Protest of the Turkish journalist Ruhat Mengi together with other journalists in Ankara (photo: dapd)
Commentary by Aryeh Neier

Turkey's Imprisoned Press

According human rights organisations, there were never as many journalists in prison in Turkey since the end of the military regime in 1983 as during the past year. Aryeh Neier, founding member of "Human Rights Watch", criticizes the state of media freedom of Turkey, which in his view conflicts with the nation's general human rights situation

According to two pro-government newspapers in Turkey, Star and Yeni Akit, as well as Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan himself, those who denounce the state of press freedom in Turkey are "terrorists". That is the term that they were using last week to denounce the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists and the Paris-based Reporters Sans Frontières, both of which have issued reports saying that Turkey has imprisoned even more journalists than Iran and China.

Last October, the CPJ reported that there were 76 journalists imprisoned in Turkey, including 61 who were in jail for their journalistic work. While the latter number declined to 49 by December, after some of those held were freed by the courts, that is still a lot of journalists to hold in prison.

Tolerance on the decline

The situation is especially dismaying, given that, for several years, Turkey's human-rights performance had been improving dramatically under Erdoğan's leadership. The use of torture had declined sharply. The cultural rights of the large Kurdish minority, including the right to use their own language, had advanced greatly. Military control over the civilian government had been ended. And more.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan (photo: AP)
Unwelcome subtexts: As Erdoğan and his moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party consolidated their power and influence in Turkey, their tolerance for critical media lessened

​​Yet, as Erdoğan and his moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party have consolidated their power and their control of the country, their tolerance for dissent has declined. Today, Internet freedom has largely disappeared. Legislation provides for mandatory filtering of content, and many Web sites have been blocked for reasons that range from facilitating the use of drugs or stimulants to offenses under the Law on Crimes against Atatürk (the founder of the modern Turkish state and Turkey's national hero).

External contributing factors

Though it is the Turkish government that is to blame for the precipitous decline in press freedom, the policies of the European Union and the United States have been contributing factors. The EU had indicated that performance on human rights would be a key factor in determining whether Turkey would be admitted as a member. Yet it was during the period of rapid progress on human rights that Europe seemed to turn its back on the country.

This outcome undermined those in Turkey who had promoted human-rights reforms. Their claims that progress would lead to accession were shown to be false, and an important incentive for officials was eliminated. If the process leading to EU accession is put back on track, it will greatly aid the effort to ensure that Turkey becomes an open society.

European Court of Human Rights in Straßburg (photo: picture alliance/JOKER)
Rapping the knuckles of the AKP: The European Court of Human Rights said last year that Turkey had infringed the right to freedom of speech with its ban on several newspapers and magazines it claimed spread "propaganda" for illegal organizations – including the Kurdistan Workers' Party, PKK

​​The US government, for its part, tends to speak softly when it comes to human-rights abuses in Turkey. During the Cold War, Turkey's strategic value, given its geographic proximity to the Soviet Union, outweighed other concerns. Today, geography still plays a role, though it is Turkey's contiguity with Syria, Iraq, and Iran that has left the US reluctant to make a fuss about press freedom. The US has supported Turkey's accession to the EU, but its efforts would have more credibility in Europe if it also pressed Turkey to address its shortcomings.

There is hope

The situation is far from hopeless. Turkey has a lively civil society, with proudly independent institutions that include some renowned universities. The period of rapid progress is not in the distant past. Europe would strengthen itself economically and militarily if Turkey became a member to its union, and it should revive accession negotiations on the same basis as other member states if Turkey meets the political criteria, including press freedom.

With John Kerry's arrival as Secretary of State, the US ought to recognize that such a large Islamic country in a troubled neighborhood should show leadership on human-rights issues. As a role model for the region, it is especially important that Turkey should practice press freedom. If Europe and the US do their part, Erdoğan may be persuaded to resume the role of human-rights reformer that he played during his first several years in office.

Aryeh Neier

© Project Syndicate 2013

Aryeh Neier, President Emeritus of the Open Society Foundations and a founder of Human Rights Watch, is the author of Taking Liberties: Four Decades in the Struggle for Rights. editor: Lewis Gropp

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