The media and the judiciary, both essential components of democracy, are no longer free in Turkey, but stifled by an “empire of fear,” former President Süleyman Demirel has said amid increasing outcry about threats to press freedom.
“An empire of fear has been established in Turkey. The press is the most influenced by this; even some very prominent journalists say they are afraid,” he told the Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review in an interview Saturday.
“A free judiciary is required for a free media. In the absence of a free judiciary and press, there is no democracy at all. Let me tell you bluntly: Fundamental rights and freedoms are being violated in Turkey,” said Demirel, who served as president between 1993 and 2000 following multiple terms as prime minister.
The veteran politician, who spent nearly four decades actively involved in politics, used a very critical tone in his comments about Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, urging it to comply with the universally agreed-upon rights and freedoms needed for a healthy democracy. “No democracy can function without a free press. That means a free press is an inseparable part of democracy,” said Demirel, who headed two governments toppled by military coups and was later a key actor in the “Feb. 28 process,” the events around the Feb. 28, 1997, military memorandum that sparked turmoil leading to the resignation of the ruling Islamist coalition government.
“Of course, the press should not abuse its freedom by discrediting people or institutions through fake stories,” he added.
Demirel underscored that a free press should protect the public interest, hold regimes accountable and criticize – sometimes even severely – those in positions of power and influence. “But it wouldn’t be a free press if every dissident gets taken to court. This is wrong. Those who look at us from outside say, ‘Journalism in Turkey is dangerous,’” he said, referring to a story about the issue in the Economist.
Threats to press freedom in Turkey have become a source of renewed debate following the arrests of prominent investigative reporters Nedim Şener and Ahmet Şık, along with some other journalists, as part of the alleged Ergenekon coup-plot case. The latest round of arrests brought the number of journalists behind bars to 68, according to the Freedom to Journalists Platform.
Listen to international warnings
The recent arrests and detention of Turkish journalists were covered by newspapers and magazines around the world and criticized by a variety of international organizations. The European Parliament has openly urged the Turkish government to take measures to secure the environment for journalists and expressed its concerns with regard to the deterioration of this fundamental freedom. In an unusually harsh reaction, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan called the people who prepared the European Parliament report “unbalanced.”
“I do not understand why we get furious with those who tell us that we should correct our faults. Turkey is a civilized country and has to have civilized ties with other countries,” Demirel said. “In this contemporary world, universal laws and principles walk hand in hand with national laws. And countries sometimes can urge each other to comply with the law.”
The former president added that the issue has nothing to do with sovereignty. “You cannot do whatever you want to do, even in your own country. Why? Not because you are not free and sovereign but because you are civilized,” he said. “What does it mean to be civilized? It means to be a part of the international community.
“Turkey has made agreements with countries and signed international treaties and conventions to be a part of the international community. These agreements are binding. We have committed to protecting human rights,” Demirel said, responding to Erdoğan’s reaction against the European Parliament report. “If you violate these agreements, then you have to be ready to receive other countries’ urging. If you want to continue to be a member of this community, then you have to behave in a way the community embraces.”
All sorts of pressure on press
Touching on the structural problems with ensuring press freedom in Turkey, Demirel said media owners who have other business interests outside of journalism are more vulnerable to government pressures. “It’s much easier for the government to oppress them. It will easily find a way to do this. Thus, what we see almost everyday,” he said, noting the world-record tax levy imposed in 2008 against the Doğan Media Group, the parent company of the Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review and part of a holding company with broad business interests.
Pressure against media owners in Turkey includes demands that they sack some dissident columnists and journalists, Demirel said. “All sorts of pressure are seen. That does not prove the existence of a free media. You can engage in demagoguery, you can deny the arrest of journalists but you cannot change the fact that dozens of them are in prison today,” he said. “These are not good things and indeed are shameful for Turkish democracy.”
Criticizing the president, warning the PM
When asked about President Abdullah Gül’s statement that he was also concerned about the recent developments regarding press freedom, Demirel said: “A verbal statement is not enough. There is a need for action. Can he take it? As president, he [Gül] can also chair the government, if he wants to do so.”
He added that it is Prime Minister Erdoğan who needs to heed the message in Gül’s statement. “If even the president of a country does not hide his concerns, then the prime minister has no luxury to close his eyes and ears to the people’s complaints,” Demirel said, urging Erdoğan to ensure that the results of the general elections set for June “will not legitimize such disturbing acts.”
“You could get more than 50 percent of the votes; I got that too. But this is not enough. The problem is the satisfaction of the entire people, not only those who vote for you. Those who voted for others have no less right than your electorate,” he said.
Demirel also cautioned the government that the transfer over the weekend of Ergenekon suspect Mehmet Haberal, who has serious health problems, from a hospital to a prison should “not [be] counted as a victory for your side.”
“These men are not running away. You can always try them. But you cannot convince anyone by saying that you have secret evidence against them. No one will buy it,” he said, adding that the situation in Turkey seems set to worsen if the government does not change its attitude.
“The atmosphere is bad. There is no need to compare it with the past,” Demirel said. “A drop of ink is enough to cloud a bottle of water. There is no need to create more Haberal or Nedim [Şener] cases. This is already enough to prove the absence of justice and freedom in Turkey.”
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