Freedom of speech a fundamental value of humankind
It is a great honor for me to be the recipient of the Deutsche Welle Freedom of Speech Award today. Firstly, I would like to express my thanks to the board of directors of the Deutsche Welle for considering me and my newspaper worthy of this award.
I would like to also take this opportunity to extend my greetings to Peter Limbourg, the director general of Deutsche Welle. I will always remember his visit to our newspaper to demonstrate his support for us after the headquarters of our newspaper was attacked twice in early September last year. This visit had demonstrated to us how valuable and meaningful solidarity among journalists is when any of us is attacked and freedom of the press is targeted.
I must confess that I have rather mixed feelings about receiving this award. Awards are generally meant to bring contentment to their recipients. However, receiving an award for freedom of expression is not such a happy occasion. When the subject of the award you have received is freedom of expression, the troubling state of that freedom is inevitably highlighted. And this award also carries a message regarding the state of freedom of expression in my country. I must point out that a slight bitterness hangs over my feelings.
As I was thinking about the content of my speech, a number of thoughts ran through my mind. The planet we live on has its own course in this universe filled with unknowns. And during the course of this journey, the people living on this planet have had an issue with freedom of expression from the very beginning.
Freedom of speech is one of the most fundamental values of humankind. It is an essential aspect of our existence in human societies. We need to breathe, and our hearts need to beat regularly in order to live. And in order to feel like a human being, and to assert our existence, we need to be able to make our voice heard. We need to be able to express ourselves. Anything that takes away from us this sine qua non of our existence is against the ideals of humanity and against our very dignity.
We can tell the history of humanity on various levels. On one level, history consists of the history of conflict between those who wish to pave the path for freedom of expression, and those who wish to restrict and block this freedom. In this is included the story of those who paid huge prices for freedom of speech. This price has included people’s lives, their exiles, iron bars, oppression and grief under various methods of pressure and terror. The history of my country is the story of the high prices paid in this respect. I come from a country that has lost many reputable journalists and writers to assassinations and terrorism. One of my predecessors as editor-in-chief in my newspaper, Hürriyet, Çetin Emeç, is also included in this list.
What is saddening is that in the year 2016, our world is still going through grave problems, anxieties and agonies when it comes to freedom of expression. The fact that awards have to be given to preserve freedom of expression is a clear proof of this point. This is because the conditions requiring such awards to be given, and therefore the presence of a significant need to support freedom of expression are still present.
Unfortunately, recent reports by all reputable organizations that monitor the course of human rights and freedom of expression indicate a general downward trend in this area around the world. All these reports reveal an increasing threat to freedom of expression. According to the recent report by the internationally acclaimed Freedom House on the condition of global political rights and civil liberties, freedom in the world in 2015 registered an overall decline for the ninth consecutive year. According to the Freedom House, acceptance of democracy as the world’s dominant form of government – and of an international system built on democratic ideals – is under greater threat than at any point in the last 25 years.
When we talk about freedom of speech, a new global problem which has not been fully diagnosed yet is emerging before us. This problem is that issues related to freedom of expression are increasingly apparent, not only in third world countries, dictatorships and monarchies, but also in countries claiming to be democracies. I am talking about cases where all the formal requirements of a democracy are present in appearance, but in practice, freedom of expression and freedom of the press are actually restricted. As a result the substance of democracy is diluted. This is one of the biggest threats facing democracies today.
Today there are many crippled democratic practices across the world. Political scientists are busy finding new definitions for these practices. They have coined terms such as “electoral authoritarianism,” “illiberal democracy,” “populist authoritarianism.” All these practices have a common denominator. They all aim to control the flow of information to society through various methods and mechanisms and to restrict citizens’ access to information. Such models operating under the appearance of democracy make it more difficult to diagnose and address problems in the area of freedom of expression that are encountered.
