Convenors: Free Speech Debate, Timothy Garton Ash; SEESOX, Othon Anastasakis, Mehmet Karli
Chair: Dr. Mehmet Karli, SEESOX
Rıza Türmen, Former ECHR judge and former MP
Kemal Göktaş, Reporter from Cumhuriyet newspaper, Visiting Fellow at the Reuters Institute
Funda Üstek-Spilda, Goldsmiths, University of London
The seminar entitled “The Erosion of Free Speech in Turkey: Why were Key Institutions Defeated?” was held at the European Studies Centre, St Antony’s College on 28 February 2018. The seminar was co-organized by SEESOX and the Free Speech Debate, headed by Professor Timothy Garton Ash. Rıza Türmen, a former ECHR judge and former Turkish MP from the main opposition party CHP, Kemal Göktaş, reporter from Cumhuriyet newspaper and a visiting Fellow at the Reuters Institute, and Dr. Funda Üstek-Spilda from Goldsmiths, University of London were the speakers in the panel which was chaired by Dr. Mehmet Karli of SEESOX.
In line with the guiding question of the seminar, each speaker focused on the failure of key institutions to check and balance the authoritarian slide in Turkey. Mr. Türmen focused on the judiciary and parliament, Mr. Göktaş on the press, and Dr. Ustek-Spilda on academia.Rıza Türmen, Former ECHR judge and former MP
Türmen began his talk by underscoring the importance of functioning institutions and a democratic political culture for a functioning democracy. While Turkey has always had problems with both the institutional and cultural background of democracy, now, he said, it is even losing whatever it had managed to gain through its history of democratization, and was even on the verge of losing free and fair elections. Referring to a bill amending the electoral laws that was then before the parliament, he stated that, if those amendments were to be enacted, the government would have a free hand in rigging the elections. [Note of the Author: Since the date of the seminar, those amendments have been enacted.]
Türmen noted that the fact that Turkey had a parliament and competitive political parties used to be cited as the main reasons for it to be considered a democracy. However, he added, Turkey is currently undermining both. HDP, the pro-Kurdish opposition party -the third largest party- has almost its entire political organization in jail. It no longer exists in all but name. CHP, the main opposition party, has one of its MPs in jail and there are ongoing investigations against many others. Moreover, now that the country is in a state of emergency, almost all legislation is enacted through so-called “decree-laws”, bypassing the parliament. He emphasized that the situation of the parliament will become even worse when the full constitutional amendments regarding the adoption of the presidential system kick into effect after the 2019 elections.
As the root cause of these developments, Türmen drew attention to Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s conception of democracy. In his view, Erdoğan has a majoritarian understanding of democracy, with the ballot box as the only source of legitimacy. He believes he speaks for the people; and for him, the majority who voted for him is the ‘people’. Türmen further observed that Erdoğan saw the rule of law as an impediment to the realization of the will of people and he also promotes the view that he is defending the nation against threats, internal and foreign. Türmen also drew attention to the fact that Erdoğan has a very tight grip over his party.
Türmen ended his analysis of Turkish parliament and political parties by indicating that all powers, in present-day Turkey, are concentrated in one single man. When the constitutional amendments on the presidential system enter into force in 2019, this concentration will become even worse. This level of power concentration leaves no room for an effective parliament. Türmen concluded by making the finding that politics henceforth must be carried on outside the parliament. Politics should be carried on with the masses, by trying to reach out to them directly.
The second part of Türmen’s talk focused on the judiciary. He stated that judicial étatism, i.e. the fact that judges see protecting the “state”, rather than fundamental rights, as their primary duty, has deep historical roots in Turkey. The Turkish Republic has pursued a state-centred modernization and, in this tradition, people belonged to the state. According to Türmen, Turkey has a tradition of an omnipotent state and the judiciary has always been a protector of the governing ideology.
What distinguished the present from this historical background is that no other government had ever had such a tight grip over the judiciary. There had always been some ‘special courts’ in Turkey’s judicial history, but no government had managed to control the entire judiciary to the extent AKP does currently. He specifically drew attention to the so-called Criminal Judges of Peace (Sulh Ceza Hakimleri) who are empowered take all pre-trial decisions in the current system and strongly criticised them, accusing them of functioning as the gun of the government.
