Turkey’s deteriorating security-freedom balance

Turkey’s deteriorating security-freedom balance

In his long address to the Turkish War Colleges in Istanbul on March 28, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan argued that Turkey was the world’s top country for preserving the balance between security and freedom, despite going through an extremely difficult period with terrorist attacks claiming the lives of civilians and security personnel. 

“We work to ensure that we limit the activities of terrorists, not the freedom of our citizens,” Erdoğan said. 

It’s true that Turkey has been hit by a deadly terrorist campaign since last July, targeted by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Although they are fighting against each other in Syria, these two groups regard Turkey as their regional enemy and have committed massive deadly suicide bomb attacks in its soil. 

The PKK has expanded its area of warfare in southeastern Anatolia, using new tactics in a number of towns and districts – leading to heavier casualties on both sides. According to officials, the PKK has lost considerable manpower in intensified clashes with the Turkish army, but there is no doubt that the group will have little problem recruiting new terrorists. Without a new peace process being launched, the fighting between the two sides will likely continue for longer than originally estimated. 

This atmosphere is certainly influencing the balance between security and freedoms in Turkey - but not in the way President Erdoğan has been trying to depict. On the contrary, the balance between the two very important pillars of an orderly society has long been deteriorating. In fact, the trend began long before the terrorist campaign was resurrected in mid-2015. 

This trend was conceptualized by Erdoğan a few weeks ago after a recent suicide bomb attack. The president said the “definition of a terrorist” should be changed to also include “terror’s supporters” such as lawmakers, civil activists, journalists, academics, etc. He was later joined by Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, who described an “evil alliance” behind the recent terrorist attacks. As Davutoğlu told his lawmakers at his party group meeting last week: “Axes of evil that aim to put Turkey in a cycle of violence and instability bring these terrorist groups together and also mobilize their civilian elements. Journalists, so-called intellectuals, academics and political parties who have been persuaded to team up with this alliance of evil are mobilized to coordinate perception management over these attacks.”

So it’s not surprising to observe the submission of summaries of proceedings against opposition MPs, criminal complaints against critical journalists and activists, and criminal investigations against academics for issuing statements. It’s also not surprising to see some of these journalists, academics and activists being jailed as a result of such a campaign led by the country’s top rulers. 

This move to restrict fundamental freedoms has again emerged over criticism of European diplomats who attended the key hearing of daily Cumhuriyet editor-in-chief Can Dündar and Ankara bureau chief Erdem Gül on May 25. The EU member state diplomats had attended the hearing in order to demonstrate the attention that the EU pays to freedom of the press and freedom of expression.   

Three academics are still in prison in Turkey just for signing a communiqué strongly criticizing the security forces’ policies. The country’s most prominent journalists are frequently appearing before courts on charges of either insulting the president or supporting terrorism. Opposition politicians are often subjected to massive smear campaigns on the grounds that they “cooperated” with terrorist organizations. 

This picture is obviously very different to President Erdoğan’s depiction of a “healthy balance between security and freedom.”