The following article is contributed by Brown affiliate and Turkish citizen, Jesse Smith. We are extraordinarily grateful for the risks they are taking in writing this article for Brown War Watch. It highlights the incredible pressures democracy is currently under in Erdogan’s Turkey.
It is past time for the international community to understand the full extent of the damage done, and the continuing dangers to democracy in Erdogan’s Turkey. The steady degradation of human rights, separation of powers, and freedom of speech and press in Turkey in recent years has accelerated in recent months. In December 2020, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) fined Turkey 60,400 Euros for detaining Selahattin Demirtas, former president of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP). The next day, Turkish courts condemned journalist Can Dundar to 27 years in prison . Although the men share no past relationship, they are united by their fight against the corruption of law, and the death of free speech in Turkey. To better appreciate the fate of these two men, it is best to trace the extent of the diminishment of the freedom of expression in Turkey, why and how it has devolved, and what might be the consequences and impacts of this trajectory.
Understanding Dundar’s case begins by examining two challenging years for Turkey (2014 and 2015) following numerous terrorist attacks, primarily by Islamist jihadist groups . One of these terrorist attacks, a bombing in Ankara was directed at people preparing to protest the government’s ineffective management of terrorism and to call for peace, killed more than 100 people and injured more [4,5]. During this time, Can Dundar, the general publishing coordinator of the newspaper Cumhuriyet, received videos from the Turkish-Syrian border . The videos showed that the country’s intelligence agency carried munitions illegally to Syria. This news put Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan in a tight spot. He claimed the guns were for Turkmen in Syria which they denied. Further, the disembarkation location for the weapons was not close to the Turkmen, but rather Islamic jihadist groups. Erdogan eventually acknowledged these claims but declared the munitions transport a state secret, and accused journalists of spying [6,7,8]. In 2014, after legal procedures, Dundar, and his colleague Erdem Gul were sent to Silivri prison, known for hosting political detainees .
In the initial trial, the Constitutional Court, the highest legal body in Turkey, found Dundar innocent . However, Erdogan believed the journalist to be guilty and asked the local court for Dundar’s imprisonment. The journalist left the country shortly afterwards, yet the prosecution proceeded. Dundar, the winner of numerous prestigious journalism awards including the CPJ International Press Freedom Award, PEN Hermann Kesten Award, ECPMF Press Freedom and the Future of Media Award , continued his work from Germany. The government subsequently used this as evidence of a “lack of regret regarding the crime.” The local court eventually complied with Erdogan’s demands, rather than the Turkish constitution[10,11]. They found Dundar guilty of “spying”, “collaborating with terrorist groups without being part of it”, and condemned him to more than a quarter-century-long prison term for doing his job. The decision aimed to intimidate individuals, in Turkey and abroad, who might dare to be critical of the government. Penalties were not given to those who acted illegally, but to those who revealed the illegality. The case has been exemplary of how the current government has abused the law to acquit those in power.
The attack on the legal system is profound. Utilizing referendums, Erdogan and the executive obtained the authority to appoint judges, bringing the judiciary under its heel. Those judges that preceded this maneuvering have felt the pressure from other departments under the executive branch including the police, gendarmeries, and ministries. With this broadened executive power and the majority of seats in the parliament, the Turkish president now has all the tools to [RL3] control the media. Holding this power, Erdogan has increased impunity and dulled accountability. Dundar’s case is just one example.
As Rousseau suggested, people sometimes compromise their rights in the quest for safety and peace – and so it is with Turkey. The government has used the specter of terrorism as a cudgel to augment its power, to the detriment of speech, press, and law. But freedom of expression and the press are critical to democracy. “The power of people”, is not only expressed through elections, but also via the ability to criticize, protest, publish dissent, and gather in public spaces. When the government takes wrong, unexpected, disapproved, illegitimate, or illegal actions, it is essential for people to voice concern without constraint and to exercise this democratic power. This mutual agreement between the state and the people necessitates a representative, an executor, and a feedback and commentary mechanism. For the mutual agreement to work, all three mechanisms need to be effective . In Turkey today, the feedback mechanism is broken. No opposition is permitted without penalty. People who express or even imply disapproval about the government’s actions may be charged with financial, administrative, and more serious kinds of penalties. Abuse of the executive power, and prioritizing its jurisdiction over the courts has paved the way to “legitimize” the government’s mistakes and to mute the press.
Numerous journalist arrests after critical events (17/25 December Bribery Scandal, Gezi Protests, 15 July failed putsch attempt, etc.) show the government’s awareness of the power and importance of free expression . The likely reason behind such powerful control measures resides in Erdogan’s fear of losing power. His political power is rooted in a base that deifies him: “If Erdogan says so, it is right” is the commonly-held view of his supporters. During his 18-year rule, he has inevitably made mistakes, often considerable ones. The right to freedom of expression is the most straightforward way to challenge these mistakes. Obviously critique challenges this political power based on his “excellent”, “half-god” image . Ultimately, the result is Turkey’s reputation as “journalist prison” – the second to worst jailer of journalists today .
