Lambsdorff: Turkish press intimidated, under pressure

A senior member of the European Parliament (EP), German Liberal Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, said the Turkish press is intimidated and under pressure, and also strongly criticized the new Internet law.

Speaking on Saturday night on the “Avrupa Masası” (Europe Desk) program that aired on the Samanyolu Haber channel hosted by Selçuk Gültaşlı, the Zaman daily’s Brussels representative, the vice chairman of the third-largest group in the EP said he was not convinced by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s arguments with regard to both recent corruption charges and the existence of a “parallel state.” Lambsdorff, who is also the shadow rapporteur of his group on Turkey, stated that Erdoğan has argued that there is no corruption, but could not answer the question of why he had to change half of his Cabinet if there was no corruption in the first place.

Referring to Erdoğan’s argument on the existence of a parallel state, the German liberal said he was not convinced on that point, either. Stressing that they were aware of the existence of people in the bureaucracy close to the Hizmet movement, Lambsdorff said it was not possible to speak about a parallel state: “However, to talk of a parallel state is wrong, I think. You are talking about Turkish citizens who follow a particular imam, which is not illegal under Turkish law. And therefore I do not think one can speak of a parallel state.”

Lambsdorff represented his group in a meeting with Erdoğan in the EP on Jan. 21, when the prime minister visited Brussels for the first time in five years.

Characterizing Mahir Zeynalov’s deportation as “an intimidation [tactic],” Lambsdorff said they might invite Zeynalov to the EP to speak about his experience. In another reference to the problems of press freedom in Turkey, Lambsdorff said Erdoğan’s scolding of Zaman reporter Ahmet Dönmez was unacceptable in a democracy.

The following are excerpts from the interview:

How was Erdoğan’s visit perceived in Germany?

First of all, it was good that he came, because it is always good to speak among people at the highest political levels. The second thing is that people were nervous that he might repeat some things he said in Cologne and Dusseldorf a few years ago, [things] which, in Germany, were understood as an obstacle for integration and peace with Turks in Germany. But he did not do that. He campaigned for his party, which is appropriate. Mr. [Kemal] Kılıçdaroğlu can do the same thing for the CHP [Republican People’s Party], and everybody else can do that. But he did not present himself in a way that would make us criticize him. The third thing, however, is important: You are right when you say people are nervous about Turkey these days, because domestic developments keep people up at night; they make people nervous. And you know that gives us reason to reflect what the future course of the country will be.

Before his visit to Berlin, he was in Brussels, and you had the chance to talk to him as part of a delegation. You then said you were not very convinced about the way he explained what happened on Dec. 17 and the developments in the wake of Dec. 17. How was that meeting?

I represented the Liberal group. We had a lively exchange, which is good. But of course, questions remained. On one hand, the prime minister said there was no corruption, but on the other, he did not really answer the question of why he changed half of his Cabinet. We also asked about the massive reshuffling of people in the judicial administration, to which he replied that it was just the normal functioning of the judicial process.

It still continues as we speak.

It still continues as we speak. The government’s claim appears to be ‘This is normal in a large country with a large judiciary.’ In Brussels, in the European Union, we believe that the functioning of the judiciary in Turkey has seriously been affected. Even the European Commission, which is usually very careful in its wording, said very clearly yesterday in a committee [meeting] that there has been a serious impact on the administration of the judiciary of Turkey; that is, the administration of justice. That is very unusual, and it shows that people here are very skeptical about what is going on in the follow-up to the Dec. 17 revelations.

What is your own take on what is going on?

For the Liberals, we have always emphasized how important checks and balances are, in addition to an independent judiciary. In a judiciary that can prosecute anyone, citizens as well as members of parliament like myself, ministers and prime ministers cease to be [equal] citizens of their country. So if there are accusations against us, against politicians of any countries including European countries, it is clear that the judiciary must be able to do this [seek justice] without interference from the ministry, from the state or from the powers that be. Otherwise it is a violation of the checks and balances, and we do not think that is the way to go for Turkey.

