Turkish Government receives criticism over free speech at EU conference

21 June 2013 /SELÇUK GÜLTAŞLI/SEVGİ AKARÇEŞME, BRUSSELS – As the exchange of words between the EU and Turkey becomes harsher with each day, Turkey was strongly criticized for the lack of progress regarding freedom of expression and media.

At the “Speak Up!2, Freedom of Expression and Media in the Western Balkans and Turkey” conference organized by the European Commission in Brussels, the Gezi Park events and the journalists harassed during those events have been one of the focal points of the speakers.

Speaking at the event, Today’s Zaman columnist Yavuz Baydar and Professor Yaman Akdeniz from Bilgi University not only criticized the government but also the links between the government and big corporations which have investments in the media sector. The already iconic penguin that symbolized the initial silence of mainstream media on Gezi Park events was referred to by almost each and every speaker.

The conference comes at a time when reciprocal visits have been canceled by both Turkey and the EU. The hopes of opening another chapter in the embattled accession talks were also fading fast as Germany stood firm in her resistance to the revitalization of talks blocking Chapter 22, which was scheduled to be opened at an intergovernmental conference on June 26. Diplomatic sources told Today’s Zaman that it is now very difficult to open a chapter in the face of upcoming elections in Germany and the negative rhetoric regarding the EU attitude coming from Turkish officials.

However, talking to Today’s Zaman, EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Füle said that the member countries are still discussing the opening of a new chapter, and he added, “There is always hope.” Stating that his focus is to “put the accession process back on track” Füle said that freedom of assembly and the demands of peaceful protesters should be respected, in reference to the Gezi Park protests.

In response to a question about Turkish Prime Minister’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s reaction to his tweets criticizing the outcome of the İstanbul Conference on June 7, Füle told Today’s Zaman that his tweets were not about the prime minister himself, but rather the conference in general. He also pointed out that he discussed everything with Erdoğan that day, except the content of his tweets.

On a question about Germany’s negative attitude toward opening a new chapter and German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s stance, Füle avoided the question, saying it was not up to him to comment on the remarks of Chancellor Merkel.

Stating that strength of democracy as well as freedom of expression are preconditions for a candidate country, Füle underlined that when it comes to public broadcasting, not only in candidate states, but also in member states, the message was clear there were no double standards and same standards must apply to all countries, both members and candidates.

Praising the fourth judicial package that addressed two problematic laws used to prosecute journalists, Füle described it as the “first systematic and difficult step in addressing and safeguarding freedom of expression.” However, according to him, implementation of the amended laws is crucial. Füle urged judges and prosecutors to use the laws to protect freedoms as opposed to protecting the state and its officials.” He noted, “The verdicts of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) play an extremely important role here.”

Describing Turkish media coverage of the protests in Turkey, Füle said there was a “deafening silence of the mainstream media in the first days of the protests,” and that such examples only underline the importance of conferences like this.

Addressing over 400 participants at the conference, Jerzy Buzek, current member and former President of the European Parliament also raised the issues of media freedom in Turkey. “I am surprised that social media is considered one of the biggest threats to society,” said Buzek, in reference to Erdoğan’s remarks calling Twitter a “menace.” Stating that freedom of social media should be protected, Buzek said that the lack of freedom of speech is no different than a lack of air.After calling the intimidation of journalists a risk, Buzek said that if television does not report police brutality, there is something wrong in Turkey.

Irish Minister of State Fergus O’Dowd also touched upon the silence of the media in Turkey during the Gezi events and said that CNNTurk’s airing of penguins rather than covering the demonstrations in İstanbul is evidence that broadcasters have sidelined themselves. However, he also stated that the fact that since even pro-government journalists were raising concerns about the events, that should be a reason for envy for their counterparts in the Western Balkans. According to him, the demonstrations showed that “Turkey is still in transition.”

Dunja Mijatovic, media freedom representative from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) did not mince her words on Turkey. She argued that compared to two years ago when the first conference was held, the media situation has worsened in both Turkey and the Western Balkans.

Criticizing the excessive use of force on members of the media during the latest protests in Turkey, Mijatovic said that more than 60 journalists were in prison in Turkey. “Authorities tell me that they are not in prison because of their journalistic activities, but how could that many people be in prison for terrorist activities?” she asked. She also raised the question of restrictions on access to numerous web sites in Turkey. Ombudsman and Today’s Zaman columnist Yavuz Baydar underlined the structural problems present in Turkish media, from ownership to freedom and independence. Defining the media’s situation as “miserable,” Baydar said that the bulk of the media is owned by “greedy and powerful moguls” who have business connections with the state, adding that self-censorship was “internalized.”

Stating that there are “signs of a witch hunt” in Turkey following the Gezi Park protests, Baydar said that the pro-government media is fiercely attacking the international media.Baydar pointed out that conglomerates control over 70 percent of the media outlets in Turkey, which act as an extension of the government. According to him, one should follow the money and the relations between the media and state bids, such as Galataport and the third airport in İstanbul. Stating that Erdoğan had little respect for media owners and sees them as mere shop owners, Baydar argued that the protests triggered “old reflexes” in Ankara. A professor of law from İstanbul Bilgi University, Yaman Akdeniz argued that the conventional media died in Turkey a few weeks ago and social media is the new “kid on the the block.” In an effort to protest the silence of the media and the airing of penguins instead of protests, Akdeniz took off his shirt during his presentation to reveal a t-shirt underneath with penguins printed on it.

Journalist Banu Güven also asked the EU to pay attention to the detention of and police force used on journalists during the Gezi Park events.