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RIGHTS > 'Even Pulitzer winners would be jailed' in Turkey with intel law

Cansu Çamlıbel ISTANBUL / Hürriyet

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‘Journalists get leaked information all the time. If you criminalize that process, you greatly reduce the accountability of the government,’ Roth says. Hürriyet Photo / Levent Kulu

‘Journalists get leaked information all the time. If you criminalize that process, you greatly reduce the accountability of the government,’ Roth says. Hürriyet Photo / Levent Kulu

A new law increasing the power and immunity of the National Intelligence Organization (MİT) will have a deeply injurious effect on a variety of societal freedoms, including freedom of the press, according to Human Rights Watch.

“Basically, the winners of the Pulitzer Prize would be subject to prosecution under this law in Turkey,” Kenneth Roth, who has been HRW’s executive director since 1993, recently told daily Hürriyet in reference to the journalists at The Guardian and the Washington Post who worked on documents leaked by whistleblower Edward Snowden about U.S. intelligence’s eavesdropping activities.

Roth’s warning came after meetings with President Abdullah Gül and Numan Kurtulmuş, deputy chair of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

“The meeting with the president was very constructive. We went to this meeting recognizing his role to provide longer term direction. One theme that we stressed was the importance of not equating an electoral majority with democracy. Democracy requires elections, of course, but it also requires respect for rights and rule of law,” Roth said.

Roth also talked about his meeting with Kurtulmuş. “When I said that the point should not be to replace the Gülenists with AKP loyalists, rather the aim should be to establish an independent judiciary that can hold the government to the rule of law, [Kurtulmuş] didn’t fight that principle. So, that was encouraging,” Roth said.

While criticizing the MİT law, Roth said Turkish journalists would have more troubles. “It would allow the prosecution of not just [Edward] Snowden, but also the Guardian and the Washington Post. Basically the winners of the Pulitzer Prize would be subject to prosecution under this law in Turkey. That doesn’t make sense. That undermines the role of the media as a check on the government,” Roth said.

“Whether governments like it or not, journalists get leaked information all the time. That is one way the journalists hold governments to account. If you criminalize that process, you undermine the media as a check and greatly reduce the accountability of the government. That is a very dangerous step,” he said.

Here is the rest of Roth's interview with Hürriyet:

Where would you put Turkey in 2014 in terms of human rights index?


We don’t do an index…and comparative studies. I look at Turkey in terms of itself. Turkey was on a positive trajectory for a good part of the past decade. Recently, the trajectory has turned. It is not that it is going back to the dark days, but it is going in the wrong direction.

There is a lot of talk going on about authoritarianism in Turkey. Are there signs of it?


That is a big word. I worry about a series of steps that the government is taking over the last year that make it harder to hold the government accountable. You just had an election and other elections coming up. That is an important part of the answer. There are many parts of the world that doesn’t happen. But it is also important that an elected government is accountable to a free press and to rule of law. That other important form of accountability, essential parts of democratic accountability have been hurt over the last year. The effort to go after Twitter and YouTube, to take control of the HSYK, the new MİT law, the Internet law, all of these are efforts of the government that undermine key aspects of non-electoral accountability. Democratic accountability is more than elections. Elections are too crude to be the only form of accountability. They needed to be supplemented by accountability of rule of law and by free media and by the public through things like social media. You don’t want governments accountable only on election day and doing what they want in between.

What if they keep doing it?

Majoritanism is not the same as democracy. Elections form an essential part of democracy, but democracy also requires a vigorous civil society.

At what point is Turkey right now?

Turkey has elements of democracy, but some of these are under threat by the efforts of the government to weaken the forms of non-electoral accountability.

Is majoritarinism more visible in Turkey right now?


The government is using the rhetoric of majoritarianism to justify undermining other essential forms of democratic accountability.

How much of this would depend on the personality of a Prime Minister. By which I am trying to ask if President Abdullah Gül comes back as Prime Miniter while Erdoğan becoming president, would it make things different?

Obviously, public officials matter, but you can't do these personality tests. You have to look at how people conduct themselves. Is this personality better than that? I am not gonna play that game. We don’t take positions on political contests. We look at how governments behave, whoever is occupying the government.