Türmen concluded that AKP had had a great chance of actually reforming the judiciary and laying the ground for a strong rule of law; however, rather than pursuing this goal, it had chosen to control it and use it for its own political purposes.
Funda Üstek-Spılda, Goldsmıths, Unıversıty of London
The panel continued with Dr. Üstek’s talk on “Academic Freedom and the Unbearable Lightness of “Ignorance”.
Üstek examined the erosion of free speech in Turkey from an institutional perspective. She started off her speech by observing that when discussing freedom of speech in Turkey, often the actors are given the main attention, and institutions are considered to be playgrounds of these actors. She would be using a particular theory: agnotology, the epistemology of non-knowledge and strategic ignorance, refocusing our attention from what we know to what we do not know and why not. She then described the scope of her analysis as ‘the practices which render academic freedom absent or unavailable and create the “strategic unknowns”’.
She submitted that “epistemic cultures of non-knowledge” over time weaken the institutions’ capabilities to continue the practice of academic freedom, especially in a context where freedom of speech itself is widely contested. She highlighted three strategies for the production of ignorance: non-transfer of solidarities and past struggles; deflection of academic standards and rigour through clientelism [the so-called emptying out]; and omission of the particularity of the current condition and treating it as part of the ever-so ambiguous governmentality of “New Turkey”; mainly jail politics and governance by state of emergency.
Non-Transfer of Solidarities and past struggles
Üstek, first and foremost, gave a short description of the increasing pressure upon academia in Turkey: In the aftermath of the coup, more than 23 thousand academics lost their jobs through decrees or due to university closures. The dismissals of academics and the closures of universities meant that just two months before the new academic year began in 2016/2017, nearly 65 thousand university students were transferred to other universities. Academic personnel from the closed-down universities have reported that they have not been able to find jobs in other institutions due to ongoing investigations and the “fear” that institutions had in hiring them.
Üstek then drew attention to the fact that this is not the first wave of purges in Turkish academia. There is actually a long list of oppressive actions against academia. She gave examples:
1948 Language-History-Geography Faculty Dismissals
1960 the Case of 147 Academics
1971 12 March Dismissals
1980 The Case of Intellectuals dismissed under law no:1402
1997 28 February Dismissals
Turkish academia had had to re-build itself after each of these waves And, needless to say, students and intellectual life in Turkey subsequently suffered, but things also recovered. This history of past struggles is not transferred, she said.
Deflection of Academic Standards and Rigour with Clientelism
The second strategy of ignorance Üstek focused on was the deflection of the academic standards and rigour through clientelism [the so-called emptying out]
Üstek first highlighted that the governance structure of Turkish universities, by such institutions as YOK, OSYM, MEB, lends itself to the application of authoritarian top-down policies. In this structure, clientelism becomes the governing rule; black lists and personal vendettas play an important role. Those who are in power are not checked and power certainly corrupts them too.
As clientelism is the governing principle, no matter how capable and academically rigorous or excellent an academic is, if s/he “annoys” those in power, it becomes difficult to get tenure or sustain a position at the university.
Üstek also underlined the neoliberal changes to university structure. She observed that, since 1998, the number of newly opened universities exceeded 100. Nearly half of these were private universities, and nearly 20 of them were closed down after the coup attempt in 2016.
This structure, Üstek concluded, undermined the development and strengthening of the core values of academic freedoms.
Omission of the Particularity of the Current Condition and Treating it as part of the ever-so ambiguous governmentality of “New Turkey”.
Üstek then highlighted the particularity of the current conditions in Turkey. The erosion today might be considered much more radical, because not only are those in academia under attack, but so is the very idea of an academia which fosters critical, independent thinking and free speech. She contended that Turkey was witnessing rather an erosion of the respect for independent and critical thinking. According to Üstek, this is why, on the one hand one sees academic gowns being stampeded in a wide-range protest by the police, but on the other hand one sees that village headmen are asked to wear an academic gown in a meeting where they sit and listen to the President.
