Turkey’s media and Parliament under assault, pushing the EU to crossroads

‘Oh, guys, please rescue the archives from deletion!’

Oddly, or perhaps not, this was one of the first thoughts that passed my sleepy mind, Monday morning. I had shut down my phone when I went to bed.

Just to wake up to another horror as I switched it on at the breakfast table.

‘Cumhuriyet is raided! Many colleagues in police custody!’

The arrests sent a chill through my nerves.

Deep sadness, despair.

So, it was finally Cumhuriyet’s turn. One of the three truly brave newspapers in the country; its institutional history as old as the very republic’s. A last bastion of independent journalism, a school – where I, too, soon after the military coup in 1980, had begun my career – where almost all dignified professionals in Turkey had passed through in their lifetime.

There was neither any point in dwelling upon the motive of the police raid; it was as surreal as Orwell would have put it:

‘Committing crimes on behalf of the terror organisations FETO/PDY and PKK/KCK, without membership in those thereof…’

It was, to put in an wildly grotesque comparison, like accusing the the Washington Post for committing crimes on behalf of Ku Klux Clan and Black Panthers at the same time.

Then, my thoughts turned to the digital archive.

‘I hope they have a back-up…’

There was a few doubt that the magnitude and nature of the raid, the arrests would be followed by the AKP appointing a trustee, seizing control of the daily, sacking the editorial staff, and, as it has become the routine practice, delete the digital archives.

All of it, the entire memory, into oblivion.

I knew. When the systemic attacks against the media was widened from jailing and forced firings of journalists to the entire outlets exactly a year ago, many of us witnessed it.

It happened to weekly Nokta, whose brand had a strong reputation as Der Spiegel, or weekly Aksiyon, its competitor.

Their digital archives are gone.

It happened to daily Taraf, whose former Editor, Ahmet Altan, is in jail for 45 days now. Its valuable archives do not exist anymore after closure. Gülen Movement-affiliated daily Zaman, with an institutional memory spanning 30 years, has seen its archives evaporate.

It happened to Today’s Zaman, its English version, with a separately edited content, regarded and respected internationally as the hub of Turkey’s liberal-reformist comment section, displaying a spectrum from right to left and its op-ed pages open to international opinion, lost its entire archive, after being handed over to the trustees early this year.

TZ, as it was known, was a chronicler of Turkey’s past 9 years, widely referred to in think-tank reports and academia, is now non-existent, like many others. Links to qutoes and passages in reports and studies respond only with blank pages.

This is as barbaric as any other act to strangle free opinion, reminiscent of how Stalin and Hitler treated the press in their own times.

As the news of arrests flooded in that day, I thought of two frail, elderly colleagues. Hikmet Çetinkaya, who dedicated his work on, just, to shed very critical light on Gülen Movement, by articles and books.

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Aydın Engin, a 75 year-old colleague whose life as a leftist liberal was all about a political struggle for democracy, which led him to exile in the 1980’s, to Frankfurt, Germany, where he had to make a living as a taxi driver.

A man known for an immense sense of humour, Engin recalled those days in a wonderful book ‘When I was a driver in Frankfurt’.

Both have grave health issues, and at the time of the writing, were still denied, along with a dozen others arrested, meeting with their lawyers.

Like the ones jailed before them, elderly Şahin Alpay, Ahmet Turan Alkan, Nazlı Ilıcak, Necmiye Alpay; brothers Mehmet Altan, Ahmet Altan, young but frail Aslı Erdoğan… Nobody has any idea, when they will see the light of the day again.

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A telephone call.

A female colleague, her voice trembling:

‘Yavuz, have you heard that Kadri is also being searched now, arrest order…’

She was speaking about Kadri Gürsel, my dear colleague, and friend for ages.

‘I knew this would happen, stay calm,’ was all I could say.

Apart from a journalistic conduct almost as long as mine, Kadri had been on the frontline with a sharp comment – which caused him to be fired by frightened employers – and committed much of his work for media freedom as National Committee Chairman and Executive Board Member of International Press Institute.

‘Yavuz, you have more friends in jail now than those outside,’ I thought to myself.

Kadri and I knew, at an early stage, where we would end up; predicting the coming storm. Although we had some minor differences of opinion over Turkey, and occasional bittersweet disagreements earlier, we met and talked often; listening to each other with great respect.

