Erdogan’s Turkey fails the Charlie test

turkey mediaTurkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has described the publication of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad as a “grave provocation.”

“Freedom of the press does not mean freedom to insult,” Davutoglu told reporters in Ankara on January 15. “We cannot allow insults to the Prophet.”

The Charlie Hebdo controversy may put an end to whatever press freedom is left in Turkey, says Cengiz Aktar, a senior scholar at Istanbul Policy Center.

A Turkish court has already responded to Cumhuriyet’s publication of the material by banning access to some sites showing the cartoon, the cover of Charlie Hebdo’s latest issue, the FT reports:

In a separate move denounced by critics as a restriction on the freedom of the press, the government this week imposed a media ban ordered by a court on the reporting of documents that purport to show that Turkey sent trucks laden with weapons to Syrian rebels last year. …..

Utku Çakırözer, Cumhuriyet’s editor, said the newspaper’s decision to publish the Charlie Hebdo material was a gesture of solidarity after last week’s murderous assault on the French magazine’s offices, which he labelled an “attack against the freedom of expression”. “Cumhuriyet, which has lost its own writers to terrorist attacks, understands the pain of the Charlie Hebdo massacre very well,” he tweeted.

turkey t24In 2014, Turkish journalist Hasan Cemal became the recipient of Harvard University’s Louis M. Lyons Award for Conscience and Integrity in Journalism, Yildiray Ogur writes for The Daily Sabah:

Over the past 45 years, Cemal has witnessed the overthrow of five democratically-elected governments by the Armed Forces. As a matter of fact, the Lyons Award winner admitted in his memoirs that he took orders from the military junta, which unsuccessfully attempted to seize the government on March 9, 1971, and to bomb a military barracks….. When he left Milliyet after the paper changed hands (which, for the record, he repeatedly said had nothing to do with government hostility), Cemal became a columnist at T24, a popular website sponsored by the National Endowment for Democracy.

Turkey needs checks and balances to halt dangerous drift


turkey2With Turkey’s political system  on the brink of profound change, the June 2015 general election will be the last until 2019 could define much more than the next four years, Tulin Daloglu reports for Al-Monitor.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) has been victorious in all elections since coming to power a decade ago, but the party has lost some seats in the last election lowering its current total to 312.

Speaking to Al-Monitor, Ersan Sen, an Istanbul-based law professor, said even though the AKP may not win enough seats to make constitutional change alone in the parliament, it can still build alliances with the pro-Kurdish People’s Democracy Party (HDP) to reach that crucial number. “It’s however impossible to make any changes to the constitution or to take any draft proposal to referendum without the exact number of parliamentarians’ noted in the constitution,” Sen said.

Former United Nations High Commissioner Navi Pillay has urged Erdoğan and the Turkish government not to follow in the ways of oppressive governments.

“It’s very important that President Erdoğan respect dissent and allow the free flow of information and respect freedom of speech because that is what democracy means.”

Turkey_biden ndiThe importance of separation of powers in government was the theme of a meeting last week in Istanbul, Turkey, between U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and the Checks and Balances Network, a coalition working for greater democracy and pluralism, supported by the National Democratic Institute:

“Our founders concluded that a concentration of powers was the most corrosive thing that can happen to any system,” Biden said of the U.S. system. “We still believe that.”

“My take away from this meeting,” said Berrin Sönmez of the Capital City Women’s Platform, “is the idea that ‘checks and balances’ is not a system for export but rather a set of principles and mechanisms that each country in its own way can adopt to address its specific needs.”

Formed in 2012 with assistance from NDI and Sabancı University’s Istanbul Policy Center, the Checks and Balances Network is a coalition of more than 180 civil society organizations today represented in all 81 of Turkey’s provinces.  The network’s campaigns and advocacy programs aim to bring about a new constitution, reform institutions including parliament, the judiciary and the media, and foster a new political culture based on participation, transparency and accountability.

NDI has worked in Turkey since 1997 supporting civil society and increased citizen participation in the political process, with funding from the National Endowment for Democracy, the U.S. Department of State, and American Councils for International Education.RTWT

Paradigms Lost: Middle East’s Trends and Drivers

Salem 2014_0Four years after the uprisings that broke the mold of the old Middle East, 2015 promises to be another year of tumultuous change, notes Paul Salem, the Middle East Institute’s Vice President for Policy and Research. The eruptions of 2011 unleashed decades of pent-up tensions and dysfunction in the political, socioeconomic, and cultural spheres; these dynamics will take many years, if not decades, to play themselves out and settle into new paradigms and equilibriums.

