Turkey’s politicians should not be let off the hook

It has never been so difficult and risky for a journalist in Turkey to hold their politicians accountable for their actions. Closer scrutiny by our foreign colleagues would go a long way to make up for the growing democracy deficit in our country.

Firdevs Robinson
17 December 2014

This article is a response to a conversation between Richard Falk and Turkey's Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, which took place on 28th September–see part 1, part 2, part 3 and part 4. There was much internal debate at openDemocracy about whether or not to publish the series. Read the Editor in Chief's reasons for doing so here, along with the many other responses to Davutoğlu published in this series, listed to the right under 'Related Articles'.

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Demotix/Tom Craig. All rights reserved. 

As a journalist working in a bilingual media,  I have always complained how difficult it was to translate ‘irony’ into Turkish. Sure, there are words that partially describe it, and plenty that mean ‘sarcasm’ but no single word that corresponds directly to the concept as it exists in the English language.  

When I first heard Federica Mogherini, High Representative for Foreign affairs and Security Policy of the European Commission expressing suprise at the police raids and arrests of Turkish journalists only a few days after their successful visit to Turkey, and a little later, President Erdogan telling the European Union to mind its own business, I remembered another difficult to translate word: ‘integrity’.

The arrests of journalists, script writers and police officers on December 14 were described by the EU as, “incompatible with freedom of the media, which is a core principle of democracy”. The statement saying, “We expect that the strong EU commitment given by our Turkish counterparts during our visit to be translated into deeds” was, for me, pure Socratic irony.

Ms Mogherini is not the first western official to discover the incongruity between what might be expected and what actually happens when it comes to Turkey. Many take what has been said by the most authoritative figures at face value only to be surprised and shocked when the official explanations do not match with reality. More often than not, they are surprised to find a discrepancy, only because they have avoided asking fundamental questions in the first place.

The Justice and Development Party (AKP) government has consolidated its power by harassing or coercing its opponents into silence. It has arbitrarily used every instrument available to it inside the country to curb dissenting views in society. Without the basic standards that define democratic rule, the government has become largely unaccountable to its own public.

With the exception of media freedom campaigners, human rights activists and some journalists, most outsiders, especially foreign politicians, diplomats and academics, generally have given them the benefit of the doubt.  

Professor Richard Falk’s long interview with Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu falls into this category, both in its style of questioning and its failure to scrutinize and challenge.


Let’s start with the claim by the prime minister that civilianization of politics in Turkey has been achieved. As a young journalist in the 1980s, who had personally experienced the brutal retribution of the military regime, I would be the first person to applaud the Turkish military's subordination to civilian authorities. Without changing the 1982 constitution (the product of the military regime that overthrew the government in 1980), and raising democratic standards, this will not be achieved.

Largely thanks to EU accession process-driven reforms and determined efforts by the government to reign in the once powerful generals, the military’s internal role has been weakened. However, according to the present constitution, the chief of the general staff is still only “responsible” to the prime minister, not subordinate to him. The Ministry of Defence is largely irrelevant. The law on the Court of Accounts does not audit the expenditure of the armed forces adequately, either.

The AKP government has tamed the military, thanks to a series of trials where high-ranked officers were accused of plotting to overthrow their government. But since their bitter and very public feud with their former allies, the supporters of the Pennsylvania-based preacher, Fethulah Gülen, those trials, known as 'the Sledgehammer', have themselves been declared “flawed” and the accused “framed”.

The prime minister is right to claim that there have been concerted efforts by the Gülen movement to gain control of the bureaucracy. The Gülen community has meddled with the country’s justice system and established a strong presence within the police force. They have resorted to dubious methods to put their opponents behind bars in questionable trials. Party leaders and outspoken opponents were brought down with illegally obtained recordings of their intimate lives; critical journalists were jailed for many months.

Launched in 2007, the Ergenekon investigation resulted in more than 300 people being charged on highly questionable evidence. In 2010, the parallel investigation called 'Sledgehammer' had scores of military personnel put in jail. In order to break the back of the military and the militant secular establishment, the government of Mr Erdoğan happily went along with these controversial and much criticized witch hunts.  

When the unelected, unaccountable Gülen community felt powerful enough to take on Erdoğan and his government this time last year, a publicly fought battle for supremacy over the security forces and the judiciary began, burning all remaining bridges between these erstwhile allies.

