A New Low for Internet Freedom in Turkey

People hold placards reading 'Will you censor the streets?' during a demonstration against new Internet controls approved by the Turkish Parliament (Photo Credit: Adem Altan/AFP/Getty Images) .

People hold placards reading ‘Will you censor the streets?’ during a demonstration against new Internet controls approved by the Turkish Parliament (Photo Credit: Adem Altan/AFP/Getty Images) .

With a little over a week to go before important municipal elections, the Turkish government blocked access to Twitter for millions of its citizens late last night.

Writing from Turkey, Andrew Gardner, Amnesty International’s researcher on Turkey described the move as “a desperate and futile measure, the latest move in the AKP’s clampdown on freedom of expression.” SEE THE REST OF THIS POST

In Turkey: The Ivory Tower Besieged

Turkish students stage a protest against the government and condemning the detentions of students at the universities in Ankara on June 16, 2012. (ADEM ALTAN/AFP/GettyImages)

In Turkey, it is not “publish or perish” that scholars must fear.  It is prison.

There was a time, not very long ago, that Turkey seemed on the edge of a new era of academic and intellectual freedom.  New private universities created institutional support for more independent scholarship, while the Turkish government showed at least grudging willingness to allow debate of formerly “taboo subjects.”  For example, in 2005, the ruling AK (Justice and Development Party) Party, after initial hesitation, publicly supported the first conference in Turkey that seriously examined the Armenian Genocide.  It soon became apparent, however, that the AK Party’s vision of academic freedom has clear limits.

Asserting Control over the Universities

In some cases, basic science came under attack.  In Turkey, as in the United States, there is a powerful creationist movement eager to debunk fundamental aspects of evolutionary science.  Creationism has deep roots in Turkey and the ruling AK Party has quietly picked up the banner of anti-science.  Slowly, over the past several years, major scholarly institutions have lost their independence and party hacks have replaced serious researchers.


Turkish Human Rights and the Syrian Conflict

Recent tensions along the Turkish – Syrian border have captured the world’s attention and sparked tough talk in Ankara.  Turkey’s parliament has approved cross-border operations and the Turkish military has increased its presence on the border.  Artillery fire across the border is a daily event and, after Turkey stopped and searched two flights bound for Syria, each country has banned the other from using its airspace.  Yet, there is no war fever on Turkish streets.  Part of the reason for this lays in longstanding Turkish traditions; an important strand of Republican popular memory highlights the “foreign entanglements” of the Ottoman Empire as a mistake not to be repeated.  Just as important, however, are the ways in which the Syrian crisis is understood within the context of Turkish domestic politics and the on-going repression of activists and dissidents within the country.

Although Turkey has been touted as “a democratic model for the Middle East,” the reality is far more complicated.   This, after all, is a country where expressing unpopular views can land you in jail.  World renowned pianist, Fazıl Say, for example, is on trial for tweets deemed “insulting to religious values.”  Poking fun at politicians can also land you in big trouble.  Recently, a man was sentenced to more than a year in prison for making fun of the Turkish president, Abdullah Gül.  Needless to say, there is no Turkish equivalent of the Daily Show.  The Turkish record on press freedoms continues to be “bleak” according to a recent review by Marc Pierini for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, with many journalists in prison or on trial and a growing culture of self-censorship.


Scholars Targeted in Turkey "War on Terror"

One particularly troubling aspect of Turkey’s own “War on Terror” is the way that it has targeted a wide range of individuals with no record of violence.  Virtually anyone critical of the government may be arrested.

A recent speech by Interior Minister, İdris Naim Şahin, made clear that terrorism includes “[writing] poems or short articles [which] demoralize the soldiers or police” and that terrorist cells can include “a university chair, an association, or a non-governmental organization” in “Istanbul, Izmir, Bursa, Germany, London, wherever…”

This rhetoric reflects an ugly reality: thousands of individuals have been arrested, with most held in lengthy pre-trial detentions.  Most are not accused of violence and none have the right to challenge evidence in advance of their trial.


Turkey: A Repressive Model for the Middle East?

One of the frustrations of talking about the Turkish Republic right now is that so much is going on, in so many different directions, that it can be hard to decide what issues to address.  In particular, the tremendous gap between its increasingly important role in the world seems inconsistent with increased repression at home and has made it tough for journalists to address both simultaneously.

Much of the talk is about Turkey’s new “soft power.”  Turkish culture is becoming more influential, with a booming economy and a dynamic film and television industry that has found a tremendous following among its neighbors in both the Balkans and the Middle East.  In the past few years it has become an important regional player and is widely seen as a potential model for democratic movements in the wider Middle East.

The Turkish government was a vocal critic of repression in Libya and Egypt and has been at the forefront of efforts to curb the on-going repression in Syria.  While its voice has been selective (Turkey supported Ahmadinejad during the Green Revolution in Iran in 2009 and has been notably reticent in its criticism of Bahrain this past year), it deserves credit for the support it has given to democratic forces this past year.


A War on Dissent in Turkey

Ragip Zarakolu

Activist Ragip Zarakolu is currently languishing in a Turkish prison (Photo by John MacDougall/AFP/Getty Images)

It has, by any standards, been a painful last few months in Turkey.  Violence between the Kurdish nationalist PKK and the Turkish state has risen sharply, resulting in the Turkish military crossing over into Northern Iraq in force.  A devastating earthquake in the city of Van has killed hundreds, left thousands seriously injured, and left tens of thousands homeless as cold weather moves into the region.  Coming at a time of increased tensions between Kurds and Turks, the tragedy in Van exposed political as well as geological fault lines that bode ill for Turkey’s future.

And then there are the arrests.  Little noticed outside of Turkey, thousands have been arrested over the past few years for what appear to be political crimes.  Since 2001, some 12,000 Turkish citizens have been arrested under terror statutes, with nearly four thousand arrested in just the last thirty months.