Free press a must for democracy
The first thing that struck Turkish readers on the morning of Sept. 1 was the front page of Sözcü, a popular newspaper that is very critical of the Justice and Development Party (AK Parti).
The headline read “If Sözcü is silent, Turkey is silent.” The page included boxes for the columns of its popular writers, but all of them were left empty. A short editorial said the paper was fed up with court cases being filed one after another by President Tayyip Erdoğan via “manipulated” courts; it said that over the last year 57 court cases have been opened against it and nearly 60 more against its individual writers. It claimed that Erdoğan files “insult” cases against news pieces and commentaries whenever his or his children’s names are mentioned. By writing nothing for one day, leaving their spaces empty, the writers and the paper were trying to draw attention to their case.
The second development regarding the media situation in Turkey was the news about the arrest of the Vice news crew in Diyarbakır, southeast Turkey. Two British journalists Jake Hanrahan and Philip Pendlebury and their Iraqi passport-holding translator Mohammad Ismael Rasool were taken into custody two days ago after an “informant” told local police that they could be working for the outlawed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). But later the crew was arrested by the court on charges of helping the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Both local and international media organizations have demanded their immediate release, as well as the U.S. State Department.
The third development, again in the morning hours, was at first sight not directly related to media freedom - but only at first sight. The police raided the headquarters of the Koza business group in Ankara, also on claims that the group was helping a terrorist organization. The group is involved in a variety of industrial and financial activities, from gold mining to banking to the media. There was no act of terror particularly related to the money transfers conducted by the group - at least in the documents on which the search warrant was based. However, the group and its owner, Akın İpek, are linked to Fethullah Gülen, the U.S.-based Islamist ideologue who was once a close ally of Erdoğan but is now an arch-enemy. Erdoğan and the Ahmet Davutoğlu government accuse the Gülenists of forming “parallel” structures within the state in order to undermine the government, and they consider this to be the same as terrorism.
The group owns one newspaper, Bugün, and two main TV stations, Bugün TV and Kanaltürk. Search orders were issued against all of them and a number of politicians from opposition parties, mostly from the social democratic Republican People’s Party (CHP), visited their offices to make statements about freedom of the press.
“We cannot talk about democracy in a country where media is silenced,” said CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu.
Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) head Devlet Bahçeli said it was wrong and dangerous to put the media and also investment groups under pressure.
Durmuş Yılmaz, the former Central Bank Governor and an advisor to former President Abdullah Gül, told Zaman (an influential newspaper, also linked to the Gülen group) on Sept. 1 that trying to seize the properties of investment groups could put Turkey’s position in the G-20 in jeopardy. Erdoğan is currently preparing to host world leaders at this year’s G-20 summit in Antalya on Nov. 15-16.
Turkey is heading for a re-election on Nov. 1. This comes after the AK Parti lost its parliamentary majority in the June 7 election, after which no coalition could be formed. Both Erdoğan and Davutoğlu are looking to try their chances once again in this fresh election - the first such re-election in Turkish history.
Freedom of press will have an additional importance as the country heads into this key juncture. The ballot box is the basis of a liberal democracy, but it is not everything. Free courts and a free media are “sine quo non” parts of a working democracy.
While considering Turkey’s value for the West, the people and governments of Turkey’s Western allies should keep in mind their level of solidarity and cooperation in order to maintain the quality of democracy in the country - while also recognizing Turkey’s cooperation on refugees from Syria and the military operations against ISIL.