Erdoğan gov’t transforms Turkey into a land of oppression and bans

An upward trend of democratic achievements and efforts to make Turkey a more civilized and democratic country have been reversed recently — particularly after the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) grew more authoritarian and intolerant toward criticism starting from the Gezi Park protests of last summer.

Since then, Turkey has turned inward and transformed into an anti-democratic regime.

The blame largely rests on Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his AK Party government. For many, Turkey is now a country where criticism is not tolerated; social media platforms such as YouTube and Twitter are blocked very easily; people are killed for participating in anti-government street protests; and journalists are fired for speaking against the government.

Twelve people were killed in the Gezi Park protests, which were marked by police brutality. The government has been involved in a number of unlawful practices against certain groups of people since the corruption and bribery investigations of Dec. 17 and 25 of last year. The faith-based Hizmet movement has been attacked on fictitious accusations. Human rights and freedoms as well as the Constitution have remained shelved since then. The prime minister, in person, has been coordinating an ongoing smear campaign against Hizmet, which is inspired by Turkish Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen. People and companies affiliated with the movement are targeted by the government. Acts of illegal profiling of individuals and other forms of violation of people’s secrecy have become common practices.

State organs such as the Interior Ministry, the National Intelligence Organization (MİT), the National Police Department and some prosecutor’s offices have turned into “headquarters” to carry out an operation against Hizmet. More than 40,000 members of the police force, judges and prosecutors have been either fired or reassigned to different posts. The Turkish Olympiads were not held in Turkey due to the prime minister’s and his government’s dislike of Hizmet.

Moreover, the government blocked access to YouTube and Twitter in March and the notorious bans remained in place for several weeks after some anonymous users posted a large number of video clips and voice recordings that alleged the involvement of the prime minister and some other government officials in corruption and bribery.

Some TV stations, believed to be critical of the government’s policies, have been arbitrarily punished with heavy fines.

Below is a detailed summary of the various forms of government-sponsored oppression faced by critics.

Turkey not home to Turkish Olympiads for first time

The Turkish Olympiads, which have evolved into a brand to introduce the Turkish language and culture to other countries, were not allowed to be held in Turkey for the first time this year. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said publicly in March that the Hizmet movement, which sponsors the Olympiads, would no longer be allowed to carry out any activity related to the Olympiads within Turkey’s boundaries. “The issue [Olympiads] is over. They will no longer be able to hire stadiums or sports halls from our [Justice and Development Party (AK Party)] municipalities to hold their events,” he said.

In compliance, the municipalities and governor’s offices refused to hire out their venues for the Turkish Olympiads.

The finals for the Olympiads began in Ethiopia on May 31 and moved on to Romania and Germany on June 15 and 21, respectively. The events were attended by state officials of the host countries.

Bans on Twitter, YouTube

The Justice and Development Party (AK Party), in what many saw as an attempt to divert attention from major graft allegations targeting Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, his family and his government, blocked access to Twitter in mid-March. The ban followed a public address by the prime minister in which he stated that the government was determined to “root out Twitter.” Several users on Twitter posted YouTube links to leaked phone recordings and photographs to allegedly serve as proof of graft allegations leveled against the prime minister’s family and the government in an investigation that went public on Dec. 17, 2013.

Shortly after the ban on Twitter, the Telecommunications Directorate (TİB) in late March blocked access to popular video-sharing platform YouTube. Days after the imposition of the bans, local courts ordered that access to Twitter and YouTube be restored. However, TİB declined to comply. The bans were removed only after the Constitutional Court ruled unanimously that the bans were unconstitutional.

Hundreds of journalists fired

One of the major victims of the government’s oppressive policies after the Gezi Park protests and the Dec. 17 period was, doubtlessly, journalists.