What is now called a parallel structure, or a state within a state, did not appear overnight. It grew and spread under the watchful eyes of the all-powerful Erdoğan and his government for more than 10 years. For Prime Minister Davutoğlu to recall Max Weber’s rational bureaucracy rules, about the need for a bureaucrat to be loyal to the state, is no longer credible.

If they did not notice it before, they were incompetent. If they turned a blind eye in order to consolidate their power, they were complicit. Either way, the revenge operations carried out by the government against their one-time Islamic ally have undermined the rule of law, the independence of the judiciary and the separation of powers. Arbitrary and self-serving actions of the government have seriously damaged Turkey’s democratic credentials.

As the prime minister rightly stated, the country’s National Intelligence Organization (MİT) has lacked clear boundaries in both its responsibilities and jurisdiction in the past. During AKP rule, MIT has emerged as an important ally of the government and a key component of their security policies. 

A new law approved by parliament on April 17, 2014, greatly increased MIT’s surveillance powers, prompting Emma Sinclair-Webb, senior Turkey researcher at Human Rights Watch, to say that it opened the door to abuse: “The new MİT law gives the agency carte blanche while punishing those who seek to expose its wrongdoing. Punishing journalists for leaks, immunizing intelligence personnel from prosecution, and allowing data collection without limit are measures that should be repealed,” she said.

The difference between a police state and a democratic one is the accountability of its security apparatus. Operational priorities and the new legal framework are designed to protect the government by further infringing on the privacy and liberty of its citizens. As well as proper legal safeguards ensuring that surveillance is necessary and proportionate, credible oversight to prevent abuses of power both by the intelligence agency and the executive that controls it must be established. The oversight of the security apparatus should not consist only of ministerial and parliamentary oversight, but also judicial oversight.

Mr Davutoğlu declares that the changes to legislation and the structure of the intelligence service were a success for his government. This cannot go unchallenged. It is yet another step towards strengthening the power of the executive or, to be more precise, to afford better protection for its leaders and to further repress any kind of dissent.

Turkey – a security risk

Turkey’s biggest and most difficult problem is the 30-year old Kurdish insurgency. The AKP government has taken bold and welcome steps and has negotiated with the leader of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) since 2012. The government has also made long-overdue political gestures towards the country’s Kurdish population by legalizing Kurdish language courses and Kurdish-language broadcasts.

The National Intelligence Organization (MİT) plays a key role in the peace process to end the PKK insurgency. The lack of accountability and transparency I had mentioned before presents itself as a serious shortcoming. Without a transparent and open debate and the participation of civil society in the process, it will be difficult to keep the momentum going.

The war in Syria and Turkey’s support for Sunni Muslim opponents of the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have complicated the process. Turkey’s initial reluctance to join international efforts to prevent the fall of Kobane, Syria’s third largest Kurdish town, has meant loss of confidence in the government’s true intentions towards its Kurdish citizens. The PKK’s role in fighting Islamist militants in Syria and Iraq has changed the perception of the organization both among Turkey’s more moderate Kurds and governments abroad.

For opening its doors to more than 200 thousand desperate Syrian Kurds fleeing ISIS, in addition to 200 thousand Syrians already living in camps, and as many as a million and a half living in towns, Turkey can only be applauded. Its refugee burden is massive for any country to cope with and it is likely to be long-lasting.

However, Mr Davutoğlu’s analysis of the current situation in the Middle East and his comparisons with the democratic process in the Balkans in the 1990’s need to be questioned more closely.

The Arab Spring has become a test for Mr Davutoğlu’s worldview and Turkish activism in the Middle East. Contrary to his continuing belief that his vision of the world will be vindicated eventually, the events of the past three years have proved his predictions wrong. He has read both Turkey’s capability as a regional power broker and the nature of various uprisings in the Middle East inaccurately. Aligning itself with the Muslim Brotherhood and Sunni Islamist forces, Turkey has ended up as a hostile power to the region’s key country Egypt and lost its channels of communication with its neighbour Iraq.

As a result of its unquestioning support for Hamas in the Gaza Strip, it has lost its leverage in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Turkey now has no ambassadors in Egypt, Israel and Syria.

Speaking at a Chatham House event  on October 14 2014 in London, former UN and Arab League Special Envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi said that Turkey has  repeatedly made false assumptions in Syria. From assuming that the Assad regime could be reformed, to the belief that it could be quickly toppled, it based all its policy decisions on those wrong assumptions.

