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Me, Turkey and our uncertainty

The trial of the Turkey representative of Reporters Without Borders resumes in Istanbul on March 21. Together with the head of Turkey’s Human Rights Foundation and the writer Ahmet Nesin, Erol stands accused of “terrorist propaganda”.

Erol Önderoğlu
21 March 2017
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Erol Önderoglu.

Probably the prosecutor will present his view on March 21, and ask for our conviction. This is for taking part in a solidarity movement defending the existence of a pro-Kurdish newspaper. And this will be followed by sentencing.

I have little doubt about that because the same thing has been happening since January: more than a dozen prominent journalists (Nadire Mater, Hasan Cemal etc.) and human rights defenders (Sanar Yurdatapan, Ayşe Batumlu etc.) have been fined or had prison sentences postponed, although they had no responsibility for the contents published in Özgur Gündem, but just extended their solidarity in a symbolic manner towards this media outlet that is subject to a judicial crackdown.

Through 15 years of EU negotiations, I have always criticized one factor which has seemed to me very fundamental: the comprehensive non-recognition by the government of the human rights movement and critically-minded civil society organizations, that for decades have been working on the ground to deal with and shine a light on such problems. Finally, it emerges that the government's plan was not limited to ignoring this circle but to radically eliminating them. The procedure followed so far for those other human rights defenders, especially after the peace process with Kurdish political groups (PKK, HDP etc.) was terminated, illustrates a clear policy setting out to destroy the most prestigious media or human rights institutions, whatever political line they might be taking. 

In this climate of arbitrary judgment, even being acquitted would be very disturbing when none so far have escaped punishment. Even if this were to be the case, taking this acquittal decision and evaluating it as an argument in favor of judiciary independence or respect for the rule of law would be highly delusory, since these democratic standards which so far have filled our dreams, finally and totally disappeared in the wake of the 15 July coup attempt and the State of Emergency. Acquitting us would clearly be challenging the new national security policies and decrees that have just been given powers, something no one single judge would ever risk.

There is nothing worse than the daily fighting and bargaining that accompanies self-censorship! More and more subjects have become taboos under the Erdogan Empire: challenging government policy in Syria; criticizing abuses in military operations in the Kurdish provinces; denouncing corruption, clientelism, financial irregularities (Panama Papers...) or investments; evoking religious hypocrisy; trading ironies with Erdogan ... there isn’t an idea or an approach that is not perceived as hostility targeting the “prestige and unity of the nation”.

I was released last June after 10 days of prison, two weeks before the Coup Attempt. But what kind of future has any journalist intending to keep vocal, advocating for media freedom, calculating their chances of being acquitted or escaping a second prison visit, when living in a country that has got rid of its international commitments in terms of human rights? Are you free, when arbitrary and administrative measures start to dominate the simplest aspects of life and plunge you into ever widening uncertainties?

Result? You check your documents and your arguments twice before advocating for a colleague. (For him, for yourself?). You find a falling number of Internet actors or activists who will openly support your actions or latest campaign. All the time, you try to measure the possible consequences of your work on yourself, your family, colleagues and the values you are fighting for.

From a time when our NGOs or a certain media diversity reflected the prestige and one forcible argument on behalf of a candidate country to the EU (1999), we have now reached a point where so many of these actors (Can Dündar, Deniz Yücel etc) are seen as ‘spies of the West’, ‘traitors’, etc. Accession to the EU will be a complete illusion as long as public debate, values of reconciliation and justice, are held hostage to government policies!

In my 21-year career, I have also had to defend Islamist journalists collaborating with media exposed to military pressure. Some of these journalists have rapidly forgotten this obscure period and today are calling for the arrest of their colleagues working for the few remaining critical media. Others claim today that they were always fighting for freedom, back when they were the fervent defenders of the military policies of the 1990s. As for independent civil society – nothing has changed for us: we are the eternal undesirables!

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