‘New Turkey’: Bill enforced before becoming law

“The arts should not speak with a sharp tongue.”

This “advice” was heard loud and clear by the mayor of Antalya, the city which, among other attractions, has been known for its annual film festival.

This is what it has come to: Censorship has also shattered Turkey’s cinema scene, which until recently, was seen as exempt from any external intervention.

But when two weeks ago, the film festival organizers announced that they had removed a documentary on the Gezi Protests (which had already been shown in movie theatres) from the competition on the grounds that it included “insults” to then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, it was the tipping point. Jury members jointly declared their resignation, and a fierce, divisive debate was unleashed.

Saturday’s award ceremony was an opportunity for many winners to send salutations to those affected by Gezi, Kobani, etc.

Given the increasingly dense climate of all dissent being silenced, it will be no suprise if those who spoke out while on stage are soon subjected to legal inquiries, as has happened to others in the media and academia.

The cabin pressure is increasing step by step, it seems, on the freedom of expression.

In a move that strongly recalls the story of Ahmet Şık and Nedim Şener some years ago, the police raided the home of journalist Aytekin Gezici early on Friday, detaining him and seizing various belongings from his house. His lawyer, Yusuf Özer, said the journalist was detained and his house searched because of certain tweets the writer had posted.

Gezici had recently published a book titled “Fuat Avni Firavun Sarayındaki Musa” (Fuat Avni Moses in the Pharoah’s Palace), which contains material from Twitter phenomenon Fuat Avni, the pseudonym of a user who regularly issues allegations about Erdoğan’s inner circle and whose identity the authorities have not yet discovered.

According to current law, the police must have “concrete evidence” to be able to search the homes or workplaces of suspects.

But “reasonable suspicion” is seen, apparently, as enough to search a suspect’s house or workplace under the new judicial package introduced by the Justice and Development Party (AK Party).

The irony — which a legal expert called “an insult to the public’s intelligence” — is that the standard is already being applied before the bill has been passed in Parliament. No wonder the alarm bells about a rapid shift in Turkey to a police state mode are louder.

The 35-article bill contains amendments that could lead all citizens other than those who support the ruling party to be perceived as potential suspects of a crime against the government and public order if they express their opinion. The references it contains of crimes of terror, mean in essence, the criminalization of all critique in the media, and, as some Republican People’s Party (CHP), Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) figures have argued, even from the elected opposition.

As accurately reported by this newspaper, “The police will not only be able to easily search any individual, his home and his vehicle, but also easily seize the property of all so-called dissidents on the grounds that they committed a crime against the government.”

A CHP deputy, Ali Özgündüz, a lawyer by profession, commented, “Any media outlet that publishes material oppositional to the government can easily be accused of participating in a ‘crime against the constitutional order’, leading to the seizure of its assets.”

One should not be surprised, given the pro-government changes in the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK), if a media outlet is accused of aiding and abetting in the commission of a high crime and labeled an accomplice to such acts.

Turkey’s rulers have never let go of the widespread fiction of conspiracy; now, it seems that critical newspapers such as Taraf, Cumhuriyet, Zaman, Birgün, Bugün and Today’s Zaman are on the firing line, and at risk of possible extinction.

And it seems that the likelihood of the bill passing this week is strong.

Jailing journalists as a punitive measure has clearly been replaced by systematic firings, as the latest report by the EU-sponsored Press for Freedom (PfF) project indicates. It says that 981 media professionals were sacked in the first half of 2014, and another 56 were “forced to resign.”

This pattern is a two-layered means of shaping a media that will be subordinate to Erdoğan’s will; enacted jointly by government powers and media proprietors.

But even chasing human resources away from a vital sector would seem to be insufficient, as the new bill indicates.

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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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