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Say what you want, think what you like

This week's 'interview' with the Turkish PM is deeply problematic, sometimes enraging. It lets large tracts of propaganda go unchallenged. Here's why we published it anyway.

Mary Fitzgerald headshot in circle, small
Mary Fitzgerald
17 December 2014

The news from Turkey this week is grim. At least 31 arrests of journalists, producers, scriptwriters and a police chief accused of ‘forming an illegal organisation and trying to seize control of the state’. It reads like a textbook authoritarian crackdown on dissidents, in a country which Reporters Without Borders already ranks 154th of 180 on press freedoms.

At openDemocracy we have many articles in our archive on the worrying developments which have led Turkey to this crisis point: In Turkey’s political contest, rule of law is the real loserLeviathan in the lure of MammonSoma: slow massacre, the cost of Turkish success?Turkish Freedom – a report from the front line, to name a few.

This week we are doing something different, publishing a lengthy, sympathetic conversation between a leading figure of the Turkish regime, newly-appointed Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, and an old friend of his, the American diplomat and international law expert Richard Falk. Why?

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'Nothing to see here': Falk's interview with Turkey's prime minister makes no mention of the Gezi park protests and the authorities' violent response. (Flickr/Seamus Travers. Some rights reserved.)

Falk is a seasoned diplomat who won his reputation with an authoritative legal condemnation of the US role in Vietnam. He has spent decades speaking for the underdog most notably as UN Special Rapporteur over the situation in Gaza. (See also this week a hard-hitting Richard Falk on state crime). But he has also been outspoken in his support of Turkey’s government, now in its 12th year, and has been widely criticised for it. His conversation with Prime Minister Davutoğlu–which took place on September 28, well before this weekend’s arrests–will add grist to this mill.

Falk does ask some subtle questions particularly in the latter part of the conversation, but he lets large tracts of Davutoğlu’s claims go unchallenged. This is not an ‘interview’, but a conversation between a diplomat and a prime minister who are on very good terms. Robin Wilson, editor of openSecurity, feels that we should not publish the piece. Rosemary Bechler, main site editor, hence of Turkish Dawn, thinks doing so fits with the pluralism which is openDemocracy’s hallmark. There has been a wide range of views expressed across the editorial team. 

My own view is that Falk has given his friend Davutoğlu far too sympathetic a hearing and, in so doing, misses a rare opportunity to challenge the assumptions of a deeply problematic regime. As this week’s arrests show, it is a regime which increasingly refuses to engage with criticism, choosing instead to shut it down. Falk’s conversation with Davutoğlu is also frustrating in many ways, not least by its omission of any mention of the historic Gezi Park protests, and the quick skip over women’s rights (in his one short answer on this, Davutoğlu wrongly claims there were no women in the Turkish government before the AKP came to power). But despite all its problems, I feel that the conversation is revealing–sometimes unintentionally so–and that it offers us an opportunity.

That opportunity is to force Davutoğlu’s claims, however problematic and sometimes enraging, into a global space where they can be properly challenged. This is important not least because Davutoğlu’s party, the AKP (or Justice and Development Party), runs a huge and strategically important country that is pivotal for Europe and the Middle East. The AKP has been in power for 12 years, led by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. With a parliamentary majority large enough to rewrite the constitution, Erdoğon gave the presidency increased executive powers and then got himself elected to the position in August this year, when he made Davutoğlu his prime minister. Thanks to the AKP’s increasing stranglehold over the national media, genuine debate about its nature and their strategy and policies does not happen enough in Turkey. I felt that if we got it right, we could present to the world what the AKP claims about itself at this moment of change, alongside what many of its critics say about it, and empower people to make up their own minds. This is what openDemocracy is all about.

To this end, we’ve invited a number of new and existing openDemocracy contributors to respond. Behlül Özkan, a former student of Davutoğlu's, writes on the dangerous flaws in the AKP's foreign policy; Bulent Gokay argues that Turkey will only become a real global power when it has a functional democracy; Bill Park looks at how governance is becoming more troubled under the AKP; Alexander Christie-Miller, an Istanbul-based journalist who writes for the Times, Newsweek and the Christian Science Monitor, analyses the conversation in light of the mass arrests of journalists this weekend; Firdevs Robinson says Turkey's politicians must not be let off the hook; Oguz Alyanak says they live in a parellel universe–and the political scientist Umut Özkırımlı argues that we should not have published this piece at all.

I encourage you to read all these contributions, which are between them forceful, incisive, nuanced and vital. I want to add that two people we invited to respond decided against it because they felt the interview should not be published. A further contributor also advised against publishing but responded to put his views on the record. 

Needless to say, in deciding to publish this conversation, openDemocracy is not in any way endorsing the views expressed by Davutoğlu, nor Falk’s judgement on the AKP, nor anything else. Nor do we seek to be arbiters of objectivity, were that to be possible. It is quite wrong to believe that only one side can have a robust point of view (your own) and the other merely self-interest. Clearly, politicians are there to make a self-interested case and avoid troublesome evidence. Their words are rarely up to the standards we demand of writers. I asked myself this week: shouldn’t our solidarity with those they hurt (including journalists freshly jailed) tell us not to provide their self-justification a home of any sort? But listening to the internal logic of a regime is not the same thing as supporting it; indeed, the exercise can better equip you to challenge that logic (or lack of it).

In my first blog as Editor in Chief, I promised that we would be continuing to ask “tough questions about how democracy works and doesn’t work all over the world”, and that “because this is openDemocracy, we’ll be placing a lot of options before you.” Here are some of those very important choices. Democracies are not just about the holding of elections, as authoritarians across the world might have you believe. In real democracies, people are for the most part free to say what they want and think what they like. In that spirit, I trust readers to assess our coverage of this conversation, including the critical assessments, and to make up their own minds. Over to you.

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