Turks mull free speech after pro-Erdogan rally in Cologne | Europe | News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 01.08.2016

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Turks mull free speech after pro-Erdogan rally in Cologne

Following the pro-Erdogan rally in Cologne, many Turks are contemplating the status and value of free speech in their country. Diego Cupolo reports from Ankara.

While attending one of Ankara's nightly "Democracy Rallies," Mete Asar, a 43-year-old resident of the Turkish capital, said he supported all the groups who turned out for a similar demonstration to support President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Cologne on Sunday.

"In democratic countries, anyone should be allowed to express their opinions - even if they are neo-Nazis or extremists or racists - as long as they don't become violent and demonstrate within that country's laws," Asar said.

But when asked about his political views, Asar was quick to note a stark difference between the rally in Germany and the ones in his own country.

"In Germany, people can express their views openly, unlike Turkey," he told DW. "I'm not comfortable talking about this because I never know who is listening. Maybe there is secret police nearby. For this reason, we still don't have free speech like the Turks in Germany."

"I was on holiday in Greece during the coup," Asar continued. "And when I was there, I could be myself. I could relax. But here I have to pretend to be someone else to be safe."

Asar spoke as several thousand Turks waved flags and sang pro-government anthems in the center of Ankara, much like the events the residents of Cologne witnessed yesterday.

Taste of freedom

protesters waving flags picture alliance/AP Photo/M. Meissner

For many Turks Erdogan symbolizes continuity and a strong leadership

Varying reports indicate between 20,000-40,000 people came out for the demonstration on the banks of the Rhine River, and smaller events have been happening daily in both Ankara and Istanbul since the failed military coup, but the rallies in Turkey have been frequented by a much more homogeneous crowd than the one in Germany.

"There's a generation [in Turkey] that knows the taste of freedom and they respect human rights," Asar said. "And this is a large group, but I don't know why they haven't spoken up more since the coup. Maybe they are being drowned out by the pro-government crowd."

Nilgun Coskun, a 31-year-old primary school teacher, considers herself to be with the pro-government crowd and said no military coup has been good for Turkey. The daughter of a retired police officer, Coskun was pleased to hear Turks in Europe were showing their support for "the triumph of democracy."

"I agree that he's authoritarian, but he's not undemocratic," Coskun told DW. "The west is against Erdogan because he's Muslim, but most of the laws he passes are very similar to the ones in Europe. He made our economy better and he made our country better. What's wrong with that?"

Europe's wariness

"Europeans get uncomfortable when they see our country becoming less dependent on the EU," she continued. "And Erdogan has been the big reason behind our push toward greater independence."

On Sunday, Erdogan was slated to give a televised address to supporters in Cologne, but a German court prohibited the broadcast in a move widely criticized by Turkish officials. When asked what she thought of the decision, Zehran Dikmen, a housewife at the Ankara rally, said it was not an issue because each country is allowed to dictate its own rules, a notion she feels European countries forget when dealing with Turkey.

"There are Germans living in our country and do we tell them what they can and can't do? No!" Dikmen said. "We would allow them to protest whenever and however they want."

Dikmen went on to say many supporters of Fetullah Gulen - the Turkish cleric accused of plotting the coup attempt - may live in Europe, but their networks are not strong enough "to divide our country."

"Erdogan hasn't done anything bad to Turkey," Dikmen said. "I would sacrifice my life for him. We are all ready to die when ever he calls on us to do so."

Such statements make some Ankara residents wary, one of which is Murat Ertas, a 25-year-old philosophy student and bartender working near the Democracy rally. Ertas said pro-government supporters had "taken the streets away from" people with opposing views and saw the demonstration in Cologne in the same light.

Turkey as a global player

"[Pro-Erdogan demonstrators in Cologne] have common sympathy for those in power," Ertas said. "Turkish people love those who have power and feel comfortable in the shade of their leadership … a change of power frightens them."

Ertas believes Erdogan wants to be a big player in global politics and Turks love ambitious leaders who are willing to take risks.

"He is authoritarian because it works," Ertas said. "It might not work in the EU or in the US, but in Turkey, it is the best way to stay in power … [Turkish] people want western-style democracy, but we are still making the steps towards that and maybe the nationalism we are seeing now is one of those steps."

man holding placard © Getty Images/AFP/O. Kose

Freedom of speech and press freedom have been on the receiving end of the post-coup crackdown

Ertas said the word "democracy" was being used so often lately that the concept had been separated from its original meaning, morphing into a Turkish interpretation of popular governance and it was hard to guess where the ongoing rallies would lead Erdogan's followers.

Back at the rally in central Ankara, Asar said he was observing the event as a spectator. He was unwilling to speak about his job nor give too may political insights, only general views on free speech.

"As long as my freedom doesn't violate another person's freedom, then I should be able to express myself," Asar said, looking at the crowd waving red Turkish flags.

"Some day, I'd like to live in a country with democratic ideals and a respect for human rights."