Council of Europe has overtaken the EU

Council of Europe has overtaken the EU

“A free media and an independent judiciary are essential in protecting against the misuse of power and avoiding corruption. Protecting journalists and freedom of expression is protecting democracy.”

This was one of the most important sentences delivered Tuesday in Ankara by the Council of Europe’s Norwegian secretary-general, Thorbjorn Jagland, in his keynote speech to the High-Level Conference on Freedom of Expression and the Media in Turkey.

In his speech, Jagland cited examples of how journalists needed to be protected according to the case law of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). He especially highlighted the “chilling effect” concept, which constitutes the basis of case-law and said: “In this respect, I should like to underline that, according to the case-law of the European Court of Human Rights, politicians should accept that their words and actions are open to a higher degree of scrutiny by both journalists and the public at large. They should therefore be cautious when they initiate criminal or civil defamation cases. This can have a serious chilling effect on freedom of expression and the media. The need for action is evident. Legislation has to be brought in line with Council of Europe standards.”

Jagland, Norway’s former prime minister, did not name anybody in his speech; however, if we remember that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan tops the list of politicians who have filed the highest number of court cases against journalists, then we should accept that this message is primarily directed to the address of the “Office of the Prime Minister, Kızılay, Ankara.”

As a matter of fact, the nature of the address also highlights an ironic situation because Jagland is currently one of the fiercest defenders of Erdoğan in Europe. He is a European politician who supported the prime minister when the latter was banned from politics.

However, more interestingly, the visit that brought Jagland to Ankara to give a “tolerance to the media” message in a style that clearly “affected” Erdoğan is the extension of a process that was launched 14 months ago with Erdoğan giving the green light to Jagland.

The first step of this process was taken in November 2011 in a visit of Jagland again to Ankara to participate in a conference titled, “The ECHR’s Turkey Verdicts: Problems and Proposals for Solutions;” the visit also included a meeting with Erdoğan.

Justice Minister Sadullah Ergin, heading this initiative, had said at that conference that “problems that result in verdicts on violations will be determined; proposals for eliminating them will be developed.” This statement, at the same time, also constituted the first strong binding pledge regarding the third justice package that Parliament passed last July.

The conference held the other day also demonstrates the final point reached in this process which started in November 2011 and also encompassed a series of events, including the training of the judges. The significant point here is that the government, by taking this initiative, created dynamism aimed at strengthening the ECHR’s monitoring over Turkey, while encouraging the justice system to adopt European norms.

This time, the current agenda is the fourth justice package that will contain new regulations related to harmonization with ECHR verdicts. Jagland has expressed expectations of a complete overhaul of the anti-terrorism law from the point of expanding the limits of freedom of expression. Ergin said the fourth package will be submitted to Parliament soon.

Jagland’s visit shows just how critical role the Council of Europe system is playing in Turkey in terms of democracy and freedom of expression, a system of which the ECHR is also a very significant part.

 No matter how much vagueness lies ahead amid the constant turbulence of Turkey’s relations with the European Union, institutional cooperation with the Council of Europe continues to progress on a steady basis on its own track without being affected by these zigzags on the EU front.

We need to accept that the Council of Europe is the most important Western institution today in terms of the capacity to affect and steer goals related to democracy, the rule of law and human rights in Turkey. Consequently, the strengthening of Turkey’s engagement with the Council of Europe has vital significance in terms of these targets.

Sedat Ergin is a columnist for daily Hürriyet in which this piece was published on Feb 7. It was translated into English by the Daily News staff.