On October 20, this blog by Marietje Schaake was published on Project Syndicate.
When suicide bombers killed at least 97 people at a rally of pro-Kurdish activists and civic groups advocating peace between the Turkish government and the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Ankara on October 10, the government’s response was as rapid as it was troubling. Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu swiftly imposed a temporary broadcast ban on images of the terror attack, and many in the country reported that Twitter had been blocked on some of the most widely used mobile networks, including Turkcell and TTNET.
Preserving the privacy of victims is a legitimate goal; but broad media bans in Turkey have become a serious concern. It is telling that Sellahatin Demirtas, the leader of the Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), had to rely on YouTube after the bombing, because he was not interviewed on any major news network, even though HDP members who had been elected to parliament in June were among the victims of the attack.
As Turks head back to the polls on November 1 (the June election resulted in a hung parliament), the Turkish government should be moving to resume peace talks with the PKK, which must also agree to a ceasefire. At the same time, the European Union must not remain silent regarding the government’s crackdown on civil liberties, especially on freedom of expression and the right to information. Taking a stand now would not only send a clear message to Turkey’s governing authorities; it would also provide a direct indication to Turkey’s population that Europe expects their rights and freedoms to be respected. The demonstrators’ calls for peace should be heard and echoed.
The rule of law and fundamental freedoms in Turkey have been severely tested in recent years. Turkey has long been among the countries with the highest number of imprisoned journalists; but, in the months since the June election, the media have come under unprecedented pressure.
In September, Turkish authorities arrested and deported Dutch journalist Frederike Geerdink – the third foreign journalist to be detained on terrorism-related charges and expelled from the country this year. On October 1, Ahmet Hakan, a columnist for the Turkish daily newspaper Hürriyet and host of a show on CNN Türk, was followed home from work and assaulted by members of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). The editor-in-chief of the newspaper Zaman has resigned from his post, saying that government pressure had made it impossible to do his work.
In the days after the attack in Ankara, the government moved against media outlets associated with Erdoğan’s erstwhile ally, the Gülen movement. Seven television channels have been removed from one of Turkey’s leading satellite network, Digitürk, and the online television services Turkcell TV+ and Tivibu have announced the removal of the stations as well.
The media crackdown has created a culture of fear among journalists, academics, and ordinary citizens, making them reluctant to criticize policies and politicians. Renowned columnists have been fired, and media companies have received high tax fines that many consider to be politically motivated. Broadcast studios have been raided repeatedly, and the government regularly censors coverage of security operations in the country’s Kurdish regions. As the Turkish public has turned toward social media to express its opinions, platforms such as Twitter have been suspended or shut down.
The resulting tension risks stifling debate ahead of the upcoming election, precisely when the free exchange of opinions is of the utmost importance. During the AKP’s 13 years in power, its authoritarian behavior has fueled polarization in Turkish society. For example, the government’s violent response in 2013 to peaceful protests against the construction of a shopping mall at Istanbul’s Gezi Park transformed a small local demonstration into a national movement for increased freedom and greater respect for different lifestyles.
Turkey needs a government that represents all of the country’s voices. Although Erdoğan clearly hopes that the November election, unlike the one in June, delivers a clear majority to the AKP, opinion polls indicate that the party will need to form a coalition government.
The attack in Ankara – and the government’s response – came less than a week after Erdoğan visited Brussels, where the war in Syria and the resulting refugee crisis rightly dominated the agenda. Turkey has taken in about two million Syrians and requires more European support. It is also a member of NATO and a critical ally in the fight against the Islamic State.
But Turkey’s position as an essential strategic partner should not deter European leaders from raising concerns about Erdoğan’s authoritarianism or asking how Turkey’s media crackdown is compatible with the Copenhagen criteria (the conditions countries must meet to join the EU). On the contrary, ensuring that Turkey remains a stable democracy – by responding both to domestic developments and to deteriorating conditions in the Middle East – is in Europe’s long-term interest.
Europe must be clear about what it expects from Turkey and its government. But the relationship between Turkey and the EU should not be limited to accession talks among leaders, diplomats, and bureaucrats; the process should involve ordinary people on both sides of the discussion.
Polls indicate that more than half of the Turkish population supports EU accession. It is likely that many supporters are motivated by the fact that EU membership would provide better guarantees of their rights and freedoms. We must not turn our backs on them.
See also on Turkey: 12-10 Written Questions on halting the broadcast of tv channels in Turkey 01-09 Written Questions on press freedom in Turkey 08-06 MEP: Turkish election results offer opportunity to improve EU-Turkey relations 21-05 MEP: Turkey must reverse authoritarian trend to remain a key EU partner 20-05 Plenary debate on the 2014 Progress Report on Turkey 22-04 MEPs: We must defend all those standing on the front-line for free speech in Turkey 07-04 Media (CNN) – Schaake: Turkey internet blockade is bad for business 06-04 Media (Bloomberg) – Facebook, Twitter to Appeal as Turkey Blocks Social Media 31-03 MEP responds to acquittal 236 suspects in Balyoz/Sledgehammer case