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It was exactly a year ago, our last doubts of an optimistic outcome vanished.

Let me tell you what happened:

We were both invited by Thorbjörn Jagland’s office last October to big public meeting at the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, titled ‘Freedom of Expression: still a precondition for Democracy?’ and asked to state our assessments about Turkey.

Turkish top judge, Zühtü Aslan, was invited as a keynote speaker to the event.

As we were set to deliver our speeches, a participant from Azerbaijan took the floor. He was furious with the way CoE ‘treated’ Aliyev Administration. After a threatful rant, he ended with a phrase reminding of a maffia jargong:

‘Be wise, Council of Europe!’

Loud applauds broke from the backbenches.

So loud and lengthy that both Kadri and I turned back, wondering who were cheering up a praise for dictatorship.

‘Azeri lobby must be in action’ we whispered to each other.

After our brief statements, a Turkish attendee asked for the floor. He accused both of us as liars, defaming our homeland. When he finished, he was met even by louder applauds and ‘bravo!’s from the same backbench.

When we saw an official of the CoE passing by our seats, we could not help ask her about the backbenchers.

Were they from the official Azeri delegation?

‘No’ whispered the official, ‘These are all newly appointed judges and prosecutors from your country. They are here for a study visit on human rights. So, they happened to join this meeting.’

We were left speechless.

Then, at a break, as Kadri and I were chatting with some European colleagues, one of them approached us. Politely introducing himself as a judge from the Court of Cassation in Ankara, he did not beat about the bush.

‘You both are well-educated, civilized men’ he said. ‘Why do you speak so ill of your homeland?’

He had no idea he had entered a minefield.

We are both known for our sharp tongues, and we looked at him with pity.

‘You caused a deja vu, sir’ I responded. ‘I realize that the same language that we heard against journalists after the military coup in 1980, is very much alive. Are you aware of that?’

Kadri broke in.

‘You are a judge, sir’ he said.

‘So, please make the correct judgment to distinguish between a journalist’s right to criticize the ill-conduct of a government and smearing a country. We do the first. We would appreciate a clearer distinction from you.’

The judge left.

We looked at each other, as if to say, ‘If it has come to this, we are all done for…’

Here we are now after 12 months.

Some of us in exile.

Those in jail, with the latest wave of Cumhuriyet arrests, are almost 150.

So, the question remains the same, if not bolder, for the EU.

Only days after the joint resolution by the European Parliament, callling for the release of all jailed journalists, Ankara’s response to it was to shut the rest of the Kurdish media, arresting more journalists, as to announce determination to finish off journalism in Turkey altogether.

This equals to ‘bugger off’.

One can understand the agony of the true friends of Turkey, like Rebecca Harms, Alexander Graf Lambsdorff and Martin Schulz.

The latter, who mentioned that ‘red lines are crossed’ was subjected to a severe denigration, by Turkish Prime Minister, Binali Yıldırım, who said ‘It is our nation that draws the red lines, not you.’

An advisor to President Erdoğan went even farther, calling Schulz a ‘child molester’, adding, ‘we will break your fingers that you shake at us…’

Such is the level of the dialogue and the hooliganism language adopted by the AKP.

Then, of course, the massive police raids against the pro-Kurdish HPD deputies’ homes and  arrests of at least 12 of them. The very nature of the operation is to chase out the third  largest party from Parliament, and challenge the will of its voters, by arresting who they voted for.

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The attack against Cumhuriyet and an elected party, HDP, only confirm the conviction that the accession negotiations with the EU approach a ‘moment of truth’. Today, after a series of harsh reactions from the EU, the rapporteur on Turkey of the European Parliament, Kati Piri, said that ‘the negotiations must be immediately suspended’.

This means, that, as Turkey now speeds up towards an authoritarian direction, it is now Brussels turn to stand at the crossroads.

Two questions now press the agenda, for the EU:

  • No matter how ‘watered down’ the content of the so-called ‘Progress Report’ (or, as cynics call it, ‘Regress Report’) on Turkey will be, it will likely be rejected by Ankara. So, will it still be published this year, or postponed, due to horrific escalation, indefinitely?
  • Full-scale showdown between the EU and Ankara will lead to a final confrontation on the fate of accession negotiations. How long will the EU bear to take the escalation to its chin?

 

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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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