Because of these continuous miscalculations, Syria’s strongest neighbour Turkey has now turned into a seriously weakened player, putting the region’s as well as its own security at risk.

Most people will have a very different idea of successful foreign policy than Mr Davutoğlu. He also claims that government policy on Cyprus has been a success. Both Turkish and Greek Cypriots would beg to differ. Not only have the negotiations between the two sides come to a halt, the war of words between Greece, Cyprus and Turkey over oil and gas reserves off the shores of Cyprus has already reached a worrying stage. In reaction to Greek Cypriots exploring oil and gas resources around Cyprus in co-ordination with Egypt and Israel, Turkey has been increasing its naval presence around the island.

Cyprus continues to be a major stumbling block in Turkey’s relations with the European Union. It is also the source of a long-running dispute between Nato and the European Union on security and intelligence matters as the Nato member Turkey and the EU member Cyprus prevent co-operation between the two organizations. The Cypriot government’s blocking of some chapters in the accession process is one of the difficulties Ankara faces in its relations with the EU. Negotiations have not moved forward significantly this year.

Latest arrests

The latest arrests of 31 people including leading media figures and former police officers linked to the Fethullah Gülen movement on December 14 brought an immediate reaction from the European Union. Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said that they could not accept "such heavy criticism" from the European Union. Earlier, President Erdoğan responded in stronger language: “As we take such steps, we are not concerned about what the EU would say, whether it accepts us or not,” he said, adding “We can lift ourselves up on our own; please keep your advice for yourself.” Meanwhile Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu criticized the European Union for reacting with undue haste and failing to understand the case.

The decline of civil liberties in Turkey will further hamper the accession process. However, with the crisis in Syria and Iraq, both sides are likely to refrain from cutting the channels of foreign policy dialogue.

Concerns over the rule of law and the latest crackdown on press freedom go hand in hand with worsening perceptions of corruption in Turkey. In the latest edition of Corruption Perceptions Index, published by Transparency International, Turkey has suffered one of the biggest slumps, scoring 45 out of 100 and falling to 64th place. In its report, Transparency International said that as a result of the recent investigations into bribery and corruption charges against people considered close to the government, the general perception of corruption in Turkey has increased substantially.

Yet two days after the media crackdown, on December 17, an Istanbul court dropped the corruption investigation into several high profile figures. EU foreign ministers issued a statement expressing concern over the independence and impartiality of the judiciary.

The Turkish lira fell sharply against the dollar on Monday, the day after the police raids against the media. It hit a record low again on Tuesday following the dismissal of the corruption investigation.

While it is important and proper to acknowledge Turkey’s solid economic performance over the past decade, crucial issues such as the need for structural reforms, overreliance on construction and foreign funds, lack of transparency and political interference cannot be overlooked. According to official statistics, 1,754 workers were killed in building site accidents during 2008-2012. After 301 deaths in the Soma and 28 deaths in the Ermenek mine disasters, Turkey finally ratified the International Labor Organization’s convention on mine safety. There is still a long way to go to prevent thousands of deaths and injuries due to industrial accidents.

Women face violence

The Prime Minister reassures us about the increasing role of women during their period of leadership. Last year, The World Economic Forum data showed Turkey ranked 127th among 136 countries in the gender gap index of economic participation. Only 31 per cent of women are participating in economy and that is half of the OECD average. In 2006 Turkey was ranked 105th, so it has undisputedly gone backwards during the AKP government.

In recent years, violence against women in Turkey has reached alarming levels. Between 2002 and 2009, the murder rate of women went up by more than 1000 percent. Last year more than 28,000 women were assaulted and more than 200 women murdered. According to Aylin Yurdakul, President of the Women’s Rights Commission at the Kirikkale Bar, 204 women have been murdered in 2014 so far. Women have faced violence at home and on the street. There are countless examples of the courts being lenient towards men who use violence against women.

Underage marriage for girls is on the rise. According to UNICEF, Turkey has one of the highest rates of child marriage in Europe. A research by Gaziantep University showed that almost 40% of marriages in Turkey are child marriages.

The status of women in Turkey has suffered both in the private realm and the public sphere during the 12 year-rule of the Justice and Development Party government.

It has never been so difficult and risky for a journalist in Turkey to hold their politicians accountable for their actions. Closer scrutiny by our foreign colleagues would go a long way to make up for the growing democracy deficit in our country.


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