What needs to be worrying for us is the fact that the European continent is no longer immune to this authoritarian tendency. Today there are countries with declining democratic standards in Europe. There are even EU members among them. Poland is following in the bad precedent set by Hungary in recent years. It is not possible to say that the situation is any different in most of the Balkan states which are taking steps towards full EU membership.
At the turn of the century the greater European project undertook a massive step of enlargement to incorporate Eastern and Central European countries. With that enlargement these countries would be transformed to appreciate the values of democracy, the rule of law, an open society and a market economy. Sadly this project has lately entered a period of stagnation, and even crisis.
There is currently a heated debate about how Europe can protect its universal values. There is widespread criticism that the measures taken about the refugees are moving Europe away from its own values. We are going through times where xenophobia, intolerance, racism, hate speech, Islamophobia, authoritarianism, polarizing rhetoric of us-versus-them and a populist discourse are rapidly gaining ground. Specters that we thought were left in the previous century are surfacing again.
And yet, we had been so optimistic about the future of Europe when the Berlin Wall came down and the iron curtain crumbled at the beginning of 1990’s. Some even declared this was the end of the social and political evolution of humankind, and that we had reached the end of history. The era of liberal democracy had started, and the course of history had taken an irreversibly progressive course. It would not be wrong to say that Francis Fukuyama had too naive an outlook when one looks at the world today.
This situation poses a big challenge for European institutions. These structures founded after the end of the Second World War played a vital role in establishing, preserving and strengthening values such as democracy, the rule of law and freedom of expression. Through its institutional evolution the European Union became the pinnacle of such model.
However, these institutions no longer exert the same kind of influence when it comes to preserving the values and ideals defining Europe’s identity in the present day. As they cannot preserve their own values, European institutions are also losing their moral authority.
I would like to address this issue in the context of my country, a candidate to become an EU member. The accession process is usually expected to be an assurance for a candidate country as it is meant to enhance the latter’s democratic standards and to pave the path for the protection of freedom of expression. Indeed, the EU had a major transformative impact in all eastern bloc countries during the post-1990 expansion period in their efforts to build functional democratic institutions.
The accession process of Turkey which began at the end of 1999 had a similar effect during its initial stages. Indeed, in the early stages of the process, major democratization reforms were introduced in Turkey, many taboos started to be discussed and eventually the boundaries of freedom of expression steadily expanded. I am talking here as someone who witnessed that era as a journalist, and who benefited from the improvements that the process brought about.
When Turkey’s candidacy for full membership was announced at the EU summit in Helsinki in December 1999 and when in the Brussels summit in December 2004 it was decided to commence negotiations, and finally when the negotiations actually commenced in October 2005 in Strasbourg, I remember the power of the wave of optimism that swept across Turkey. We were all enthusiastic and full of hopes for the future of our country. The mood was upbeat.
That optimistic atmosphere has now been replaced by pessimism and uncertainty. There is no doubt that both parties bear responsibility for this. In particle, Germany and France altered their stance about Turkey’s full membership. This change of position had a significant effect in deflating the reform enthusiasm in Turkey. However, it is also a fact that particularly after 2009, there was stagnation in the reform process in Turkey. The tendency to deviate from the reform process gradually emerged and gained momentum. It is also a fact that as such tendencies emerged and their consequences became all too visible, the European Union demonstrated a major institutional failure to detect, read and analyze this deviation.
When we look at the European Commission’s recent Turkey progress reports, we see a growing trend of criticisms on freedom of expression and democracy. Every year, the volume of criticism increases. Is there not a conflict here? Theoretically, it is expected that the accession process elevates a candidate country’s democracy. However, in the case of Turkey, the accession process has not functioned as a protective shield or insurance for the health of our democracy. It cannot be denied that this situation is an institutional problem, and a failure from an EU standpoint. Had that protective shield functioned, I would not be receiving a freedom of expression award here on this stage today.