The prime minister says this is a continuation of the Gezi Park [protests of last summer], and the interior minister who had to resign said this was second Gezi Park, meaning the corruption charges. In the Gezi Park situation, your country was implicated; government officials have spoken about those who are against a third airport [in İstanbul], big [developing] infrastructure and Lufthansa. Are involved in anything [like that]? Because there is this international conspiracy theory in which there are domestic collaborators; the domestic collaborators in the ‘second Gezi Park’ are the Hizmet people.

I am afraid I have to disappoint the prime minister. I do not know a single German organization or institution that would have any interest in the urban developments of certain parts of İstanbul or the construction of tunnels, bridges or airports. That is entirely Turkey’s business. Just as we would not expect anybody from the outside to have influence regarding difficulties that we have had in the Berlin airport that has not been finished or the Stuttgart train station that has not quite been finished.

But Lufthansa is jealous, as I understand, of the third airport. You see there is a huge competition coming from Turkey.

Lufthansa has just named a new CEO, who is a very good man, and his strategy is very clear. Germany must remain a hub of aviation with Munich and Frankfurt, two large, significant airports for Lufthansa. And the challenge is not so much coming from Turkey. Turkey is an important growing economy, that’s true. But the challenge comes from the [Arabian] Gulf, from Qatar, from the UAE. They subsidize their airlines and create new hubs with state-sponsored airlines, whereas Lufthansa is a privately owned company that operates privately in the marketplace. That is an unfair advantage, of course.

The Liberal group is so sensitive about the Internet law and the media freedom. What is your take on the new Internet law?

We regret its introduction very much, and every positive effect that the prime minister’s visit may have had in Brussels or Berlin was, of course, canceled the very minute this law was put forward, because to authorize a government institution to close down websites without previous consultation of a judge is something that is absolutely impossible in open societies. Whether it will be used for censorship or not, we cannot tell. But the very fact that there is law that makes it possible for censorship to be exercised already creates an atmosphere of intimidation for critical bloggers or for people who engage in open discussions; even for things that I or you personally would consider distasteful, but this is freedom, this is liberty. Liberty means also that you have to tolerate certain things that are considered distasteful for other people.

A reporter from Today’s Zaman was deported last week. Then the prime minister was on Al Jazeera, and he was asked about the state of media freedom in Turkey. And he said, I am quoting: ‘Turkey is much more free than almost any EU country. When you refer to Gezi Park, why do not you see the events in Frankfurt or Hamburg?’ First, how do you react to this statement, do you think Turkey is much more free than almost any EU country? Second, what is going on in your country? The prime minister keeps saying nobody is talking about what is going on in Germany.

I visit Turkey regularly, very frequently. I have friends in the media, both, you know, on the more conservative side, and on the more liberal or even on the left-wing side of the political spectrum. I talk to people in print, in television and in online media. And universally, once the doors are closed and there is a confidential atmosphere, what we hear — and that is not just from me but all the other people here in Brussels who care about Turkey and who follow Turkish affairs — is that yes, there is intimidation, and yes, there are phone calls to editors about journalists who write things that are not pleasant for the people in power. And tax authorities are used or abused to go after publishing houses, as we have seen in the case of the Doğan Group. I mean these are things that are real, not imagined, I mean we do not dream them up. They are real. That’s what our interlocutors in Turkey tell us. Inside the EU, we have exactly one country where we have a real headache with the media situation: Hungary. And we are putting enormous pressure on Hungary, believe me. But in the other 27 countries, it is absolutely clear that press is a lot freer than in Turkey. For example, not even in Hungary do they put journalists in jail. But in Turkey you have many journalists in jail. So I think that explains a lot.

What is going on in Hamburg?

Yes, that has nothing to do with media. I think what the prime minister referred to were police activities in the context of demonstrations and yes, mistakes have been made. Not on the scale of the Gezi Park demonstrations; nobody died either in Hamburg or Frankfurt. That is important. Nobody went after doctors or nurses who looked after people who were injured. That did not happen either. What happened was that the police officers were nervous and overreacted, and it is now being investigated by the Ministry of Justice whether their actions were justified or not. We are an open country.

Maybe you have a parallel state in Germany as well.

No, but we are a society that is made up of human beings. Human beings make mistakes. Police did make mistakes. He could have added Stuttgart. In Stuttgart, we had the police overreacting as well in a particular situation. That happens; it happens in Paris, it happens in Brussels, it happens in Warsaw. Yes, it does happen. But there is a difference in the way you address these mistakes.

