Nationalists fighting free expression, independent media


Extremists drive the courts to target journalists By Nicole Pope

Murdered editor Hrant Dink was just one of scores of journalists who have found themselves at the sharp end of the law as a nationalist backlash threatens to roll back Turkey’s progress. Regional expert Nicole Pope comments

The limits imposed on freedom of expression in Turkey have long been a contentious issue in the country, and one that has affected bilateral relations with the European Union in the past. Legal reforms in recent years have finally put Ankara on the official path to EU membership, but a recent nationalist upsurge has led to several controversial court cases against writers and intellectuals that are once again threatening to over shadow EU-Turkey ties.

Olli Rehn, the EU enlargement commissioner, recently described progress o freedom of expression in Turkey as ‘schizophrenic’. This seems an accurate depiction of the contradictory currents that are currently pulling Turkey in opposite directions. On the one hand, the pro-democracy, pro-European camp has successfully pushed through legal reforms that have created a more open environment. As a result, issues that were considered taboo in the past, such as theArmenian question, can now be discussed more extensively in the media. On the other hand, commentators who address these subjects run the risk of being legally harassed by state institutions, particularly the judiciary, which remain fiercely resistant to change and interpret the law in the narrow estpossible way.

The new Turkish Penal Code, which came into force in 2005, still contains several articles that can be used to limit freedom of the press and a new anti-terror law, currently being debated in parliament, could have further consequences for the media.

There are contradictory things happening in Turkey. Whenever something positive happens, there is always a negative component that follows,’ says human rights activist Sanar Yurdatapan. ‘After the reform packages were adopted, a reaction came from the state.’

Scuffles in front of Turkish court houses where intellectuals, such as novelist Orhan Pamuk or columnist Perihan Mağden, faced trial for expressing opinions that fall foul of official views, became depressingly familiar scenes.

Defendants can expect to run the gauntlet of hostile demonstrators in front of the tribunal, who hurl insults and often attempt to physically intimidate supporters and journalists attending the trial. How are such levels of hatred generated?

Does the media play a role in fuelling nationalist sentiment and popular anger? Nationalist columnists routinely write inflammatory columns against liberal intellectuals that often border on slander, but the mainstream press also printthe views of writers who have a broader understanding of democratic rights.

‘You can see completely different and opposing ideas about the Armenian question or about Cyprus in different columns of a single newspaper. Of course, this has some limits, there is still little criticism of the army in the mainstream press, for instance,’ says Orhan Kemal Cengiz, president of theHuman Rights Agenda Association, who published a report on discrimination in the media in 2005.

Compared with ten years ago, I think it is a very different situation, largely because of EU-related changes,’ believes Yavuz Baydar, ombudsman of the daily newspaper Sabah. ‘Issues like the Kurdish question, the Armenian question, women’s rights and human rights are discussed more broadly, but the depth of these debates is questionable. A real understanding of the European Union and its principles is still lacking in the Turkish press. There is a narration problem: the media still frames everything as us-and-them.’

The frequent trials and the attacks on freedom of expression are part of what human rights activist Sanar Yurdatapan describes as the ‘undeclared war between the Turkish state and the powers that want Turkey to be part of the European Union’, a struggle that he says is ‘getting harder as the time of the decision gets closer’.

Officially, all Turkish institutions support Ankara’s EU accession bid, and they all pay lip service to the project. In practice, many in the state apparatus, particularly in the judiciary, would probably be happy to see the entire project flounder, particularly if the EU can be blamed for the collapse.


Fanning the flames of intolerance is rarely a difficult endeavour in Turkey. Some sensitive buttons almost automatically trigger a reaction when pushed,because they play on genuine – although not necessarily justified – concerns ofthe Turkish public. The fear of Kurdish separatism, the Armenian question andthe rising tension between secularists and Islamists are controversial issues, which are open to manipulation and provocation.

In a column published by the Turkish Daily News, Doğu Ergil, professor ofpolitical science at Ankara University, identified three main forms of nationalism in Turkey: one is linked to the extreme right and focuses on Turkish ethnicity, extolling views that border on racism; a second group, composed of former leftists, centres on the role of the state and promotes anti-imperialist views; while a third includes traditionalists disillusioned with the nation state who are more religious and focus on a nation of believers.

Now all these disparate nationalisms have come together in an alliance called the ‘red apple’ to oppose diversity in society, pluralism in politics and global trends that they see as Western plots to destabilise the country,’ Ergil wrote.

Although a few newspapers, such as Radikal and Zaman, are attempting to promote a more serious kind of journalism, the Turkish media remains, on the whole, populist and sensationalist. The structure of ownership, concentrated in the hands of media barons who also have other business interests, encourages newspapers to ‘give people what they want rather than what they need’, says Baydar. ‘All the newspapers copy each other.’

More often than not, the media responds to rather than initiates political trends, taking its clues from the general environment in the country and the tone set by political leaders or by public opinion. ‘I believe there is a dual relationship between the media and the public at large as far as nationalism is concerned.