According to statistics provided by the Press Industry Workers’ Union (Basın İş), 981 journalists and reporters were fired in the first six months of this year. In addition, 56 journalists resigned in the meantime. Among prominent journalists who lost their job are Yavuz Baydar, Hasan Cemal, Ahmet Altan, Can Dündar, Derya Sazak, Nazlı Ilıcak, Banu Güven, Ece Temelkuran, Işın Eliçin, Mehmet Altan, Murat Toklucu, Tuluhan Tekelioğlu, Sevim Gözay, Nur Batur, Murat Aksoy, Fikri Akyüz, Deniz Ülke Arıboğan, Alper Görmüş, Balçiçek İlter, Fikret Aydemir and Osman Özsoy.

12 people killed during Gezi protests

The Gezi Park protests of last summer claimed the lives of 12 people across Turkey due to violent intervention of the police in the protests.

The protests began in late May of 2013 to oppose the urban development plan for Gezi Park next to Taksim Square in İstanbul. But they turned violent after riot police forced the protesters out of the park. Subsequently, demonstrations and clashes took place across Turkey protesting plenty of other concerns. The rallies brought together large groups of protesters who accused Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of increasing authoritarian tendencies.

Protesters Ali İsmail Korkmaz, Ethem Sarısülük, İrfan Tuna, Abdullah Cömert, Mehmet Ayvalıtaş, Selim Önder, Zeynep Eryaşar, Serdar Kadakal, Ahmet Atakan, Medeni Yıldırım and Berkin Elvan were killed by the police, while police officer Mustafa Sarı died during the protests after he fell from a bridge while chasing protesters.

In addition, more than 10 people suffered from impaired vision in one eye.

Attempt to shut down Turkish schools

An aggressive policy the Justice and Development (AK Party) has been following toward the Hizmet movement reached a new height when the government attempted to shut down Turkish schools abroad that are affiliated with the Hizmet movement.

The faith-based Hizmet movement administers a wide network of schools and more than 2,000 educational establishments in more than 120 countries around the world. These schools provide education to thousands of students and are well known for their achievements in the International Science Olympiads.

In April, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu sent orders to Turkish embassies to take steps towards the closure of the Turkish schools. The move drew the ire of opposition figures and diplomats, who agreed that shutting down schools is a political and ideological attempt to finish off Hizmet.

New Feb. 28 era for business world

There is growing unease in Turkey’s business sector due to the government’s increased pressure and interventions following the Dec. 17, 2013 corruption investigation. The government has focused its aggressive policies on the Hizmet movement and seems determined to finish off companies and businessmen linked with the movement.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan alleges that the Hizmet movement is working to undermine his political power, but he has provided no sound evidence to prove his claim. The Hizmet movement has so far dismissed all claims fabricated by the pro-government media and used by Erdoğan as “baseless.” Erdoğan has threatened to make companies critical of the government “pay for it.”

Earlier this month, the Taraf daily claimed that a secretive unit operating under the National Police Department has identified all companies and businessmen affiliated with the Hizmet movement in the 81 provinces of Turkey, profiling some 100,000 firms.

The unit, which Taraf claimed to be named the Cosmic Study Group (KÇG), a name reminiscent of the West Study Group (BÇG) operating at the time of the Feb. 28, 1997 postmodern coup, was established as part of a government-led operation to stamp out the “parallel structure” within the state. The KÇG has allegedly categorized companies and businessmen in a variety of ways, from their membership in business organizations to the profiles of their customers.

Witch hunt against public servants

The Hizmet movement promotes interfaith dialogue and the resolution of problems through peaceful means throughout the world. However, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AK Party) has recently been engaged in a bitter struggle against the movement. This conflict intensified after Dec. 17, 2013, when a major government graft operation became public. The prime minister claims the operation was orchestrated by the Hizmet movement, which intended to overthrow his government. However, he has not provided any evidence to prove his claim. The movement denies the accusation.

Since Dec. 17 more than 40,000 police officers, bureaucrats, judges and prosecutors have been reassigned for no official reason other than their suspected links to the Hizmet movement. Critics have described the arbitrary reassignments as a “witch hunt.”