The prime minister wants you and everyone to believe that there is a parallel state, Alexander. Even if there is a parallel state, how would you fight against it in a democratic European country?

The word parallel state has connotations, particularly in German history, which I would not use. I think what you need to have is transparency. What we have called for in our report on Turkey — which we will publish and vote on shortly — is for the Hizmet movement to be more transparent. It is true that there are quite a few questions surrounding it, that there are quite a few “mysteries,” as I would put it, which could be addressed in public. Because there is no doubt anywhere, including in Germany, that the Hizmet movement is doing a lot of things, many of them in the field of education, and nobody has a problem with that. But there are other aspects, for example, how influential is Hizmet in the judiciary. To answer questions like these, I think, would be helpful.

And your amendment is endorsed by the Hizmet movement.

I am very happy about it.

Hizmet says they are open to any inquiry.

Yes, exactly. And I am looking forward to this dialogue happening here in the European Parliament because we have questions as well. However, to talk of a parallel state is wrong, I think. You are talking about Turkish citizens who follow a particular imam, which I is not illegal under Turkish law. And therefore I do not think one can speak of a parallel state.

You were the MEP who invited journalist Ahmet Şık to come and speak, and I understand there was an exchange of views yesterday or the other day saying that Hizmet people should also come and speak to you.

As I said, we are neutral. We as a liberal group have no preference for this part or that part of the Turkish society. What we want to do is understand Turkey. If Turkey is a candidate country that wants to come closer to Europe, we need to understand Turkey. So when Ahmet Şık was arrested and then released, we invited him to talk about his experience. The same goes for representatives of the Hizmet movement, and for representatives of the government, of opposition parties, of the economy, etc.

Mahir Zeynalov was deported. What is your take on it?

I think this is part of a larger situation in which intimidation of the media takes place with or without the knowledge of the prime minister or other people in power. I do not know. But the authorities clearly deported him for re-tweeting certain articles critical of the government. He is not a Turkish citizen; however, he worked for Zaman and Today’s Zaman as well. They are both Turkish publications and he has a Turkish wife. I believe that he was perfectly integrated with Turkish society. So therefore, I cannot see why he would commit a crime. For liberals, freedom of speech and freedom of expression are the primary rules of an open society. The founding principles really. Therefore, I do not see why he should have been deported.

Would you consider inviting him to the [European] Parliament and listening to him?

I have not thought about that, but it is a good idea. Why not?

The prime minister recently has been scolding reporters who dare to ask him critical questions. Just the other day, a reporter from Zaman, Ahmet Dönmez, dared to ask him about corruption and he was reprimanded. How would a European politician react to such allegations and questions? Because in Germany, your former president is facing corruption allegations.

He, the former president of Germany, is now in court. It looked very much that he was going to be exonerated, but there was a legal proceeding and it seems that the court case will collapse.

But correct me if I am wrong, isn’t it the former president who is pushing for the case?

He is pushing for the case because he said, ‘I have nothing I need to be ashamed of.’ The prosecution offered a deal, which he refused, saying that he wanted to be exonerated and regain his honor. That is what he said.

So the question was about the prime minister’s reaction to the reporter about questions on the corruption allegations.

There, Erdoğan is moving on a human level. The president of Germany who we were just talking about also yelled at reporters, on a human level. You know, politicians are only human. And when these allegations came up, he yelled at the reporter, which was considered unacceptable. It was part of the process which at, the end, led to him leaving his position. Because he threatened a journalist.

Which was very unacceptable.

Which was very unacceptable. Everybody else, all the other German journalists, said, ‘He is a politician, he should not threaten a journalist,’ and everything taken together led to his resignation eventually. However, I will not condemn the prime minister or our former president for yelling at someone in a very stressful situation. We are all human, we all make mistakes. It is just the global context, the a larger situation, [which defines] how you evaluate that.

The prime minister is using certain words for the Hizmet movement, [calling them] a bunch of people who are ‘hashshashin’ or assassins, and yesterday he said they are gangs and a virus. How do you hear these sorts of accusations, without any proper investigation?