When the media think the nationalist wave is rising, they adopt this mood themselves,’ says Orhan Kemal Cengiz.

The aftermath of the events that took place in the port city of Mersin in March2005 provides a good example. During a rally celebrating the Kurdish New Year, Nevruz, demonstrators aged 12 and 14 apparently tried to burn a Turkish flag.

The incident, played repeatedly on television channels, took on a wider dimension after the Office of the Chief of Staff issued a harsh written statement stressing that the armed forces would defend the nation and its flag to the last drop of their blood. ‘The Turkish nation has experienced many glorious days and many days when it faced treachery; however, it had never seen such an insult committed by a few so-called citizens like these,’ the statement said.

This incident unleashed a spectacular popular reaction. Within days, Turkey’s big cities had been transformed, turned red and white by the thousands of flags hanging from windows and balconies. Most television channels also displayed a Turkish flag at the corner of their screen. It seemed an extreme answer to the actions of two teenagers.

The reaction was short-lived but it had serious consequences. A few days later, four youths belonging to an association of support for Turkish prisoners were nearly lynched in the Black Sea city of Trabzon when they tried to distribute leaflets advocating their cause, because the mob believed they were about to desecrate the national flag.

The media also played an important role in relaying to the Turkish public, largely out of context, the statements made by novelist Orhan Pamuk in an interview he gave to a Swiss publication in February 2005.

‘Thirty-thousand Kurds and one million Armenians were killed in these lands and nobody but me dares to talk about it,’ Pamuk was quoted as saying, referring to the Turkish state’s conflict with the PKK and the Armenian massacres of 1915. Within days, crowds of people were burning his books and Pamuk was receiving death threats.

‘People in the mainstream press should have the wisdom to play things down, to take it as a basic premise that democracy is something that should be preserved and broadened,’ says Yavuz Baydar of Sabah newspaper. ‘But the Turkish presstends to follow and be easily manipulated.’

Little tolerance

s it realistic to expect the media to exercise restraint and support broad freedom of expression when authority figures show little sign of tolerance for dissenting opinions? Take the case of the Armenian conference that was scheduled to take place initially in May 2005. Three universities had teamed upand invited scholars from all over the world for what was to be the first such open discussion on the Armenian massacres of 1915 in Turkey.

The conference was called off at the last minute after justice minister Cemil Cicek attacked the organisers during a speech in parliament. Some people ‘sayt here is no freedom, well there is the freedom of stabbing the people in the back and of telling lies … We have to put an end to this period of propaganda …of treachery,’ the minister said.

The universities then cancelled the gathering, fearing that this very public condemnation by a member of the government would give ultra-right radicals the green light to attack participants.

The conference eventually took place in September 2006, but only after organisers managed to by pass a court ban by moving the gathering to a new venue. This time, both Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and foreign minister Abdullah Gül criticised the court decision. ‘To prevent a meeting which has not yet happened and where it is not clear what is to be discussed has got nothing to do with democracy,’ the prime minister said.

But five prominent columnists who express similar views about the ban in their chronicles were later the target of court cases, which were only dropped several months later. The judicial harassment also targeted Hrant Dink, editor of the Armenian language newspaper Agos in Turkey, for months before his murder in January 2007. (Dink had allegedly ‘insulted Turkey’ in an article that actually urged the Armenian diaspora to drop an enmity toward Turkey, which had a ‘poisoning effect on their blood’.) Author Elif Safak, was questioned by the police for statements made by characters in her novel, Father and Bastard.

Despite the legal hurdles, political debate on difficult issues, notably the Armenian question, has undoubtedly progressed. ‘It used to be a taboo, now itis discussed much more,’ says Yurdatapan. None of the high-profile trials ofthe past 18 months have so far resulted in people being jailed: the legal procedures appear to be mainly an attempt to silence intellectuals and, perhaps, to provoke the EU into taking drastic action against Turkey.

‘It should be regarded as a campaign to deter people from talking and expressing their views. It is working to a certain extent,’ says Baydar. ‘It isa small, aggressive minority causing all the problems. They are not being discouraged by the authorities.’

These days, the most delicate issue is secularism. While the conservative Justice and Development party (AKP) introduced wide ranging reforms to further Turkey’s EU membership bid, it has failed to reassure the secular, Kemalist elite that it has no intention of changing the nature of the Turkish state.

With presidential and general elections due in 2007, the secular establishment wants to undermine the ruling party. Increasingly on the defensive, the primeminister is adopting a more and more nationalist line on issues such as Cyprus, which contrasts with his earlier courageous stance in 2004 and his attempts to promote the concept of alternative identifies for minorities within the Turkish state.

Erdogan’s lack of tolerance for criticism, which he demonstrated by taking legal action against cartoonists who depicted him in the guise of various animals, has not endeared him to the mainstream media.

Nicole Pope is ajournalist and writer based in Istanbul