EU subjected to most serious democracy test yet

EU subjected to most serious democracy test yet

Last week, this column tried to emphasize the need for a genuinely reform-oriented government to infuse the democratization process with a vision focused on broadening fundamental freedoms and rights in Turkey. 

On Nov. 24, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu announced his new government and then read out the governmental program, which will prioritize the approval of the presidential system through a new freedom-focused constitution. 

However, just a day later came the arrest of the editor-in-chief of the Cumhuriyet newspaper, Can Dündar, and the daily’s Ankara bureau chief, Erdem Gül, simply because of their journalistic activities. Altogether, it is another great blow inflicted on the freedom of expression and of the press in Turkey. 

This shows, with no doubt, that written documents, government programs and the like have no validity at all. Hours of statements from senior government officials or hundreds of pages of government programs or drafted laws that underscore how the government is committed to democratic norms, including fundamental freedoms, have been proven null and void with this blow to the media. 

Yet another development: just a day after the arrest of Dündar and Gül, an indictment prepared by an Istanbul prosecutor against daily Hürriyet columnist and former Editor-in-Chief Ertuğrul Özkök demanded up to five years and four months in prison for “defaming” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in an opinion piece published on Sept. 3. 

Well, I do not know how many times I have written about the deterioration of the freedom of media and expression in Turkey. I do not know how many times I have called all those who can exert an effort to put more pressure on the government and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to stop cracking down on journalists.

However, at the end of the day, the only thing we can do is to sadly salute our fellow colleagues on their way to prison. 

Hundreds of journalists from independent media organizations came together on Nov. 27 to protest the arrest of Dündar and Gül in Ankara and paid a visit to Cumhuriyet’s premises to show solidarity. People were sad but, at the same time, determined to stand against all sorts of oppression by continuing their journalism. 

And there is an international aspect: it’s great to see that a number of international press organizations have been so quick to show their reaction to the move and to call the government to stop restricting the freedom of the media. They were very vocal and precise in their calls, although there will be no much effect on the government. 

On the political level, however, there is more to be done: this incident came just days before Turkey and the EU come together around the same table to discuss the migration problem and ways to re-energize Turkey’s accession process. 

Sunday’s summit between Turkey and the EU on the refugee problem could be a good venue for EU leaders to bring this issue back to the table by issuing a direct message that reinvigorated talks on the Syrian migration tragedy do not mean that serious human rights violations and media restrictions will be ignored by Brussels. 

At a moment when the EU is getting ready to open Chapter 17 in mid-December, it has every right to ask for strong guarantees from the Turkish government that constitutional freedom of expression and of the press will not be violated and journalists in prison will be released. 

Opening negotiation chapters or re-energizing the accession process will carry no meaning at all unless these guarantees are given by the Turkish government. Given the complexity of the political landscape, this stands as a major democracy test for the EU. We’ll all see whether it will prove itself as the world’s most developed democracy or an organization that quickly abandons its values in times of crisis.