opportunity to work on a daily base with abuses against freedom of expression worldwide, and in particular with the shortcomings on this field here in Turkey.

Coming from abroad, I do not want to tell you details you are just as painfully aware of as me, and on top of that influenced by in a way I will never be. My position will always be the observer how engaged, well informed and experienced I can hope to become. So allow me to share some of my reflections as a dedicated friend and supporter. And let me add, that I have always regarded the writers role in any society to be a person who sticks his nose into “internal affairs.”

Turkey from the 1990’s to the AK Party Government: A Brake with the Old Routines?

When I started to visit Turkey in the beginning of the 1990’s to observe trails against writers, publishers and journalist, and to manoeuvre myself into the prisons where they had to stay – often in really poor conditions – and for up to more than 100 years (İsmail Beşikci) I found the situation sometimes unbearable. Not only because of all these intellectuals and writers who had to serve very long prison terms, but also due to all those who were killed and found in the ditches, the visits in post torture centres and the atmosphere of threat and violent confrontations all over the country.

Little by little the situation improved. The writers and human right activists were released, one by one. The violence committed by the police, the gendarmerie, the militaries, and PKK did not end, but the situation calmed down – at least on the surface.

What do we face today? I think many, not the least those in Europe who follows the situation in Turkey – far too few by the way – got the impression at the beginning of this millennium that Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AK Party) meant a brake with old routines, and a real boost for the democratization of the country. So what went wrong? Why did the AK Party so fast fall back in the old tracks? Or was it never their ambition to really change anything but the power structure to their advantage? So, under the rule of Mr. Erdoğan, has nothing changed? Oh yes it has. I would say the violence – although still a major problem – has deteriorated, today it is another kind of threat which covers the sky over Turkey and makes the atmosphere difficult to breath.

Old Routines Re-Loaded in Turkey: The State of Law or the Mockery of Law?

It is always a government’s duty, through its police and courts, to protect the society from individuals and groups which in different ways want to bring disorder into the society. Especially in a country where there exists a constant state of clashes between political as well as ethnical fractions this is a delicate and complicated matter. The more important it should be for those in power to conduct their actions with prudence, be extra careful not to increase the tensions by introducing the same kind of violence they want to limit, and first of all see to it that the steps taken to keep law and order strictly follows the rules of law.

Is this the way the ruling AK Party has acted since the 2011 Elections? In my opinion, total opposite. The aggressive language used by its leader, the insults towards leading defenders of human rights and individuals who advocate alternative solutions to existing problems coming from prominent members of his administration, and the threats delivered to the part of the press which do not applaud the current politics, has created a situation where police and prosecutors finds themselves free to act in a most irregular way, upholding a regiment of routines and casual arrests which has created fear in the Turkish society, and headshaking disbelieve and condemnation from the international community.

I started by advocating my conviction that it is the political powers duty to protect their citizens, but what is to a certain extent the situation in Turkey today? I would say it is the opposite. It is the active and concerned citizens who have to protect themselves from their own government, and from their own judiciary! The introduction of extra judicial courts, the mass arrests of journalists, academicians, human rights activists, students, lawyers etc. in a number and for reasons which create the picture of a police state, not a democracy, the routine to keep these people in custody year after year and in unacceptable conditions without even deliver the indictments, poison the atmosphere and makes the self-censorship a way to survive! This is not the state of law; it is mockery of the law!

This is why Turkey today unfortunately not any more is a country where the citizens can breathe properly, and it creates not only an atmosphere of fear, it fuels also the paranoia which is an old decease in this society, and the constant suspiciousness and mistrust which paralyses the system and hinders your country from taking the long needed steps into the family of functioning democracies where citizens feel like citizens not subjects, and the state realizes they are civil servants put there by their population to serve, not to protect their own power.

Where is Turkey Heading in the Global Picture? Abuse of Power and ‘Terrorising Citizens’

Events which have taken place during the summer months of 2013 show clearly that the conflicts between governments and their own populations are growing in many countries. The feeling that the ruling parties, those who claim to protect “us”, ordinary citizens from what they call “destructive elements” “organizations wanting to overthrow elected governments” or plainly “terrorists and sympathizers with terrorist organizations” uses methods to control their population far outside what was regarded as acceptable only ten years ago, at least in the western world.