What did you find on the issue of Kassab, a Syrian town on the border with Turkey recently attacked by rebels, leading to local Armenians flee?

We haven’t published anything on Kassab yet. We have been investigating it. It is clear that the operation took place was launched from Turkish soil. We are not yet in a position to say how exactly. There have been various allegations, but we do not have enough evidence yet on how operation was conducted.

But you are certain it was from the Turkish soil?


I don’t know how else they would have gotten in there. That was a significant military operation. It is hard to imagine how they would come other than the Turkish soil. The human rights issue here is not where did an operation come from. There is obviously various kinds of support from Jordan, Turkey. The issue is how do forces conduct themselves. Do they respect basic rights when they operate? The Syrian government is the biggest violator of that. Bashar Assad’s war strategy has been one of the war crimes. With respect to the armed opposition, HRW also reported atrocities by them. We don’t argue those have been as systematic as the government's. But we have documented massacres by some of the armed opposition. It is important whoever is helping the armed opposition to be very careful not to provide assistance to members of the opposition that are creating abuses. Strict precautions are needed, so that there is no external support for that kind of atrocity.

Have you witnessed that kind of attention so far?

I can't speak to that.  In fact we don’t really know who is actually providing military assistance to whom.

Would you give credit to Seymour Hersh's claim that chemical attack in Ghouta was linked to Turkish intelligence?

Zero credit. HRW has investigated the Ghouta attack in considerable detail. All the evidence points to the Syrian military having been responsible. Rockets used were quite substantial and the idea that the rebels could somehow carry these large rockets all the way through the Turkish border to the suburbs of Damascus without anybody noticing is just not credible. Not to mention the fact that the rebels have no capacity to create these massive amounts of sarin. The sarin actually had a chemical signature to it that the government admitted the rockets that landed in Ghouta pointed back to areas that are militarily controlled by Assad. Hersh cites shadowy unnamed sources, just not credible.

Is there a way to control what passes the border?


I am sure there is, but I think the big issue now though is how do we increase the humanitarian aid to opposition areas. The bulk of the aid so far has to go through Damascus. What is needed is a major UN cross-border operation. On Feb. 22, a UN resolution ordered Assad to let cross-border aid. Assad has not allowed it with one token exception. It is time for the UN to say we are going to do it on our own. What is more important than Syrian sovereignty is to prevent mass starvation. It is time for the UN to ramp up its cross-border operations. It is not enough to say that the NGOs will do it. It has got adequate authority from the Security Council. It should act. The only legitimate reason given is that if we give cross border-aid, that might shut down UN operations in Damascus. You got to call his bluff. He would be out of his mind to do that. The NGOs that have been operating from Turkey managed to do that. Assad has threatened them and he has not done anything. UN should start large cross-border operations.

Would it trigger a military intervention?

You are assuming that... I am not assuming it. It would be a major provocation for Assad to attack humanitarian convoys. We have no evidence he is going to do that. It is worth noticing that the ISIS and the Nusra Front have also allowed humanitarian aid workers with very little problem in northern Syria. This is doable. We should not allow worse case scenarios to stop action to save millions of people from severe deprivation.

What is your take on the ISIS, Nusra, Islamic Front? Do you think any of those movements can turn into legitimate opposition that the West can work with against Assad?

Our issue is not fighting Assad, our issue is given the war are the two sides respecting the principles of Geneva Convention. Are they doing everything they can to spare the civilians from the hazards of the conflict. The government is openly violating Geneva convention, the armed opposition there has been various degrees of commitment to Geneva conventions, some elements of them that gives verbal commitment. Some others much less so. But the armed operation is very divided at this stage. It is difficult to generalize.

Don’t you sometimes feel Quixotic?
To be honest, no. We are constantly having an impact. For example Syria Feb 22 resolution was very much a product of NGOs including us, pushing the members of the UN Security Council. We are constantly having an impact because reliable information is powerful. If you deploy reliable information in a smart political way, you can move the governments and make a difference. We wouldn’t be doing this if we were not making a difference all the time. Otherwise we would be just cataloguing atrocities. We are regularly able to make difference.

April/21/2014

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