Ragip Zarakolu, human rights symbol in modern Turkey

Turkey will become a real global power only when the high level of its economic progress is matched by a strong, stable and functioning democratic system.
Bülent Gökay
11 February 2012

Ragıp Zarakolu, arrested journalist, publisher, writer and human rights advocate, has been nominated for the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize by Swedish parliamentarians.  A group of MPs from the Swedish Left Party and the Green Party stressed that Zarakolu was an internationally recognized human rights defender who has become a symbol of press freedom and freedom of expression.  For his courage, patience, intellectual rigour and pursuit of genuine democracy, Ragip Zarakolu received IPA Freedom to Publish awards in 2008; he received awards in 1995 and 2007 from the Turkey Publishers Association, the NOVIB/PEN Free Expression Award in 2003, and in 2010, he was given the National Library Award of Armenia.

I met Ragip Zarakolu for the first time soon after the military coup of 1980.  I was a young student activist, and like tens of thousands of my generation, was arrested and tortured on several occasions by the police and in the military prisons.  The case against us, to be tried by the military court, meant that we were not allowed to continue our education or look for jobs until the final decisions of the courts - the whole process lasted ten years. It was in those desperate conditions that Ragip abi (elder brother Ragip) offered my wife and I the opportunity to do translation work for his publishing house. For the next three years, until we managed to arrive in the UK as political refugees, we translated from English to Turkish Joseph Conrad’s Under Western Eyes, Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, and Perry Anderson’s In the Tracks of Historical Materialism, and were paid generously, most of the time in advance, by Ragip Zarakolu’s publishing house - this was the money with which we survived the harsh conditions of the military dictatorship. 

Ragip Zarakolu is, in a real sense of the term, a man of letters, completely devoted to literary or scholarly pursuits.  Everyone who has met him would know that Ragip’s eyes brighten when he is talking about books, any books - novels, research manuscripts, poetry, or even straightforward collections of data. He just loves books.  More than anyone I have ever met, Ragip Zarakolu is the personification of the quest for knowledge. Over the last 27 years, when I have been living in the UK, we have kept in touch and met several times. Every time he visited the UK, he used to drop me a line, in his extremely gentle style, saying that ‘it would be nice to see you if you’re not very busy’.  Every single time when I met him, he was full of stories about some new books and book projects – exciting new translations, or his discovery of some original but yet unknown authors. 

Ragip Zarakolu founded Belge Yayinlari in 1977 and has tested publishing restrictions in Turkey ever since by making available important books challenging Kemalist taboos, military rule, nationalist dogmas, and racist and ethnic hostility.  He published books from Armenian, Greek and Kurdish authors in Turkish editions, and in this way he contributed immensely to the understanding of differences by bringing cultures together.  He is an internationally recognised defender of the right to write and publish freely.  For over three decades, Ragip Zarakolu has worked to bring down barriers of censorship in Turkey whether it was imposed by the military rulers, or civilian but intolerant governments, or extreme ideologies.  His efforts have always been on the side of peaceful dialogue, patient negotiation and understanding.

We have left the dark days of the military coups behind. There is no doubt that modern Turkey has exerted considerable energy towards reforming the legal framework of its institutional and political practices over the past eight years, and deserves a portion of the acclaim it has received for its efforts.  It is critical, however, to remember just how far Turkey had to come to even enter the frame for credible consideration as a modern functioning democratic state with appropriate respect for human rights.  It has truly been a long road, and although Turkey has taken many strides along it, many more remain to be taken. 

The country has undergone a profound economic, social, and political transformation in the last decade, and the world has not failed to take note. Turkey, traditionally known as a country of coups and crises, is now praised by almost all observers as a strong and stable regional power. It is taken seriously as an important member of the international community in London and Washington, just as it is in Riyadh, Moscow and Beijing. The Ottoman Empire was once referred to as the ‘Sick Man of Europe’, but today's Turkey looks healthy, stable and powerful. After eight years of strong economic performance and reform progress, it is much richer, more modern and hopeful than the poor country that applied to be a member of what was then known as the European Community more than 20 years ago. Turkey’s economy is currently growing more than three times as fast as those of European Union countries, all of which poses us with a completely new question: who needs the other one more - Europe or Turkey? 

At the same time, however, there are new pressures and imbalances growing in the Turkish political system which may have seriously negative consequences.  The ruling elite harass their opponents with at least as much implacability as they were once harassed by the military secular elite. They intimidate intellectuals and academics who do not share their perspective, and they silence media and journalists who are critical of the administration. 

It is extremely worrying that the pressure upon press freedom has increased sharply in recent months. In the last few weeks dozens of media professionals have been detained under vague anti-terror laws and submitted to intimidating legal proceedings.  Press freedom in Turkey is especially important since the country is becoming an influential actor on the international scene, as an economic powerhouse and as a positive reference, a ‘role model’ in the Arab world.

There is a fragile but essential link between being a strong economic power and establishing a stable democratic system: one doesn’t survive long without the other.  Neither will tend to last long in the conditions of the absence of the other.  Today, Turkey is a fast-rising economic power, with its internationally competitive companies turning the youthful nation into an entrepreneurial hub, tapping cash-rich export markets in the Caucasus, Central Asia and the Middle East while attracting billions of investment dollars in return.  But all this progress will require a stable and functioning democracy to survive. It is not possible for Turkey to be a respectable and responsible world power without achieving fully functioning democratic status, including the freedom of expression and democratic rights.  There is no exception to this, all existing evidence from the transition countries point to this same conclusion.  Turkey will become a real global power only when the high level of its economic progress is matched by a strong, stable and functioning democratic system.

I cannot think of anyone more deserving to represent the freedom of expression in Turkey than Ragip Zarakolu.  To many in Turkey and abroad, Ragip Zarakolu is a hero in the fight for freedom of expression and human rights, as a way of boosting the fight against violence and terrorism.  He has been fighting for human rights, the freedom of thought and Turkey’s democratization for over 30 years, publishing books on issues such as minority and human rights. I would strongly support Zarakolu’s nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize, which will be an important step for all those working for a Turkey fit for the 21st century, a fully democratic, stable and responsible global power. 


This piece was first published on Global Faultlines

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