In 2014, four Arab countries—Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen—sank decisively into the ranks of failed states with no longer any effective central authority over the expanse of national territory, he notes:

ISIS arose as the largest radical threat in the region’s modern history, challenging political borders and order and proposing political identities and governance paradigms. Sunni-Shi’i conflict intensified throughout the Levant and reached Yemen; an intra-Sunni conflict also pitted supporters and opponents of the Muslim Brotherhood.

arab reformEgypt rebuked its previously ruling Islamists and elected a military officer as president who has prioritized security and economics and cracked down heavily on dissent. Tunisia’s secular nationalists and Islamists found a way forward with a new constitution and inclusive national elections. Jordan and Lebanon have managed to maintain stability despite massive refugee inflows. A cautious Algeria maintained its status quo, reelecting an aging president to a fourth term. And Morocco continued its experiment in accommodation between a powerful monarchy and a government led by the moderate Islamist PJD party….

2015 promises to be no less turbulent than 2014, as domestic and regional dynamics continue to play out, says Salem:

The Battles of the Youth Bulge

Prime among these is a demographic youth bulge of historic proportions that burst the precarious piping of the old political and socioeconomic structures and will continue to overwhelm the social and institutional orders of the region for some time. Two thirds of the population is under the age of 30 and their search for jobs, identity, and empowerment will fuel the tumult of the region for many years. …

Power Shift toward the Populace

Advances in technology and communication have led to a power shift from once all-dominant states to an increasingly informed, powerful, and demanding populace, both as communities and individuals. They have access to the global web of information and communication; they can build virtual societies and communities of identity and interest; and they can mobilize and coordinate. …

Failing and Resurging States

ARAB BAROMETER LOGOTwenty percent of Arab states have failed in the past few years, others are teetering, some have adapted, and still others have regrouped to reassert old power. The failed states—Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen—have in common conditions of low national unity, but they have failed for different reasons. .….

Paradigms Lost

The Arab uprisings of 2011 heralded that the past paradigms had broken, but this created a scramble for new paradigms, and to date no new paradigm has emerged as paramount. The old paradigm of repressive authoritarianism and quiescent populations, in exchange for socioeconomic development, broke down in the face of slow and unequal economic growth, growing popular empowerment, and worsening government corruption and repression. The initial uprisings inarticulately threw up outlines of a paradigm of democratic, pluralistic, and socially just government. The Muslim Brotherhood proposed a paradigm of Islamist government. The military in Egypt is proposing a neo-nationalist paradigm in which order and economic growth are paramount. The Moroccan king might be on the road to evolving a constitutional monarchy. Lebanon and Tunisia are managing precarious but pluralistic and power sharing political systems. ….

Three years ago, Arab public opinion was resonant with a loose paradigm of popular empowerment and accountable and inclusive government; today it is a bickering Babel of competing paradigms. Until the region settles on a governance paradigm—as Western Europe did, albeit after centuries of conflict—this cacophony of visions and ideologies will continue to bedevil the region.  In the long run as this century develops, democratic and inclusive government—whether as constitutional monarchy or republican democracy—will probably be the only sustainable paradigm.

Political Islam and Secular Nationalism

islamists nytThese have been the best of years and the worst of years for political Islam. ….. Although nationalism has lost much of the ideological clarity it had several decades ago, in the face of strong Islamist narratives that seek to rearrange community and society along religious lines, there has been a resurgence in some countries of attachment to the broad outlines of nationalism that base community on attachment to the nation-state and the constitutions, institutions, and laws that it promulgates.

State and Civil Society

Civil society remains a key deficit in the Arab world. It played a key role in pushing back against an Islamist hegemony and pushing forward a political transition in Tunisia. It is essential in keeping the complex Lebanese social system together and inching forward. It played a key role in Egypt and other countries in 2011, demanding a new way forward. But in countries where civil society was weak, it was either overtaken by better organized Islamist movements, more powerful sectarian divisions, or a resurging state. In the attempt to rebuild national stability, whether in Egypt or elsewhere, it is important to realize that civil society is an ally in reclaiming public space and social power from divisive Islamist or sectarian narratives, and is a key factor in creating stable and sustainable state structures. Both the Mubarak regime in Egypt and the Assad regime in Syria were deeply skeptical of civil society and preferred Islamist organizations to fill up social space. This ultimately weakened the state and weakened state-society cohesion. In the long run, a healthy civil and political society provides the living link between state and society and provides the bedrock for state stability and the main antidote for radical movements….

