A Muted Controversy: Freedom of Speech in Turkey

Article excerpt

In the past decade, Turkey has consistently imprisoned more journalists than any other country. Although Turkey's repression of free speech ought to be internationally newsworthy given its status as a democratic nation, the issue has been overshadowed by the country's more sensational human rights controversies involving Kurds, Greek Cypriots, and Armenians.

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Despite the international media's tendency to focus on ethnic tensions, freedom of speech is essential to Turkey's acceptance of liberal so cietal values as it contin ues its bid to become a member of the European Union. Since Turkey's 1987 application to become an EU member, the country has made significant progress in respecting human rights. Yet restrictive monitoring of expression has continued, and without this basic right, the human rights situation in Turkey could deteriorate at a moment's notice.

Free speech is now in a state reminiscent of the days before EU accession talks. Journalists or academics who speak out against state institutions are subject to prosecution under the aegis of loop hole laws. Such laws are especially objectionable because they lead to a culture in which other, more physically apparent rights abuses become prevalent. Violations of freedom of expression can escalate into other rights abuses, including torture, racism, and other forms of discrimination. Because free speech is suppressed, the stories of these abuses then go unreported in what becomes a vicious cycle.

Luckily, the attention drawn to Turkey by its bid for EU membership sheds light on the otherwise inconspicuous suppression of speech. Turkey's close neighbors to the west, as well as removed trading partners such as the United States, keenly follow the human rights developments within the country. Pressure from foreign allies has caused Turkey to address some rights abuses, but there is more to be done. In the long run, more realistic EU accession negotiations and the international inclusion of Turkey could hasten the rise of an economically robust and democratically viable state that better protects free speech within its own borders.

A History of Abuse

Many of the Turkish government's reservations about freedom of speech have developed from insecurities regarding past conflicts. The government's most controversial legislation has roots in the age-old tensions between Turks and the ethnic Armenians and Kurds living within Turkey. Because it is in Turkey's interest to appear united and in control of its territory, Ankara has used the conflicts as pretexts for limiting free expression.

The Armenian conflict has its roots in the 1890s, when Christian Armenians clamored for religious freedom under the Muslim rule of the Ottoman Empire. The Sultan retaliated by persecuting the Armenian population. Turkish rulers wanted a completely homogenous state, but ten percent of the region's occupants were Armenian. World War I provided the international distraction that allowed them to realize this aspiration. Armenians were rounded up and massacred, with women, children, and the elderly forced to march across the Syrian Desert to their death. To this day, Turkey's government rejects this history and actively prosecutes those who try to raise awareness of the events.

The second and perhaps more lingering conflict has developed over the last century. Kurdish uprisings and calls for independence from Turkey, coupled with harsh government responses including martial law, marked the first seven decades of the twentieth century. In the 1970s, political instability gave rise to the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party), which quickly established the goal of an independent, united, and socialist Kurdish state. The PKK attempted to achieve its objective through violent means for over twenty years. In 1993, a truce seemed imminent after ten years of negotiations between the PKK and the Turkish government. But the death of moderate Turkish President Turgut Ozal in 1993 allowed hardliners to come to power, ending hopes for a peaceful settlement. …