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Turkish PM Erdoğan rebuffs criticism over press freedom

ISTANBUL - Hürriyet Daily News | 4/13/2011 12:00:00 AM |

Mounting a fierce defense of Turkey’s moves to arrest journalists and confiscate an unpublished manuscript, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan told a European body that the written words seized by police posed a serious threat.

Mounting a fierce defense of Turkey’s moves to arrest journalists and confiscate an unpublished manuscript, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan told a European body that the written words seized by police posed a serious threat.

“It is a crime to use a bomb, but it is also a crime to use materials from which a bomb is made. If informed that all materials needed to construct a bomb have been placed in a certain location, wouldn’t the security forces collect these materials?” Erdoğan said in a speech Wednesday at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, or PACE, referring to the seizure of reporter Ahmet Şık’s unpublished book by police March 24.

The prime minister answered questions from PACE members about freedom of the press, minority rights and the electoral threshold in Turkey, and faced criticism afterward about some of his remarks.

“The words of the Turkish PM should be backed by concrete and credible actions,” Marietje Schaake, a member of the European Parliament who represents D66, a Dutch liberal party, told the Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review in a written statement Wednesday.

“The raid of [daily] Radikal's offices [for digital copies of Şık’s book] and attempts to ban the publication and destruction of an unpublished book are very alarming,” Schaake said. She added that actions such as raids and the arrests of journalists, even if made in the name of an ongoing investigation of serious crimes, limit press freedom and create a climate of fear.

“The impact on Turkish society and the freedom of expression reaches far beyond the individual cases before the courts,” Schaake said.

Turkey has been strongly criticized over press-freedom issues, especially after the recent journalist arrests, as well as for its high election threshold for parliamentary representation and alleged violations of minority rights.

Recalling that there were only 26 Turkish journalists under arrest or in prison for journalistic activities in Turkey, Erdoğan invited European institutions to take news related to the freedom of press from objective sources.

“We discussed this issue with the Secretary-General [Thorbjorn] Jagland, and I asked him to send his deputies and staff [to Turkey], so that they can investigate at the source,” Erdoğan said in his speech, adding that once the latter confirmed all information at the source, they would find out that the allegations on limited press freedom in Turkey were not true.

Erdoğan addressed PACE’s spring session Wednesday as the guest head of government and responded to questions from the parliamentarians.

Erdoğan said the recent arrest of journalist Ahmet Şık and seizure of his book was “not the executive’s [government’s] action, but rather a decision taken by the judiciary.” He also said the independent judiciary was doing its job well in Turkey. “We talk about an independent judiciary, whenever it comes to our interest … But when it comes to Turkey, you do not want an independent judiciary.”  

Schaake also said protecting fundamental freedoms was the responsibility of any government. “Being elected into office or the principle of judicial independence does not absolve the government of Turkey from this basic duty from which it derives its own legitimacy.”

The Turkish prime minister was also asked on whether certain institutions of the judiciary are being used to limit the freedom of speech, where the finished trial of Nobel awarded Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk’s and other writers and journalists were also mentioned.

“Regarding Pamuk’s book … Surely there has been a denunciation that the judiciary is obliged to assess. It has been assessed and finalized in a positive way,” Erdoğan said, re-emphasizing that other writers and journalists were not on trial for their writings and thoughts, but rather for having links to terrorist organizations and coup-plotters.

Kader Sevinç, the Brussels representative of the Republican People's Party, or CHP, told the Daily News on Wednesday she welcomed Erdoğan’s determination regarding Turkey’s accession to the EU, adding though that the PM’s approach was lacking the necessary democratic qualities. “Rhetoric alone is not enough, without a vision based on the modern standards of social rights for the Turkish people, social development, technology and an economy with global competitive capacity," said Sevinç.

[HH] Election threshold to be determined by people’s will

The 10 percent election threshold is determined by Turkish people’s will, rather than the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, Erdoğan said in response to a question on why the threshold had not been reduced. “The 10 percent threshold is not determined by my party, we also came [to power] with this threshold. We established our party and managed to come to power 16 months later,” he said, adding that this was an indicator of the reality.

Lowering or not the 10 percent threshold is not a matter of democracy, according to Erdoğan, who said certain European countries also had thresholds of 7 and 8 percent. “We will lower the threshold when the time comes, but will do this by asking our people, not you.”

Erdoğan said his party stayed clear of left and right extremes, focused on the political center and “embraced all people” regardless of ethnic background.

“However, here in France, I see Roma people being chased away, deported. Is this democracy? I see there is no respect for personal freedom of belief in France at the moment,” he said, adding that those who would judge Turkey should “take a look at themselves first.”

The prime minister also answered questions from Turkish press members after his speech to PACE. He criticized the General Staff’s statement last week over the alleged “Balyoz” (Sledgehammer) coup plan, which said the army had difficulty in understanding the continued detention of 163 military personnel as part of the probe.

The application of 163 military personal, who still remain under arrest, to be released on their own recognizance pending trial was refused for the second time by a court a day prior to the statement. Erdoğan said it was wrong to make a statement and that they should have waited for the final decision of the judiciary. He said the army is totally under civilian control.

[HH] Erdoğan’s messages on the Middle East

The prime minister also gave messages on international and regional issues.  

Europe must heed and support the calls for freedom emanating from the Arab world, he said. “We cannot look at those regions and see only oil wells and not the poverty and the yearnings of those people." 

Any foreign military intervention "must be motivated solely by humanitarian concerns," he said. "We do not want a new Iraq or Afghanistan. The situation in Libya as well as Palestine must be assessed through the prism of humanitarian values.”

Erdoğan also called for the establishment of a civilian government in Egypt "as soon as possible" and said he was closely monitoring the unrest in Libya, Tunisia and Bahrain.

"Turkey is able to communicate with all the parties and can play a major role in the search for peace," Erdoğan said.

Turning to Turkey’s bid to join the European Union, he said "it must be treated fairly and promises must be kept."

“My country needs the EU and the EU needs Turkey," he said.

"Those who think that [Turkish] accession would harm their prosperity are doing injustice to Turkey but also to Europe and their own people," he added.

[BOX]  

[HH] Council of Europe to send fact-finding mission to Turkey

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s invitation to the Council of Europe to send a fact-finding message to Turkey has been positively received, with Secretary-General Thorbjorn Jagland confirming the agreement.

Jagland’s envoy will look into the circumstances and reasons for the arrest of several journalists in connection with their links to Ergenekon gang, which is accused of planning to topple the government by staging a coup, according to a Council of Europe press release Wednesday.  

“I will send a special representative as soon as possible. This envoy will report back to me so that we can make an assessment of the situation. This is a constructive approach and a move forward in discussion about media freedom in Turkey,” Jagland said.

The secretary-general had previously raised his concerns with Erdoğan by telephone in March, when he expressed the hope that the cases against journalists could be resolved as quickly as possible.

“I welcome the invitation by Erdoğan to the secretary-general of the Council of Europe to investigate the detention of journalists,” Marietje Schaake, a member of the European Parliament, who represents D66, a Dutch liberal party member of in the European Parliament, told the Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review in a written statement Wednesday. “I believe that the council is well equipped to deploy an independent delegation to assess fundamental rights in Turkey, such as press freedom and the rule of law.”

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