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World Press Freedom Day

'EU discouragement' has hurt free expression in Turkey

The European Union's faded support of Turkey's ascension into the EU has contributed to the declining state of freedom of speech and the media in Turkey says Turkish columnist Sedat Ergin.

As I sat down at my desk to put this commentary to paper, I reread the text of the speech that I had delivered last year when I received the Deutsche Welle Freedom of Speech Award in Bonn on June 13. My speech did not only draw attention to declining standard in freedom of expression in Turkey but also on the European continent. It also addressed various related issues, highlighting the kinds of uncertainties that arise when freedom of speech suffers.

I'm now finding myself in the unfortunate position of having to purport that there has been no progress toward securing any improvement over the past year. In fact, if I were to read the same speech again this year, it would certainly fall short in describing the present situation. Unfortunately freedom of expression in Turkey has only further deteriorated and associated problems have worsened.

When speaking about these issues, we have to remember that Turkey's democracy was the target of a heinous coup attempt on July 15, 2016. This wasn't just a virtual coup like some people in the West seem to believe. 250 people, the majority civilians, lost their lives, more than 2,000 sustained injuries and the Turkish parliament was bombed.

Turkey's democracy was tested as people from all parts of society took a resolute stand against the coup. And after the coup attempt, a shared desire took shape among the many people that believe in Turkey's democracy. It was a desire to transform this attack on Turkey's democracy into a catalyst to move Turkey forward and to lay down the foundations for a stronger democracy. There suddenly was a great sense of consensus throughout Turkey, one that has been rarely seen in the country. Unfortunately, this air of optimism was just as quickly dispersed.

Extraordinary measures

It was the government's legitimate right to go after those who had initiated this coup. It is indispensable for the survival of democracy and the rule of law to fight against such elements that create secret organizations within the state in order to pursue their own aims and agendas. The emergency rule that was introduced in order to combat these putschists was, however, quickly stripped off its original intention and expanded to encompass dissident circles and critical voices.

Bobs Award Freedom of Speech Sedat Ergin (privat)

Sedat Ergin is the former editor-in-chief and a current columnist for the daily Turkish newspaper Hürriyet

When we take a closer look at these extraordinary measures, we unfortunately have to observe that the unlimited powers afforded by the emergency rule are beginning to take on a lasting quality after almost a year now. Countless examples show that groups that had nothing to do with the coup attempt are also being targeted.

Many of my long-term colleagues, whose love of democracy and opposition to terror I'd never question, are finding themselves behind bars at the penitentiary in Silivri today. For example, the outstanding journalist and writer Kadri Gürsel, with whom I worked with for many years, is now under arrest facing allegations of supporting Fethullah Gülen's organization. However, it was Gürsel who had worked tirelessly from the start to draw attention to the dangers of Fethullah Gülen's organization, never shying away from confronting this network. Accusing such a qualified journalist of supporting that organization and throwing him in prison raises some serious questions of credibility.

Press freedom falling

Kadri Gürsel is just one of many examples I can give. All international institutions that observe regularly the problems in the area of freedom of expression report say that the situation in Turkey regressed in 2016. Each year, freedom of speech in Turkey keeps plummeting deeper in these reports. Most recently, Turkey fell another 15 points in last week's report published by Freedom House despite already being featured in the category of countries with a "partially free" press.

But this problem is not only limited to freedom of the press. When it comes to academia, there are also some serious concerns that have surfaced, with hundreds of academics being dismissed from their positions illustrating the severity of this picture.

The thing that worries me most is the fact that all these negative developments could take shape in a country that is a fully-fledged applicant to the European Union. It is a fundamental requirement that an accession process initiated for full membership should serve the purpose of pushing the applicant country's democracy forward.

EU involvement lacking

After the Berlin Wall came down during the EU's expansion period, all of the accession processes played a tremendous transformative role in establishing democratic institutions and in the internalization of democratic values in former Eastern Bloc countries. This was a historic success for the European Union adding unparalleled value to its raison d'etre.

But now in the year 2017, the EU seems to have lost its ability to carry out its transforming, reformist influence. In Turkey, democracy is not moving forward but are getting worse. And if that is the case, we have to accept that the EU suffers some institutional flaws and mistakes especially in the way that it executes its accession process.

Turkish President Erdogan in Istanbul (picture-alliance/Ap Photo/Y. Bulbul)

Many observers have criticized Turkish President Erdogan for clamping down on free expression in Turkey

The worrying developments in Turkey today did not just surface overnight. This growing trend toward authoritarianism, which so often is criticized in Europe, has systematically been taking root since 2008. Sadly the EU has failed when it comes to observing, understanding, diagnosing and developing preventative political strategies to this turn of direction in Turkey.

We can't ignore the fact that from 2006 to 2007, France and Germany significantly slowed down the prospect of Turkey's full membership, which resulted in a cooling down of enthusiasm for the EU among Turks. In fact, this loss of enthusiasm for reform and the start of the erosion of freedom of expression thus became parallel processes in Turkey.

When these problems started to crop up, the EU didn't need a magic wand to find solutions. It only had to own up to the values that make Europe, Europe. A principled defense of those values would have sufficed. However, these problems are now no longer limited to Turkey. Today, issues relating to freedom of expression are spreading within Europe as well. The anti-democratic practices we encounter in Hungary, Poland and the Balkans are rising fast. But because Turkey is only an applicant country, the EU may find an excuse to turn attention away from the setbacks that have surfaced.

However, Hungary and Poland are full EU members. Failing to establish the degree of deterrence which would prevent and stop full member states from sliding away from democracy, freedom of speech and the rule of law is one of the greatest failures of the EU project at the start of the 21st century.

A disappointing time

We're facing a union that has arrived at a point where it cannot protect its own values. One of the profound existential problems of the EU is its absence of deterrence that would protect democracy. We also feel even more pessimistic by the fact that the entire continent of Europe seems to be enveloped by this rampant new wave of increasing authoritarianism, populism and xenophobia.

As a journalist who for many years has firmly believed in the objective of full EU membership, regarding it a fundamental goal in advancing his country's democracy, furthering its freedom of expression, and strengthening its commitment to universal norms of law, I've arrived at a point of deep disappointment.       

Sedat Ergin is the former editor-in-chief and a current columnist for the daily Turkish newspaper Hürriyet and the recipient of the 2016 DW Freedom of Speech Award.