The AKP government has been chipping away at freedom of speech, of the press and the rights of ordinary citizens for a number of years now. However, the erosion of rights has increased dramatically since December 17, when a corruption scandal broke which tied government ministers to graft in the construction industry.
This is not the first published call for greater US diplomatic involvement it Turkey. It is not even the first time I have urged the US government to reconsider its official policy of non-intervention in Turkish domestic politics. However, these urgent calls for diplomatic intervention bear repeating because of the steady speed at which democratic freedoms are eroding in Turkey.
Since the beginning of February alone the following significant and worrying incidents have occurred. An “anti-terrorism” investigation was launched against a newspaper because it published a number of articles that claimed to uncover evidence of surveillance of groups critical of government policies. The complaint against the newspaper alleges that the articles were intended to cause “chaos” in Turkey.
In another incident, a formerly pro-government journalist, who happens to be a native of Azerbaijan, was deported from Turkey because he posted several tweets mentioning the on-going corruption scandal. Evidence also emerged that Prime Minister Erdogan personally intervened in the content of a news broadcast in order to prevent the mention of remarks made by an opposition member of parliament during the Gezi protests.
Beyond interference with the press, the government has also curtailed freedom of assembly several times since the beginning of February. Public demonstrations were banned from a large area surrounding the courthouse where the trial of police officers accused of killing a Gezi protestor were taking place. Demonstrations connected to the death of another Gezi protestor were met with police force. Members of the Taksim Solidarity Platform, who were loosely involved in organizing some the Gezi-connected protests, were subject to a new indictment which threatens them with up to 29 years in prison.
"The US needs a new diplomatic strategy in Turkey, one that sends a clear message of disapproval without playing into the popular conspiracy theories"
Ominously, two bills introduced in Parliament early this month threaten to institutionalize these abuses of power and personal freedoms. The first was the law that was passed last Wednesday, which will allow the Turkish government to surveil the internet usage of their citizens and ban websites with a minimum of justification and without judicial authorization.
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The second, a bill that was submitted to parliament Thursday, addressed judiciary restructuring. The bill will give the executive branch more power over individual judges and therefore make harder for them to pursue justice in an impartial manner, especially when government officials are involved. The measures the bill introduces includes giving the justice minister power to control direction of investigations, allowing plaintiffs to sue judges, and forbidding public officials from challenging employment decisions.
Primary democratic freedoms have been seriously curtailed in Turkey and the government generally, and the Prime Minister in particular, are consolidating power and eliminating any internal government checks. Despite the importance of Turkey’s stability to US foreign interests, the current official Department of State policy is to refrain from any discussion or intervention in Turkish domestic politics.
In a recent press conference with Turkish President Gul, Secretary of State Kerry announced that “the United States of America has absolutely no interest in being caught up in or engaged in or involved in the internal politics, the election process of Turkey.” This follows President Obama’s passive-aggressive behavior toward PM Erdogan since shortly after the outbreak of the Gezi protests last year. Obama has made a point of not calling Erdogan since the end of last August, though Obama claimed shortly before to have a very close relationship with the PM.
Far from chastening the Turkish government, the US government’s hands-off strategy has only emboldened the AKP government to use the US as a scapegoat for many of the challenges the government is facing. The US embassy has had to deny multiple times that the United States somehow manufactured the graft scandal to bring down the AKP government. At the onset of the scandal, the Prime Minister even threatened to expel the US Ambassador from Turkey. Without any real consequences for making such serious accusations against the ambassador of a close ally, AKP politicians are likely to keep playing the American imperialism card whenever it is convenient for them.
The US needs a new diplomatic strategy in Turkey, one that sends a clear message of disapproval without playing into the popular conspiracy theories. Ideally this would include both behind the scenes pressure, including President Obama breaking his silence with Erdogan, and public calls for the loosening of restrictions on freedom of speech and of the press. The US government could also offer to help Turkey with some of its multiple international relations problems.
Almost any pro-active diplomatic strategy would be better than the US’s current policy, which pretends as if this illiberal turn in Turkish domestic politics will have no international consequences. Turkey is still a democracy and it is in the best interest of Turkey, the US and the world that it remains that way.
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