Thursday, June 24, 2010

Freedom on razor’s edge

It is a high ideal to be the standard-bearer of human rights, but it requires consistency and resolve. Missions require solid care and attention to those issues at home as well as abroad. Unless “at home” part is taken care of, the latter loses its impact.
Turkey -- this great scene of struggle for transition to democracy and rule of law -- is entering the second half of 2010 with a rather thick portfolio of human rights concerns. There have been an increasing number of lawsuits filed against journalists, as Namık Durukan (with Milliyet) and Mehmet Baransu (with Taraf) and others have found. Recently İrfan Aktan, a reporter with the periodical “Express,” was sentenced to 15 months in prison for an analysis on the “Kurdistan Workers’ Party [PKK] problem.” The verdict is a sort of judicial parody. Our colleague was found guilty because he had included quotes by a couple of PKK members in his article.
The Aktan case and the lawsuit on Durukan (a veteran Kurdish reporter with a record of high-quality reporting on Kurdish issues) imply that the trend of using the problematic Anti-Terror Law against the spirit of freedom of expression and “the right of the public to be informed” is becoming the norm again. It is deeply worrisome, since it brings to mind the ‘90s, when the courts systematically curbed press freedom.

Another cause of concern is inherent in the case of Baransu, an award-winning reporter who had successfully revealed cases of abuse and coup plots within the army. He was charged with “revealing state secrets” (carrying a sentence of five-10 years in prison) because of two articles printed in Taraf last year and an investigation has been launched on possible charges of breaching the secrecy of police investigations into his recent book about the army, titled “The Headquarters” (Karargah). Another reporter, Nedim Şener, has been acquitted in a case over his book on the Hrant Dink murder on the same charges, but since there is no precedent regarding protecting journalists in such cases (of weighing the favor of public interest), the number of similar cases may multiply.

Media owners and executives are also adding to their bad track record of intolerance of freedom of expression. I would like to bring up the case of Ersin Kalkan, a reporter and expert on non-Muslim minorities in İstanbul, who was fired last week from his job at Hürriyet. Kalkan had recently given an interview to Armenian-Turkish weekly Agos where he castigated Hürriyet’s editor, some of the paper’s columnists and its reporters for editorially paving the path that led to Dink’s assassination (by defaming Dink as some sort of public enemy). Kalkan is certain about the real motive behind his firing and there is little doubt about it among his colleagues (I am adding this case to my article because some journalist organizations affiliated with the Doğan media group never mention happenings at Doğan in the context of press freedom breaches in Turkey).

The bans wildly and often ignorantly implemented on the Internet are another cause for concern -- and certainly a shame for Turkey. The problem of the YouTube ban remains; and the government’s battle with Google displays signs of arrogance rather than enhancing the domain of freedom on the Internet. The most significant part of the problem is this: At the moment, it is impossible to access data on the number of banned websites because the supervising authority, the Telecommunications Directorate (TİB), refuses to share it with the public. The estimated number of banned sites is around 6,000-7,000. It is perplexing that the government, which needs the Internet if it wants to expand its public diplomacy on the international front after issues such as the off-Gaza incident and Iran, prefers to shoot itself in the foot instead. The only leader who shows signs of concern in this matter is President Abdullah Gül, but he has no power to change the problematic law.

The more eastward one moves, the more troublesome the picture. The recently started march from İstanbul to Ankara by the “mothers of Saturday” is a strong reminder of the painful memory of all the (mainly Kurdish) families who have lost their loved ones to what they see as “state-sponsored terror” during the ‘90s. The march to the capital will bear the message of at least 1,300 “missing” people and demand justice. Some of the families say that it has become a cause of the third generation and complain of the indifferences of politicians (both from the Justice and Development Party [AKP] and the opposition) and the media: “They were right in reacting to what happened in Gaza, but to remain silent when it comes to their own people? This is not right.” If we remember that almost all of those killed by the Israelis off Gaza were Kurds, they may have even a stronger point.

The recent lawsuits against those PKK members who returned to Turkey last year through the Habur border gate with promises of prosecutorial immunity as well as the tough indictment in the Kurdish Communities Union (KCK) case, demanding heavy prison sentences for local Kurdish politicians, also feed the increasing concerns that Turkey may be dragged into an atmosphere of fear and radicalization. Is the government aware that “freedoms are on a razor’s edge” and they’ve become the number-one issue for the summer of 2010? We have yet to hear an answer.

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