We have seen abuse of power in different ways in several countries. The Manning and Snowden cases in the US have created implications even in Europe and have become an eye opener for many. The fact that a growing number of people are realizing the need of whistle blowers in a world, where the global “war against terrorism” mentality has been threatening the civil rights. And the open societies are complicating the picture of what a country who want to be regarded as a democracy can allow themselves to accept.

In Turkey, this dilemma has become even more urgent. The verdicts in the so-called Ergenekon trails have raised indignation and misbelief both inside and outside the country. The disproportional sentences, the way the court has pushed the least said loosely connected if connected at all charged into one basket, the widely use of anonymous witnessing, the mass trail habit more widely used than ever, the refusal of letting the accused free pending tail and instead, in some cases, lock them into solitary confinement has been widely condemned. In a way, all this pointed on an early stage in the direction of this result – and still it came as some kind of a shock to all who follows the developments in Turkey.

Seen from a PEN perspective the heavy sentences brought down on journalists of course is of special concern, first of all in relation with those victimized by these verdicts, but even seen into a broader picture. The Ergenekon, as well as the KCK trails are curtailing free expression in Turkey, and the numerous dismissals from mainstream newspapers specially shows how newspaper ownership, business and politics is connected in the most un-healthy way. When these all are put together, they have created a censorship society more outspoken than in many years.

The so-called Gezi Park uproar showed how an authoritarian regime cracks down on dissent wherever it occurs. It was shocking to witness how the police brutality was conducted and organized, but in a way just as shocking to learn how the protests were read by the Prime Minister Erdoğan and his administration. The Turkish paranoia syndrome is blossoming again. The lack of understanding what was going on eminent, and I suppose deliberately or not, it means that those in power have become men of yesterday and has not understood what is going on in their own society, and that is in many ways even more worrying!

Concluding Remark

Outside Turkey, the events have often been described as a conflict between the secular old Kemalists – and the Muslim circles (Islamists). This is in my opinion a dangerous simplification of the situation and points once again in the direction of this “clash of culture” theory. In my opinion it is more correct to say that what is going on in Turkey today is a clash between the past and the future. A clash between the old fashioned “go back to old values” conservatism and a modern state INCLUDING progressive Muslims, and not the least Muslim women who are defending, and right so, the freedom they after all have won during the last many decades of fighting for equality.

 Eugene Schoulgin, Vice President of PEN International and Author

Please cite this publication as follows:

Schoulgin, Eugene (September, 2013), “Turkey’s Increasing Dilemmas:  Old Routines, Gezi Park, Ergenekon and the Rule of Self-Censorship”, Vol. II, Issue 7, pp.24-27, Centre for Policy and Research on Turkey (ResearchTurkey), London, Research Turkey. (http://researchturkey.org/?p=4085)

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2 thoughts on “Turkey’s Increasing Dilemmas: Old Routines, Gezi Park, Ergenekon and the Rule of Self-Censorship

  1. Patrick

    A very important and to-the-point analysis to understand what Turkey has gone through in the past and what is going on in Turkey today! Thanks to Research Turkey for publishing such realities with no fear considering the current authoritarianism in Turkey! Best wishes from Denmark.

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  2. (Dr.) Zeki Ergas

    I know Eugene Schoulgin for quite a few years now. We met at several PEN congresses and PEN Writers for Peace conferences. I think we are friends. And I know he certainly is a friend of Turkey, He has lived in Istanbul for more than six years. He knows Turkey well. I myself am bi-national: Turkish and Swiss, and I have been Secretary General of Swiss Romand PEN for more than seven years. I also have lived in Israel for 3 years, in various countries in sub-Saharan Africa for five years, and in the U.S. for seven years. I am a teacher of development and a writer. I agree with Eugene that the human rights and freedom expression situation is dire, and that it has deteriorated significantly in the last few years. But still, I would like to make two remarks that I consider important: 1. Turkey is not the country it was ten years ago: it has industrialized, it is an important player in international politics, and the standard of living has improved notably for most people; 2. The civil society has developed enormously. That is a sign of maturation and democratization. So whatever happens to the current leader and the AKP in the forthcoming elections, these are achievements that must be acknowledged. So, we must fight for human rights and freedom of expression, yes, but we must also view societal developments in their totality.

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