Üstek concluded that institutional ignorance permeates the system for three main reasons:
- Past knowledge does not necessarily get transferred: past solidarities and struggles are not known;
- Generalised pressures, with individualised implications;
- The allure of conformity in the face of the fear of losing it “all”
As a final note, she warned that this did not mean personalities or actors in general do not matter. They certainly do. This also does not mean there is nothing new in what is happening, there certainly is, she said. But this also means that there is all the more reason for paying attention to emerging solidarities and what sustains them. The voices may not be loud, but they are still there, she concluded.
Kemal Göktaş, Reporter from Cumhuriyet newspaper, Visiting Fellow at the Reuters Institute
The third speaker of the panel was Kemal Göktaş. Göktaş’s speech focused on the erosion of freedom of the press in Turkey. Göktaş gave first a snapshot of the grim picture of freedom of speech in Turkey:
“According to the Journalists Union of Turkey, 149 journalists and media workers are behind bars. This is the highest in the world, even ahead of China and Egypt. Reporters Without Borders and the Committee to Protect Journalists affirmed that Turkey was the worst country for media freedom in 2016. Reporters Without Borders placed Turkey 155th out of 180 countries in terms of freedom of information. World Justice Project ranked Turkey 101st among 113 countries in the Rule of Law Index. Turkey was also ranked 107th in fundamental rights, including freedom of the press.”
He added that this deplorable state of the Turkish media was further exacerbated by the recent sentencing of three journalists, Mehmet Altan, Ahmet Altan, and Nazlı Ilıcak, to life in prison, mainly for their reporting and expressing their opinion.
Göktaş highlighted that, following the July 15th coup attempt staged by the members of the Gulenist organisation in the Turkish army, the Government announced a state of emergency and intensified pressure upon the press.
He added that, besides Gülenists media outlets, pro-Kurdish and leftist magazines, newspapers, and television stations were shut down. Many journalists were sentenced on charges of cooperating with various terrorist organisations.
Göktaş stated that his own newspaper, Cumhuriyet, also became a target for the government’s witch-hunt. All critics of the government were labelled by the government and its media outlets as coup-supporters, traitors, and terrorists. Stories on human rights, democracy, authoritarianism, the Kurdish issue are all considered as terrorist propaganda, he added.
Göktaş further noted that, under this pressure, journalism in Turkey had turned into public relations. Editorial independence had come to an end. Göktaş further observed that critical journalists can no longer find a job in Turkish media.
Göktaş then made a reference to Human Rights Watch’s report “Silencing Turkey’s Media” which listed six crucial components of this crackdown on independent media in Turkey:
1. The use of the criminal justice system to prosecute journalists on charges of terrorism, insulting public officials, or crimes against the state.
2. Threats and physical attacks on journalists and media outlets.
3. Government interference with editorial independence and pressure on media organizations to fire critical journalists.
4. Government takeover or closure of private media companies
5. Fines, restrictions on distribution and closure of essential television stations.
6. Blocking of online news websites or internet access.
He concluded the first part of his speech on a grim note: “Without a doubt, I can conclude that independent journalism in Turkey has died.”
In the second part of his speech, Göktaş examined the reasons for this downfall of Turkish media.
He argued that the free speech in Turkey had come under attack, in Turkey’s recent history, with the cruel 1980s coup. Not only was the government overthrown, but also the unions and political parties were shut down. Turkey’s most democratic 1961 constitution was abolished by the nationalist and US-backed junta. The new constitution drafted by the army was the beginning of this anti-democratic era, he said. He noted that, after the coup, the media environment had changed dramatically. He also emphasized that the adoption of neo-liberal economic policies following the 1980 coup had also played a very important role in this changing environment.
Göktaş highlighted that, although the 1990s saw the emergence of private TV channels and a general increase in media outlets, this did not bring media freedom in Turkey. He submitted that, during those years, the media landscape had been monopolized by a few business groups who prioritised their financial and political interests over journalism. He noted that these business groups had significant investments outside the media industry.
The commercialization of the media landscape was also coupled with the de-unionization of the media work space, while journalists were forced to resign from their Unions.
Göktaş also drew attention to the rising celebrity journalist culture over the same period. He remarked that the salary gap between editors, columnists, and managers on the one hand, and reporters on the other hand had greatly widened in the same period.
