June 26, 2016

Dark days in Turkey

Demonstrators protest against the arrest of three prominent press freedom activists in central Istanbul, on June 21st.

The strains facing two key professions in Turkey — journalists and judges — are becoming unbearable. The increased pres­sure on the system of checks and balances exposes a deepening systemic crisis brewing on Europe’s south-eastern flank.

It is an undisputed fact that journalism has become the riskiest profession in Turkey. The number of jailed reporters and editors is rising and the case of the pro- Kurdish daily Ozgur Gundem sig­nals a new crackdown on freedom of speech.

The detention of three civil society figures in June created an international uproar. A court in Is­tanbul ruled that journalist Ahmet Nesin, the son of humorist Aziz Nesin; Professor Sebnem Korur Fincanci, director of the Turkish Human Rights Foundation (TIHV); and Erol Onderoglu, the repre­sentative of Reporters Without Borders (RSF) in Istanbul, could face long prison terms on charges of terrorist propaganda. At least one of them, Fincanci, is in solitary confinement.

The reason is astounding: All three stood in as editor for a day at Ozgur Gundem.

They were not alone. Forty-four people, mainly journalists and non-governmental organisation (NGO) figures, took part in the act of solidarity and 35 of them are now being investigated on the same charges. This raises concerns they may also end up in prison.

In a related development, a liberal TV network, Can Erzincan, was notified that it will, in a matter of weeks, be taken off the TurkSat satellite, again due to terrorist propaganda charges. This will leave the Turkish public with only two or three independent channels — a near blackout.

With conditions in some ways resembling those in Egypt, Russia or Azerbaijan, Turkish media are walking with crutches. For the small number of brave journalists remaining, pursuing the truth or speaking out is like taking a stroll in a minefield.

Because free reporting is essen­tial to any democracy, its demise will mean, simply, democracy’s end as well.

The judiciary is also feeling threatened.

Most recently, one-quarter of the judiciary was subjected to a wave of removals of judges and prosecu­tors. Almost 4,000 were trans­ferred to new positions.

According to independent professional organisations rep­resenting them, such as YARSAV, what they call an unprecedented move amounts to a purge, in which loyalty to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling party counts as the sole merit for promotion or demotion.

What really threatens the judici­ary, the backbone of Turkey’s al­ready fragile democracy, however, goes beyond this.

In a dramatic move that raised concerns in international judicial circles, such as the Geneva-based International Commission of Ju­rists (ICJ), the government is push­ing through a bill that would enable the political executive to shape and command all high courts of appeal, such as the Court of Cassation and the Supreme Administrative Court.

According to Minister of Justice Bekir Bozdag, known to be the closest politician to Erdogan, the law will be passed by the end of July. If the government is success­ful, many law experts agree, it will mark an end to the separation of powers in Turkey.

“We have not witnessed any period in the past 50 years during which the judiciary was put upon so badly,” wrote Sami Selcuk, a “grand old man” of the law and for­mer chairman of the High Court of Appeals, in the Cumhuriyet daily.

“This is so painful. These are the days, for me as a retired judge, of profound mourning and shame. There is nobody out there who hears the cries for help. The majori­tarian government has now pre­pared the coffin of the judiciary… I am left without hope.”

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