Turkey’s democracy being frozen out

Members of the SPOT delegation with journalista at the offices of the opposition paper Cumhuriyet. Pic (c) Steve Sweeney
Members of the SPOT delegation with journalista at the offices of the opposition paper Cumhuriyet. Pic (c) Steve Sweeney

The weekend before before the SPOT (Solidarity with the People of Turkey) delegation arrived in Istanbul, the city was in the grip of freezing temperatures and the heaviest snow-falls for 20 years with over 2 feet (65 cm) of snow paralysing the city. A few days later when we arrived on 11 January, much of the snow and ice had thawed, but it was obvious that the country’s democracy was still in the grip of a deep freeze and the temperature was plunging.

Our visit to the Turkish Journalists Association (TGC) set the scene. They told us that last year the authorities revoked the press cards of 780 journalists (making it next to impossible for them to do their work). 839 journalists were dragged before the courts because of the news they had written. A common charge is that they have been spreading terrorist propaganda. A total of 189 journalists were subject to physical and verbal abuse and 144 journalists spent the new year behind bars. The number of unemployed journalists exceed 10,000 many of them experiencing extreme financial hardship as the state often makes it difficult for them to access unemployment benefits. Those opposition newspapers still publishing struggle against this background with additional problems with distribution and finance, with pressure on advertisers to stop their advertising. The Association also highlighted difficulties in promoting solidarity with all journalists, especially those working for government supporting media. Some such media organisations have called for the Association to be shut down and were attacking critical journalists for being associated with the Kurdish/left party PKK or the Gulenist movement, who are accused of being behind the failed 15 July coup. Despite overwhelming odds,(‘we have never suffered such difficult times’ they said) the union remains determined to fight back against increasing attacks on free journalism and censorship.

During our visit to the Journalists Union of Turkey (TGS) we heard of journalists in detention for four months without court appearances (detention without trial); 10,000 journalists now out of work;.170 media outlets closed down and journalists not only facing job insecurity but personal insecurity. They stressed the importance of international solidarity and the need to keep world attention focused on what is happening to the media in Turkey, which strengthened their work in campaigning for the release of those in prison for just doing their jobs.

President Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) rules under a state of emergency introduced days after the failed 15 July coup. It’s resulted in a crackdown on basic human rights – 120,000 people have lost their jobs, some 90,000 detained and more than 40,000 arrested. Those journalists in detention are not allowed access to books and newspapers. Family visits are restricted to every 15 days, and lawyers’ visits are extremely limited with all interviews recorded by the authorities.

The impact of the emergency powers and the threat of a new constitution which will also give absolute powers to President Erdogan, were raised in our discussions with representatives of  the newspapers we visited (and later when we visited opposition parties): Evrensel, Ozgurlukcu Demokrasi, Cumhuriyet and Birgun. All made a lasting impression, but perhaps the greatest was at the opposition paper Cumhuriyet, under constant threats from the government who want to close them down. I was shocked to see that they operate from a fortified office, (not far from Trump Towers) with an armed guard posted at the entrance, to prevent a Charlie Hebdo style attack. The paper itself is facing serious financial difficulties, without any income from advertising, down to government pressure. But even with a greatly reduced staff (many are in detention) they still sell some 50,000 copies daily with some 1.4 million hits on their web site. Their readers are their greatest asset and are encouraged to build the paper’s circulation and give financial support.

Our visits to opposition parties gave us the opportunity to question them about their campaigning strategies against the new constitution (approved by Parliament as I write this blog) which is scheduled to go to a referendum in the spring. The CHP (Republican Peoples’ Party) MP we met talked about the way they intended to mobilise neighbourhoods in Istanbul not only for the referendum but in the event of a snap election.

The EMEP (Labour Party) representatives painted a vivid picture of the impact of the state of emergency which not only banned strikes and marches, but threatened the abilities of opposition groups to organise. They intended to work with other parties in a ‘Say No’ campaign which would also link into opposition to the emergency powers in force post coup. They also highlighted increasing economic difficulties which would hit working people and their families. The response from Erdogan has been to blame foreign governments for planning to bring down the economy and the government and to call on people to sell their dollars! They also told us that vioience against  women was on the increase with offenders, when caught, only receiving light sentences.

During our visit to the HDP (Peoples’ Democratic Party a Kurdish/Turkish socialist party) we learnt first hand of the arrests of 12 of their MPs on and co-chairs on 4 November 2016. One MP, Leyla Birlik MP for Sirnak a Kurdish town in South East Turkey, was released from prison on 4 January but at the same time there were further arrests of leading members in Istanbul and their offices raided. They told us that just days before we arrived, the government issued three decrees expelling 8,398 more public employees, and 649 academics (30 of them had signed the petition for Peace). Even government sources admit that as at 10 January the number of expelled state employees reached 135,000. Eighty three more civil society organisations had been banned bringing the total to over 1,400. These included the Istanbul Kurdish Institute founded in 1992, and a number of women’s and lawyers’ organisations. We also received details of 74 imprisoned co-mayors from the Kurdish regions, and their replacement by Government ‘Trustees’.

All those we met painted a grim picture, but were strong and determined to win out on what to us seems overwhelming odds. All stressed the importance of international solidarity which we were assured does make a difference. It is also important that we step up the political pressure on our MPs and governments as well as on the European institutions, including the Commission and the Parliament. But most of all it’s about getting the message out to people through the press and our organisations, trade unions and civil society, telling them what’s going on in Turkey, how the Kurdish communities are under attack with much of SE Turkey under military control, and what we can do about it. Our solidarity is vital.

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