He also highlighted the spatial change in Turksh media over those years; media outlets had moved their buildings from city centres to “plazas” outside the city. “Truth and facts had been replaced by sensationalism; critical reporting on issues such as democracy, and human rights by magazine news; and entertainment had become the dominant style in the media,” he said.
Göktaş submitted that, under these circumstances, Turkish media ignored all human rights violations taking place in Turkey’s Kurdish regions in 1990s, as well as the violations of rights against Islamists following the army’s intervention in 28 February 1997. He also drew attention to assassinations in the 1990s where many Kurdish, Turkish, Kemalist, and secularist journalists, academics as well as intellectuals lost their lives.
Göktaş pointed out that the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002, under these circumstances. He emphasized that AKP developed a close cooperation with the Gülenists, against the military and secularists. He stressed that the Gulenists in the police and judiciary used sham court cases to undermine the opposition and the media outlets owned by Gulenists and pro-government businessmen played a crucial role in the promotion of these sham trials. He noted in passing that the West mostly supported those sham trials, despite the warnings of many Turkish democrats.
In the final part of his speech, Göktaş warned that the nature and extent of pressure under AKP had changed dramatically. He highlighted that “in 2002 before the AKP came to power, according to Freedom House, Turkey was ‘a partly free country.’ Today, after 15 years of the AKP rule, Turkey has become a “not free” country.”
He concluded by stating that the such structural weaknesses of Turkish media as its commercialization, de-unionization of the work place, the celebrity culture etc. have all weakened the ability of Turkish media to resist the AKP. This attack was further facilitated by a constitutional framework designed for authoritarian policies. Gulenist and pro-government media never acted with professional solidarity, but they rather chose to attack their colleagues. According to Göktaş, standards of journalism were already weak, as the main duty of a journalist had begun to be seen as contributing to the profit of his/her bosses. In a workplace where very few are unionized, where the average salary for a reporter is EUR 500, and where there is a huge pay gap between reporters and celebrity journalists, there was not much esprit de corps, he observed.
He concluded by stating that “given these conditions, Turkish media could not resist the crackdown of the AKP government on press freedom. Unfortunately, this was not a surprise for those who work in the Turkish media landscape”.
Q & A Session
The seminar continued with a lively question & answer session. In response to the first round of questions, which principally asked speakers to put today’s authoritarianism in its historical context, Türmen stated that this level of power concentration had never existed in Turkey before. He further noted that all the gains of the Republic were being lost incrementally and the unfortunate and sole reason for this erosion is the preservation of the interests of a single person. In this context, he also stated that democratic institutions do not necessarily have deep roots in Turkey and that the preservation of the interests of State has always been the primary concern for public employees.
Members of the audience and the speakers, in their responses to the questions, underlined the following factors as the main reasons that enfeebled the institutions in the face of the authoritarian push by the AKP:
· a strong and highly centralized State structure,
· a State-centric political culture,
· emptied-out or hollowed-out institutions,
· a system open to majoritarianism,
· lack of professional ethics and enfeebled norms,
· lack of esprit de corps in critical institutions such the judiciary, academia and media,
· all-pervasive commercialization and the attendant loss of civic values,
· weakened -if not, wholly non-existent- EU anchor.
Mr Türmen concluded the seminar by stating that Turkey is currently divided into two halves. He said he believed that the 50 per cent that oppose Erdogan will increase, while the core vote of the AKP is not more than 30%.
Finally, as a former ECHR judge, he saved some of his strongest criticisms for the European Court of Human Rights. As the ECHR is crushed under its heavy workload, it had begun to rely on normally-unreliable domestic processes as filtering mechanisms. As a reflection of this policy, the ECHR had ruled that Turkish citizens whose rights had been affected by the decree-laws must first resort to the newly-formed commission for their complaints and that they can only come before the Strasbourg court after that. Türmen indicated that the only consequence of this decision would be to delay eventual applications and to extend the victimization of many people for many more years. He concluded that the ECHR must make a distinction between democratic states, where there actually are effective local remedies, and those that do not have such remedies; he underlined that the Court already has the necessary tools to make this distinction.
Mehmet Karli (Academic Visitor, St Antony's College, Oxford)