I am the editor-in-chief of a major newspaper. And every day I have to go out in public with a security detail. Moreover, following the physical attacks against our newspaper last September, and a beating suffered by one of our leading columnists, my newspaper had to allocate an armored car for me. It cannot be common for the editor-in-chief of the biggest newspaper of a EU candidate country to go about with a body guard in an armored car. On the 41st year of my professional life this is the point I have come to. When full membership negotiations started a decade ago, it would never have crossed my mind that I would find myself in this situation in 2016. What was inconceivable then is the reality of the present.
There is a long list of problems currently faced by journalists in Turkey. Unfortunately, physical attacks have been recently added to this list. It would not be fair for me to complain about my problems while there are graver issues faced by my colleagues. When you go to courthouses, it is no coincidence to see journalists waiting in the hallways for their trials. Hundreds of investigations or cases have been initiated or filed against journalists with accusations such as insulting senior officials or advocacy of terrorism. Trials of journalists and columnists have taken up a considerable portion of our coverage in recent months. I myself am also on trial for a sentence of up to four years of imprisonment for insulting the president, due to our coverage of a news story. Last March, I was before the judge as a defendant for the first time in my life. I had always been to courtrooms in my capacity as a reporter in the past. Sitting in the defendant’s seat, standing up before the judge, give one a very different feeling. Meanwhile, imprisonment of colleagues, long detentions for those who are indicted and sentences that send them away to jail are other serious sources of concern.
One dimension of the problem in Turkey is the legislation that makes it possible to easily prosecute journalists. Moreover, the heavy-handed interpretation of the already restrictive legislation by some prosecutors and judges makes journalists’ lives even more difficult. For instance, the Doğan Media Group has been under investigation for the last seven months on allegations of providing support for terrorism. When all is said and done, when all these practices are put together, it obviously creates a chilling effect on freedom of expression.
I am the editor-in-chief of the biggest newspaper of the leading media group in Turkey. The stance of an editor-in-chief is above all also a reflection of the will of the publisher behind him. If I have been able to pursue my mission as an editor, it is in large part thanks to the will behind me.
Doğan Group’s pursuit of independent journalism is one of the most important guarantees of freedom of expression and freedom of the press in Turkey. We only want to do our job, and we want to do it in line with universal criteria. As a group we paid a high price for this particularly after 2009, and we are continuing to do so. The attacks against our newspaper are only a small part of this price. The list of the unfair practices faced by our group is quite long, but it would not be proper for me to list our issues here today. In any case, the award I am receiving will be a great incentive for me and my colleagues to continue on the path towards the goal of independent journalism as we know it.
With this opportunity, I would like to thank the board of directors of Deutsche Welle once again. As I am receiving this award, I would also like to convey my feelings of solidarity to all fellow journalists across the world who have been deprived of their freedom behind iron bars, or who are intimidated with threats of legal reprisal or various methods of oppression.
Beyond the recipient individuals and institutions, the greatest significance of these awards like this is the contribution they make to dignify the ideal of freedom of expression, which is one of the most vital components of a democracy. The very fact that we have gathered here to support freedom of expression is meaningful enough. Maintaining our resolve to sustain the ideal of freedom of expression is to most effective response to those who fear such freedom, and who wish to eliminate it.
Before ending my speech, please allow me to express very briefly the immense disappointment in Turkey caused by the recent resolution of the German Bundestag that defined the events of 1915 as genocide. This resolution is viewed as unfair and unacceptable by the majority of the Turkish people, and my sentiments are not that different. Yes, there is a need for reconciliation between the two neighboring nations. But a resolution adopted as such by the Bundestag will only have a counterproductive effect on such efforts. Needless to say, the resolution will have adverse effects on the relations between Turkey and Germany and further complicate this relationship.
*Sedat Ergin is the editor-in-chief of daily Hürriyet. The article is an abridged version of the speech Ergin delivered on June 13 on the occasion of receiving the Deutsche Welle Freedom of Expression Award.