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.


Freedom of the Press? Not in Turkey

Increasingly, Turkey is not a place where it is safe to work as a journalist.  In the past weeks, police have arrested a string of journalists, accusing them of being part of a plot, code-named “Ergenekon,” to overthrow the Turkish government.  Those arrested—seven at the beginning of March, as well as the earlier arrest of the head of a TV station and two of his employees—all had a record of being critical of Turkey’s ruling party and its leader, Prime Minister Erdoğan.  There are currently 68 journalists detained in Turkey, one reason that Reporters Without Borders has ranked Turkey 138th among 175 countries for press freedom, just above Ethiopia and Russia.

Aside from those arrested and detained in the Ergenekon investigation, most of those in prison or on trial are Kurdish journalists, usually charged with violating Article 314 of the Turkish Penal Code: “committing a crime on behalf of an organization without being a member of that organization.”  Sentencing under this law can be draconian: the former Editor-in-Chief of the Kurdish paper Vedat Kurşun was sentenced to 166 years in jail; the former editorial manager of another Kurdish newspaper was sentenced to 138 years behind bars.   In addition, Prime Minister Erdoğan and the current government have employed lawsuits and fines against journalists and media outlets in a pattern that seems designed to stifle dissent.

Amnesty International has long campaigned against laws in the Turkish Penal Code that curtail freedom of speech, particularly the infamous Article 301, which criminalized “Insulting Turkishness” (after much protest, later changed to “Insulting the Turkish Nation”).  Much more needs to change in Turkish law, however, before Turkish journalists can express political opinions that are unpopular without risking imprisonment.