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The rise and decline of press freedom in Turkey

by Aryeh Neier

According to two progovernment newspapers in Turkey, Star and Yeni Akit, and to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan himself, those who denounce the state of press freedom in Turkey are “terrorists.”

That is the term that they were using the week before last to denounce the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists and the Paris-based Reporters Sans Frontières, both of which have issued reports saying that Turkey has imprisoned even more journalists than Iran and China.

Last October, the CPJ reported that there were 76 journalists imprisoned in Turkey, including 61 who were in jail for their journalistic work. While the latter number declined to 49 by December, after some of those held were freed by the courts, that is still a lot of journalists to hold in prison.

The situation is especially dismaying, given that, for several years, Turkey’s human rights performance had been improving dramatically under Erdogan’s leadership. The use of torture had declined sharply. The cultural rights of the large Kurdish minority, including the right to use their own language, had advanced greatly. Military control over the civilian government had been ended. And more.

Yet, as Erdogan and his moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party have consolidated their power and their control of the country, their tolerance for dissent has declined.

Internet freedom has largely disappeared. Legislation provides for mandatory filtering of content, and many websites have been blocked for reasons that range from facilitating the use of drugs or stimulants to offenses under the Law on Crimes against Ataturk (founder of the modern Turkish state and Turkey’s national hero).

Though it is the Turkish government that is to blame for the precipitous decline in press freedom, the policies of the European Union and the United States have been contributing factors.

The EU had indicated that performance on human rights would be a key factor in determining whether Turkey would be admitted as a member. Yet it was during the period of rapid progress on human rights that Europe seemed to turn its back on the country. This outcome undermined those in Turkey who had promoted human rights reforms. Their claims that progress would lead to accession were shown to be false, and an important incentive for officials was eliminated. If the process leading to EU accession is put back on track, it will greatly aid the effort to ensure that Turkey becomes an open society.

The U.S. government, for its part, tends to speak softly when it comes to human rights abuses in Turkey. During the Cold War, Turkey’s strategic value, given its geographic proximity to the Soviet Union, outweighed other concerns.

Today geography still plays a role, though it is Turkey’s contiguity with Syria, Iraq and Iran that has left the U.S. reluctant to make a fuss about press freedom. The U.S. has supported Turkey’s accession to the EU, but its efforts would have more credibility in Europe if it also pressed Turkey to address its shortcomings.

The situation is far from hopeless. Turkey has a lively civil society, with proudly independent institutions that include some renowned universities. The period of rapid progress is not in the distant past.

Europe would strengthen economically and militarily if Turkey became a member, and it should revive accession negotiations on the same basis as with other member states if Turkey meets the political criteria, including press freedom.

With John Kerry’s arrival as secretary of state, the U.S. ought to recognize that such a large Islamic country in a troubled neighborhood should show leadership on human rights issues. As a role model for the region, it is especially important that Turkey should practice press freedom.

If Europe and the U.S. do their part, Erdogan may be persuaded to resume the role of human rights reformer that he played during his first several years in office.

Aryeh Neier, president emeritus of the Open Society Foundations and a founder of Human Rights Watch, is the author of “Taking Liberties: Four Decades in the Struggle for Rights.” © 2013 Project Syndicate (www.project-syndicate.org)