It is not the kind of language that one should use in a democracy to describe political opponents. I have firm disagreements with some people in this [European] parliament, I have strong disagreements and we are entering an election phase.

You personally have your criticisms against the Hizmet movement.

I thought that the way Ahmet Şık was treated, apparently with the involvement of some people affiliated with the movement, was clearly unfair. I said so publicly, and we invited Şık here.

But you never called them viruses.

This is language, you know, if you dehumanize your political opponent, if you describe him as something other than a human being with whom you have disagreements, you move the political debate to a level where it should not be. It should be kept at a level of respect, with respect for disagreement. In democracies, you cannot expect everybody to agree, because what would the voters then have to vote on, if everybody agreed.

Why did you say the prime minister’s visits to Brussels and Berlin were in vain?

It was a start for a new dialogue. It was good that he came, he should come more often than every five years, because that was last visit to Brussels. But, you know, engaging in dialogue and listening to what everybody else has to say about freedom of speech, freedom of the media, all of these things, and then going back to Ankara and introducing, for example, the Internet censorship law, that is of course a move counter to everything that we have tried to convey here as conducive to the European trajectory of Turkey. It does not seem that Turkey is on course to the European way.

Not you personally, but the EU should also be a bit blamed for the awful state of accession talks. The prime minister has a point there.

Absolutely. I go to Turkey very often. I understand the frustration in Turkey about the EU. We say you are a candidate, we say we [will] negotiate but then you know, in many countries — Cyprus is not the only country — France, Austria, the Netherlands and even in my own country, people do not want Turkey to be a member of the EU. So there is a mess in these negotiations. And I can understand why our friends in Turkey are frustrated with this schizophrenia within the EU. On the one hand, there are negotiations, but on the other, there is no clear commitment to eventual Turkish accession. I think we need to move into completely a new phase with a different agenda, with a different way of structuring Turkish-European relations, because we have so many things that we could do together.



About yavuzbaydar

Yavuz Baydar has been an award-winning Turkish journalist, whose professional activity spans nearly four decades. In December 2013, Baydar co-founded the independent media platform, P24, Punto24, to monitor the media sector of Turkey, as well as organizing surveys, and training workshops. Baydar wrote opinion columns, in Turkish, liberal daily Ozgur Dusunce and news site Haberdar, and in English, daily Today's Zaman, on domestic and foreign policy issues related to Turkey, and media matters, until all had to cease publications due to growing political oppression. Currently, he writes regular chronicles for Die Süddeutsche Zeitung, and opinion columns for the Arab Weekly, as well as analysis for Index on Censorship. Baydar blogs with the Huffington Post, sharing his his analysis and views on Turkish politics, the Middle East, Balkans, Europe, U.S-Turkish relations, human rights, free speech, press freedom, history, etc. His opinion articles appeared at the New York Times, the Guardian, El Pais, Svenska Dagbladet, and Al Jazeera English online. Turkey’s first news ombudsman, beginning at Milliyet daily in 1999, Baydar worked in the same role as reader representative until 2014. His work included reader complaints with content, and commentary on media ethics. Working in a tough professional climate had its costs: he was twice forced to leave his job, after his self-critical columns on journalistic flaws and fabricated news stories. Baydar worked as producer and news presenter in Swedish Radio &TV Corp. (SR) Stockholm, Sweden between 1979-1991; as correspondent for Scandinavia and Baltics for Turkish daily Cumhuriyet between 1980-1992, and the BBC World Service, in early 1990's. Returning to Turkey in 1994, he worked as reporter and ediytor for various outlets in print, as well as hosting debate porogrammes in public and private TV channels. Baydar studied informatics, cybernetics and, later, had his journalism ediucatiob in the University of Stockholm. Baydar served as president of the U.S. based International Organizaton of News Ombudsmen (ONO) in 2003. He was a Knight-Wallace Fellow at University of Michigan in 2004. Baydar was given the Special Award of the European Press Prize (EPP), for 'excellence in journalism', along with the Guardian and Der Spiegel in 2014. He won the Umbria Journalism Award in March 2014 and Caravella/Mare Nostrum Prize in 2015; both in Italy. Baydar completed an extensive research on self-censorship, corruption in media, and growing threats over journalism in Turkey as a Shorenstein Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.
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