Turkey’s unruly rule of law

After ten years of the aggressive, “Islam and democracy” experiment, Turkey is increasingly being torn apart between contrasting world views and life styles.

Firdevs Robinson
17 April 2013

Writing about Turkey requires a conscious effort to avoid clichés.

Within the last week, the Parliament approved a long-awaited reform package, bringing the Turkish Penal Code into line with the European Court of Human Rights. We all cheered - only to be brought down to earth by the sentence passed on the world-renowned pianist Fazil Say for posting a ‘blasphemous’ tweet. It is difficult not to say, ‘one step forward; two steps back’ 

Equally, when government interference in the media seems to have reached unprecedented levels, with more and more critical voices  silenced each day, descriptions like “the world’s biggest prison for journalists” seem less of a cliché.

Fazil Say.
Wikimedia Commons/Gudrun Mayer. Some rights reserved.

To draw a clear line between Turkey’s perception of itself and reality has become more and more difficult.

The deputy prime minister Ali Babacan recently told CNN’s Richard Quest that Turkey was a "source of inspiration" to show how Islam and democracy can go hand-in-hand” and that the country had been able to demonstrate how "Islam and democracy can function together".

Only days earlier, The Economist published an article describing how a growing number of journalists were resorting to self-censorship to survive. “Coverage of alleged corruption scandals linked to the government is a no-go area. So is Turkey’s covert support for Syrian rebels,” it said. A few days before the article appeared The Economist’s own correspondent in Turkey, Amberin Zaman, was fired by the Turkish national daily Haberturk, where she had been writing a column. Shortly before that, another veteran journalist and writer Hasan Cemal lost his job at the daily Milliyet after being told off by the prime minister himself.

Michael Lake, a British journalist and an EU diplomat for nearly 30 years (including as the EU ambassador to Turkey in the 1990’s), has known both Amberin Zaman and Hasan Cemal for 22 years. He visited Turkey last December as a member of a delegation from the International Press Institute. Describing Zaman and Cemal  as “top flight journalists,”  Mr Lake believes that while the freedom of the press and freedom of expression is under severe pressure in Turkey, the problem for mainstream media and journalists is more complicated.  “Virtually all our contacts in Turkey last December spoke of the Prime Minister setting the mood,” he says. 

Authorities reject accusations that they influence the decisions of media proprietors. Asked about Hasan Cemal and Amberin Zaman, the president Abdullah Gul was reported as saying “it is up to the media owners to resist the pressure” 

But as the former EU ambassador Michael Lake points out, when an all-powerful prime minister takes aim at a newspaper, or launches a more general criticism of what was being published, owners take fright. Why?  “Because they have other more important industrial and business interests to protect, including doing business with the government ” he says, adding, “this fear partly  stems from a lack of stringent  regulation and transparency  in the  bidding process for public contracts.  If Turkey were about to join the EU now, it would have to adopt EU public procurement rules which would protect all bidders for public contracts from political or any other kind of interference.” 

Is the government bothered? 

Even if we were to believe there was no outside interference in the media or the judiciary, we  would struggle to find  examples of government ministers’ in serious discomfort over these controversial developments.

When a court in Istanbul found the pianist Fazil Say guilty of insulting the religious values of the population and sentenced him to a ten month suspended jail term, the minister responsible for European Union Affairs, Egemen Bagis, responded by saying: “Everyone should learn to respect what is sacred for others”.

As international outrage grew over the sentence given to the musician for tweeting a verse from a poem by Omar Khayyam, the eleventh century Persian poet, the Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was asked to comment on the verdict. He smiled and told the reporters: “Do not occupy our time with such matters.” 

The main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu accused the government of abusing the justice system.

“If you convict our artist, you do not shame only yourself, but your country as well. Turkey does not deserve this ” he said.

Concert poster for Fazil Say and friends.
Flickr/Onur T.. Some rights reserved.

Amnesty International called the conviction “a chilling warning to anyone using Twitter or other social media in Turkey.”

Andrew Gardner, Amnesty International’s Turkey expert, said the verdict was in line with a “clear trend of abusive prosecutions” in Turkey. 

There is no doubt that Turkey faces big challenges. Ending the three decades-long Kurdish conflict and the growing regional instability are big enough problems for any society to deal with.

But in the light of a handful of recent developments outlined in this article, the ruling Justice and Development Party’s vision of “a new Turkey, combining Islamic values with democracy and market economy” is increasingly sounding like the clichés I am trying to avoid. 

Modern media show the way 

Despite heavy pressure and self-censorship, glimpses of the new face of a fast-changing society emerge, thanks to various kinds of modern media.

Some of these, like the incident on April 14, involving the Turkish Environment and Urban Planning Minister Erdogan Bayraktar and a young woman, tell us more about today’s Turkey than any number of pronouncements and perceptions.

During a visit to the north-western town of Edirne, the minister was approached by a university student undergoing cancer treatment. Telling the minister she wasn’t able to get the drugs she needed for her treatment, 23 year-old Dilek Ozcelik asked him to do something about the long-running problem of imported drug shortages. In response, Mr. Bayraktar took some money out of his wallet, pushed it into the young woman’s hand and told her not to lose it.

Shocked and offended, the tearful Dilek Ozcelik waited outside the mosque for the minister to come out from his mid-day prayers. Handing the money back, she told him she was not a beggar.  She was only asking for the minister’s help, not just for herself but also for many other sufferers like her.

Crying as she ran away from the scene, the minister was heard to mumble: “Why are you returning the money I gave you?  I helped, didn’t I?  What else can I do?”

Hurriyet columnist Ahmet Hakan commented the next day: “The minister comes from a political culture that has got used to receiving gratitude after distributing coal and macaroni. When he sees someone who says she is not a beggar, he thinks she is from outer space. When she starts crying, he thinks it is because she wants more money. Let’s face it. Those two come from completely different worlds, from different belief systems and conceptions of honour and merit. “

After ten years of the aggressive, “Islam and democracy” experiment, Turkey is increasingly being torn apart between contrasting world views and life styles.

After all, wasn’t it the very same Mr Bayraktar who said in December 2012,  addressing his party’s  women activists,  “Christianity is no longer a religion. It is a culture now. A religion should teach. Religion should be a form of life, giving one peace and happiness.  They want to turn Islam into a culture as well”?

Perhaps we should ask his colleague responsible for the European Affairs, Mr Bagis to comment.

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