Looking for White Swans

The region will continue to furnish the world with well more than its fair share of crises. The West took about five centuries to transition from medieval to “modern,” working through its wars of religion and battles to establish national identities and state borders, transform worldviews, try out radical ideologies, and eventually evolve toward stability, coexistence, and liberal democracy. This only occurred after two devastating world wars and genocide in the twentieth century. The Middle East started its profound transformation roughly a century and a half ago. It will take more than a few years to work itself out.

In the short term, extrapolating into 2015, the time horizon might be close enough to venture a few estimates. First, I do not mean to imply that the Middle East will be defined only by crisis. The majority of countries in the region, from Morocco to Iran, will likely maintain basic stability while working through various political, social, and economic challenges. Only a minority, including at least Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Libya, will predictably continue in deep crisis….

Iran’s regional policy, led by the Revolutionary Guards, continues to expand and founder at the same time. In the past three years, Iran’s proxies in Baghdad and Damascus have lost control of their countries and control now only rump states. In Syria, Iran had to send Hezbollah and its own commanders, trainers, and valuable resources to save the Assad regime from collapse; this effort has stretched Hezbollah and Iran, but Iran has shown no serious interest in real political change in Damascus as a way out of the crisis. …The trouble for Iran—and indeed its neighbors—is while its influence is expanding in the region, its policies are leading to the collapse of once-functioning states and to explosive sectarian tensions.


‘Democratators’ – why the press is less free

censorshipIn the worldwide movement away from democracy, perhaps the most vulnerable institution is the free press, and the most disposable people are journalists, The New Yorker’s George Packer writes.  

“Around the world new systems of control are taking hold. They are stifling the global conversation and impeding the development of policies and solutions based on an informed understanding of the local realities,” according to Joel Simon, the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. 

“Repression and violence against journalists is at record levels, and press freedom is in decline,” he writes in his new book, “The New Censorship: Inside the Global Battle for Media Freedom,” outlining four main reasons why this is so:

The first is the rise of elected leaders, such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and the leftist Presidents of Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia, who use their power to intimidate independent journalists and make it nearly impossible for them to function. They exploit their democratic mandates to govern as dictators—“democratators,” as Simon calls them. ….

The second source of censorship, according to Simon, is terrorism. …The extreme violence of conflict today is actually amplified by technological progress. Armed groups no longer need to keep journalists alive, because they have their own means of—in the terrible cliché—“telling their story”: they can post their own videos, publish their own online reports, and tweet to their own followers, knowing that the international press will pick up the most sensational stories anyway. …

“The idea that freedom of expression, along with other public liberties, is a specifically Western ideology, rather than a universal right, is increasingly common, from Caracas to Beijing,” Packer notes: 

Simon’s book confirms an idea I’ve had about the fate of institutions in the information age. Despite its promise of liberation, democratization, and levelling, the digital revolution, in undermining traditional forms of media, has actually produced a greater concentration of power in fewer hands, with less organized counter-pressure. As a result, the silencing of the press, otherwise known as censorship—whether by elected autocrats, armed extremists, old-fashioned dictators, or prosecutors stopping leaks with electronic evidence—is actually easier and more prevalent today than it was twenty years ago.


Turkey’s authoritarian drift threatens rights, rule of law

turkey0914_reportcoverHRWTurkey under Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government is taking far-reaching steps to weaken the rule of law, control the media and Internet, and clamp down on critics and protestors, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

The 38-page report, “Turkey’s Human Rights Rollback: Recommendations for Reform”, outlines the rollback of human rights and rule of law in Turkey, linked to mass anti-government protests in 2013 and corruption allegations that go to the very heart of the government of the ruling AKP.

Human Rights Watch tracked the government’s response to the recent developments and made concrete recommendations, focusing on four areas: strengthening the human rights context of the peace process with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK); reforming the criminal justice system; ending impunity for past and present abuses by state officials and for family violence against women; and ending restrictions on speech, media, Internet, and the rights to assembly and association.

“Over the past year, Erdoğan’s AKP has responded to political opposition by tearing up the rule book, silencing critical voices, and wielding a stick,” said Emma Sinclair-Webb, senior Turkey researcher at Human Rights Watch and author of the report. “For the sake of Turkey’s future and the rights of its citizens, the government needs to change course and protect rights instead of attacking them.”

“As Turkey feels the heat of war in Syria and Iraq, Ankara has renewed its interest in closer ties to Europe,” Sinclair-Webb said. “But Turkey is unlikely to succeed in moving closer to Europe unless Turkey’s leaders take steps to reverse the rollback on rights and strengthen the rule of law.”