MESOP COMMENTARY: Is Turkey Heading towards a Real Democracy?

William Nygaard, Former President of Norwegian Publishers Association

February 5, 2013Domestic Policy –  We all know that freedom of expression is the most fundamental human right, as essential to human life as the first cry of a new-born child. Different countries will, based on their history, adopt different measures to make democracy work.

On my first prison visit to Silivri, here in March I became a personal witness to the way oppression works. As you know, but the rest of the world had better know, we see prisoners who have spent years in jail before their cases were brought to trial. We are sitting in on one of these mass trials that take place frequently. During the break we managed to talk to some of the accused, shouting at each other from a distance. This way of communication is forbidden since then, I have heard. They came from different professions: Two publishers, two journalists and writers, one owner of a TV station, one general, one dean at a university, one computer expert etc. They had been robbed of their lives.

Serious concerns over the state of human rights and freedom of expression

What are the signs of progress in the work for human rights and freedom of expression in Turkey? Do we see any positive signs? To be fair, some effort is made. But the latest report from the European Commission in October 2012, confirms that the process towards real change in this respect is slow and insufficient. The 2012 annual Freedom to Publish Report by the Turkish Publishers Association is also alarming and starts as follows: “This year passed with one heart-wrenching incident after another regarding the freedom of thought and expression. Arrest of writers, publishers, journalists and intellectuals; prohibitions directed at the freedom to publish; implementations that amount to censure and pressures that would lead to auto-censuring reached previously unseen dimensions.”

In all probability the response of your authorities will be a call for patience – or is it a lack of real public will? In fact, you are facing a series of dilemmas. Your new Constitution containing a broad political commitment is being worked on. The political parties are fighting with each other, and transparency is severely limited. Political controversy over fundamental articles in the Constitution is undermining the process. Examples are: Restrictions on freedom of thought and expression (the CHP) and on religious freedom and freedom of conscience (the AKP). The establishment of an Ombudsman is in progress, but so far, the process is not up to European standards. Some progress has been made in the area of the judiciary, reducing the appalling backlog of the courts. Progress is also made concerning the observance of international human rights law.

However, the report makes it very clear “that the number of criminal proceedings brought against human rights defenders is a matter of concern”. Serious concern, I would add. And judges and prosecutors have failed to apply international human rights agreements when these come into conflict with domestic law, even though the Constitution states very clearly that such agreements have precedence

Restricted freedom of expression in literature, journalism, music, art and photography

In this context I would also like to bring to your attention the committee to protect children for harmful publications. This Committee has recently been activated. One of the publishers concerned described the situation following the temporary and conditional suspension of obscenity and religious defamation cases, as an “unacceptable sword of Damocles”. Insecurity and a new threat against freedom of expression is the consequence.

In his speech at the 2012 Freedom of Thought and Expression Reward Ceremony the President of the Turkish Publishers Association, Metin Celal, describes in horrifying detail how freedom of expression is trodden underfoot in today’s Turkey.

The revision of the administration of justice and protection of fundamental rights is a setback. Much of the human rights offenses are connected to use or misuse of the Criminal Code or the anti-terror law, which creates serious problems for the Turkish criminal justice system, as we know. In addition to this, the report states that only limited progress is made on fighting corruption.

What kind of impression will Turkey create in the international community, when these shortcomings are known and when we hear about clampdowns on freedom of expression -in literature, journalism, music, art and photography? What happens when we read about the double standards practiced in the handling of the Kurdish question? Is Turkey -even with a new constitution- going to remain a hybrid rather than a true democracy -seeming lacking will to solve their most pressing challenges?

Zero tolerance must be the only adequate response to all forms of lawlessness

History may give some answers to our questions. We know that some of the dilemmas of the present have roots in the past. Secularism is linked to the military regime, and religion to lack of interest in human rights. Neither of these forces have a record of fighting for real democracy. But today the AK party holds the overall majority in the Parliament. Consequently, the common view from abroad is that there is no excuse not to further an honest democratic process. Or is the main objective a consolidation of political power helped along by short-term power games? One question is whether there is still a genuine political commitment in Turkey to join EU or whether a Beijing treaty is a more interesting alternative? Another is the nature of Turkey’s relationship with its neighbours in the Arab world. The geography of Turkey makes it absolutely necessary to secure alliances. In spite of the present media focus on the Syrian and Libyan conflicts, the way Turkey handles its many challenges concerning human rights and the growth of a true democratic system will continue to draw attention internationally. There is no way the country can hide a failure in these matters in the shadow of other regional conflicts. The critical questions from abroad will lead to a real international pressure. Organizing the summer Olympics in 2020 is one event that might give Turkey a chance to prove the quality of their modern society. The other day in a discussion with the Norwegian IOC representative I had to warn him against including Turkey as a candidate as long as the human rights situation is so unsettled. He made a careful note of my remarks.

Has not the time come to make an enhanced effort to implement the ideals of a democratic society, to assemble an even more forceful opposition a challenging form of action showing peaceful and non-violent resistance, respecting human integrity? Zero tolerance is the only adequate response to any sign of lawlessness. It will bring you to the stage where freedom of expression passes from being a right for the individual to a duty of expression for everyone, in marked opposition to all forms of injustice.

Please cite this publication as follows:

Nygaard, William (February, 2013), “Is Turkey Heading towards a Real Democracy?”, Vol. I, Issue 12, pp.11-12, Centre for Policy Analysis and Research on Turkey (ResearchTurkey), London, ResearchTurkey.(