In a public address in May, the prime minister effectively confessed that he was carrying out a witch hunt. Commenting on the reassignments, the prime minister — without providing the slightest shred of evidence — accused the reassigned officers of “betraying Turkey” because of their suspected alliances with the Hizmet movement, which he currently views as “… enemy number one. If reassigning individuals who betray this country is called a witch hunt, then, yes, we will carry out a witch hunt,” Erdoğan said.

Ban on publication of Risale-i Nur

The printing of the “Risale-i Nur” collection has been halted for three months as the Ministry of Culture and Tourism will not grant an ISBN number to publishing houses that intend to print the collection, which was written by Said Nursi, a prominent Islamic theologian. The collection is a tafsir (exegesis) of the Quran that proves and explains the truths of faith in conformity with modern science. The collection of 14 books was written between the 1910s and 1950s in Turkey.

The ministry alleges that there is an ongoing dispute over the work’s copyright status and does not allow private publishing houses to reproduce the collection.

There are claims that the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government wants to place the publication of Risale-i Nur under its own control and allow only publishing houses of the state to reproduce the work.

Attacks on schools, students

Inspectors affiliated with the Ministry of Education have been questioning students at private schools, prep schools and dormitories across the country to find out from students and teachers about their perception of the government and its officials, which critics say is aimed at profiling those students and their families and intimidating critics of the government.

Inspectors distributed questionnaires to students that consisted of several questions, which are intended to reveal the political views of the students and their family members. The questioning scandal has drawn the ire of educationists, civil society groups and opposition party members, who agree the government or its inspectors have no right to involve minors in politics.

In addition, the municipalities run by the AK Party government have been taking action against a number of schools belonging to the Hizmet movement and removing signs advertising those schools.

Last week, the Bolu Municipality closed down two schools belonging to businessmen affiliated with Hizmet. In early June, the İstanbul Metropolitan Municipality (İBB) stopped the construction of an education complex on privately owned land on the pretext that the land would be used as a green area and a gathering spot in the event of an earthquake. In the same month the İBB removed a sign advertising the Fem prep school in İstanbul’s Mecidiyeköy district, which helps students prepare for university entrance exams.

Extradition request for Gülen

Speaking on a Turkish TV in March, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said that during a phone call with US President Barack Obama on Feb. 19 he asked for Turkish Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen, who inspires the Hizmet movement, to be extradited because he represents a threat to Turkey’s national security. Erdoğan claimed that Obama had viewed this request “positively” and replied by saying, “I got the message.”

In an unusual statement, the White House then accused Prime Minister Erdoğan of misrepresenting the content of the phone conversation with Obama.

“The response attributed to President Obama with regard to Mr. Gülen is not accurate,” the White House said in an emailed statement to various press organizations, including Today’s Zaman, in March. The statement marks a first in Turkish-American relations, as a flat denial of the Turkish prime minister’s version of events.

Gülen is in self-imposed exile in the US, although there is no legal hurdle preventing him from returning to Turkey. Shortly after he went to the US in 2000, he was charged with establishing an illegal organization in Turkey but was eventually acquitted in 2008.

Plot targets Hizmet for fictitious accusations

A government-sponsored plan, uncovered in early July, accuses the faith-based Hizmet movement of terrorism and working to overthrow the government, without providing any evidence.

The National Police Department sent a written order to police departments in 30 provinces on June 25 in which it accused Hizmet of working to topple the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) with no evidence and asked the police to inquire if the movement is an armed group. The order, which called for a secret and comprehensive probe into Hizmet, was drafted by head of the National Police Department counterterrorism unit (TEM) Turgut Aslan. It followed an earlier order by the Ankara Chief Public Prosecutor Serdar Coşkun, who sent an order to the Ankara Police Department and its Anti-smuggling and Organized Crime Bureau (KOM) on June 11 to carry out a secret and unlawful investigation into the Hizmet movement.

The order has drawn reactions and condemnations from politicians, legal experts and civil society members, who described the order as unlawful and called for legal action against the officials behind the order.

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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