Hasan Cemal: Freedom of expression in Turkey

From communism to Kurdish separatism, the Turkish state has used a series of pretexts to deny freedom of expression to its citizens, says journalist Hasan Cemal.

Freedom of expression had its wings broken in this country during the cold war and afterwards. Those wings are still broken today. Turkey tried its hand at “multi-party democracy” after the second world war, but in spite of several achievements it has not to this day become a first-class democracy.

During the cold war years, violations of freedom of expression were mostly related to the fear of “communism” and “communist propaganda”; this was the major factor that led to the imprisonment of writers, journalists and activists. The articles of the criminal code that Turkey adopted from “Mussolini’s Italy” in the 1930s formed the Damoclean sword that swung over the heads of those who opposed the regime and demanded more democracy.

During the cold war, both “communist activities” and the “advocacy of Shariat” – the demand by certain groups for a religio-political order in Turkey – led to imprisonment. There was also so-called “Kurdism”, an excuse the Turkish state has used since the foundation of the republic to deny freedom of expression to its citizens.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the laws of the cold war era were amended with good tidings of democracy but in practice, not much happened. Since the 1990s, the fear of communism has been replaced by the “fear” of separatism.  Now, it is the Anti-Terror Law that suffocates free expression in Turkey affecting most negatively the Kurdish media.

Accusations of terrorism, of being a tool of a terrorist organisation or of spreading terrorist propaganda were based on such obscure and open-ended definitions that the range of free expression and free press has been steadily narrowed. In addition, the very low standards of judges and prosecutors in Turkey as far as the culture of democracy and supremacy of law are concerned – in other words, mentality of the judiciary – was and still is a major obstacle for freedom of expression.

The origins of the structure and mentality that kept Turkey as a second-class democracy go all the way back to the foundation of the republic in 1923 and even further before. The military-civilian elite that founded the republic has always lived with the paranoia that Turkey would become a communist or Shariat regime or that Kurds would divide the country. As a result, they have lived in constant fear of democracy.

Up until the first decade of the 21st century, this system, which prevented Turkey from becoming a first-class democracy and which encompassed an ideological range from Turkish nationalism to racism, was known as military tutelage. Beginning in the early 2000s, under the reign of AK Party, the military tutelage began to dissolve and weaken, and the military started to become subservient to “the civilian authority”.

The range of free expression was widened when compared to what it was in the cold war era or the 1990s. But one should not exaggerate. Yesterday’s communism and Shariatism have been replaced by terrorism as a subtext of separatism. As I have already mentioned, the Anti-Terror Law as well as the Turkish criminal code and the Law on Public Meetings and Demonstrations continue to violate freedom of expression. The situation most negatively impacts the Kurdish media and my Kurdish colleagues.

Today, there are over a hundred journalists in prison. I am not going to engage in the numeric discussions that the AK Party government has launched in this respect, since I don’t find the government’s arguments persuasive. What difference would it make if under the so-called criteria of the government spokesmen, there are fifty journalists in prison rather than a hundred, or say thirty instead of fifty or twenty instead of thirty?

One last point, but a very important one for me. The current problems facing freedom of expression and freedom of press in Turkey do not only result from the laws and the anti-democratic mentality enforcing those laws. Political power also casts its long shadow over the media. The AK Party government has a rather interesting pressure mechanism that further chills freedom of expression – a mechanism that involves media owners. This means of pressure and control silences opposing voices considerably, if not completely.

The fact that newspaper publishers welcome or at least do not resist the pressure and inculcation by the centres of power is also detrimental to press freedom in this country.

Before I finish, I should also say a few things about the political, historic and social taboos in Turkey. Many institutions, events and concepts that were deemed “untouchable” such as the might of the military, Kurdish identity or even the plight of Armenians in 1915, are now being discussed with a more open and critical view. However, the risk of prosecution and the legal framework allowing for prosecutions is still in place. Furthermore, criticism of Islam and the Prophet Muhammad or of Atatürk for that matter is still a taboo today.

I will give you an example. One of my colleagues, a well-known novelist Ahmet Altan, has appeared before a court because he wrote in his column that Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish republic, was a dictator.

Thank you.

(To listen to the speech, click here.)

Hasan Cemal is one of Turkey’s most celebrated panelists and authors. He writes a column in Milliyet. 

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Free Speech Debate is a research project of the Dahrendorf Programme for the Study of Freedom at St Antony's College in the University of Oxford. www.freespeechdebate.ox.ac.uk

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