The discretionary use of the state’s power to sue, penalize and imprison people turns the country into something reminiscent of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. A video posted on social media, a critical speech of the government’s pandemic policies, even doing one’s job are cited as “evidence” for collaborating with terrorist groups. In spring 2020, more than 310 people were arrested because of their social media posts criticizing the government’s pandemic management . In the aftermath of the failed 15 July putsch attempt, even a malevolent notice to the police deeming someone a member of a terrorist group could be counted as sufficient evidence for condemning the person to prison. In the period following the putsch attempt, more than a quarter-million people were the victims of “Decree-Laws” . Decree-Laws are usually issued in times of national and international emergency and instability like a war, an earthquake, or a pandemic for more effective and faster responses. Under these state-of-exception decrees, every critic of the AKP government risks the accusation of “collaborating with terrorist groups.” The explicit penalizing of opposition public figures has become all too common.
Political detentions, such as the Demirtas’s case, are clearly aimed at deterring government criticisms and creating an atmosphere of fear. It has proven a successful method for the government. ECtHR decided twice that Demirtas’s imprisonment was political rather than legal. The Court also declared that the detainee’s human rights including the freedom of speech, and the right to be elected were violated [20,21]. President Erdogan simply declared he would not comply with the Court’s rule, and that ECtHR was “a hypocrite”, once again deeming Demirtas a “terrorist” .
The aggressive use of the label “terrorist” taps into nationalist emotions and a real fear of terrorism among the Turkish people. By defining “patriotism” according to his personal values and interests, and pushing critique of the government outside of its parameters, Erdogan and his government have transformed journalism into a trade filled with fear and hesitation. In 2019, during a military operations in the northern Syrian Border, 839 social media users were accused of “criminal posting” prompting their investigation. Simply because they expressed their disapproval of Turkey’s intervention in Syria they were deemed “traitors to the country” . Academics for Peace shared the same experience. More than 2000 academics signed a declaration critical of the state’s policies towards Kurdish people in 2016 and were sued. Afterward more than 200 of them were sentenced to prison. The first acquittal among these academics was in September 2020. The president at the time called the universities to “take the necessary actions.” After this call, universities and the local courts filed lawsuits against the academics; most lost their jobs and were banned from traveling abroad and getting jobs at other institutions .
Although the people of Turkey are used to hearing academics, journalists, activists, and opposition parties and their leaders grouped with terrorist organizations; they fear that one day their name too will appear on a prosecution paper with the label “terrorist”. When this happens, even ECtHR rulings seem powerless to help. This constant fear renders living in peace impossible in Turkey. Something as innocuous as clicking on the “follow” button of opposition leaders on social media fills people with nervousness. During the Gezi protests, which arose to express the discontent for the then government in 2013, 85 to 250 journalists lost their jobs because of their coverage of the protests, and more than 5500 people were sued [25,26]. Known as “AKP Trolls”, the unknown people paid by the government to “transmit-trap” government critical posts, and even likes, create the feeling among Turkish people that Big Brother watches over them every second. Living with the constant fear of “Will liking this post make me visible to trolls?”, or “What if my neighbor heard my last speech about the pandemic management and I’m arrested tomorrow?” has dragged the people of Turkey down into a great despair . With Erdogan exerting control over all of the branches of power in the country how can laypeople seek justice?
This situation has badly eroded trust in legal institutions and the media. In a poll held in late 2020, 53% of the participants stated that they do not trust, or have low trust, in the Turkish legal system – 29% abstained from responding. The same poll showed that the media is faring no better. Over sixty percent of poll participants stated that they have low, or no, trust in the media – 10% abstained from answering . These results are not shocking when you consider the moves against the constitution and democratic norms that have become the standard in the country. Every day in Turkey brings new human rights violations, with widespread impunity encouraged by oppressing the press and personalizing the laws. It also comes as no surprise that Turkey is listed as “not free” by Freedom House . No freedom of speech for critics, no freedom for publicly opposing the government, no freedom for journalism: democracy, meaning people’s power, has fallen under one-man’s power. The Erdogan regime, by eliminating the press and undermining the law, has transformed Ataturk’s democratic Turkey into an autocracy.
 Rousseau, J, & Ligaran 2015, Du Contrat Social, Ligaran Éditions.
Deveci, Cem, and Burcu Nur Binbuğa Kınık. “Nationalist Bias in Turkish Official Discourse on Hate Speech: A Rawlsian Criticism.” Turkish Studies, vol. 20, no. 1, Jan. 2019, pp. 26–48.