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Freedom of the Press in Turkey?

Many EU member states, arguing against the admission of Turkey into the Union, complain that the state has yet to take enough serious steps towards democratic transparency. An article in the New York Times today appears to bolster that claim, discussing recent government crackdowns on newspapers and journalists hostile to the ruling Justice & Development Party. Reporter Dan Bilefsky writes,

“At a time when Washington and Europe are praising Turkey as the model of Muslim democracy for the Arab world, Turkish human rights advocates say the crackdown is part of an ominous trend. Most worrying, they say, are fresh signs that the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is repressing freedom of the press through a mixture of intimidation, arrests and financial machinations, including the sale in 2008 of a leading newspaper and a television station to a company linked to the prime minister’s son-in-law.

The arrests threaten to darken the image of Mr. Erdogan, who is lionized in the Middle East as a powerful regional leader who can stand up to Israel and the West. Widely credited with taming Turkey’s military and forging a religiously conservative government that marries strong economic growth with democracy and religious tolerance, he has proved prickly and thin-skinned on more than one occasion. It is that sensitivity bordering on arrogance, human rights advocates say, that contributes to his animus against the news media.”

The article goes on to note that some 97 people associated with the news media – journalists, editors, publishers and distributors – are currently serving time in Turkey’s prisons, many on allegedly fabricated charges. Mr. Bilefsky continues,

“The European Human Rights Court received nearly 9,000 complaints against Turkey for breaches of press freedom and freedom of expression in 2011, compared with 6,500 in 2009. In March, Orhan Pamuk, a Turkish writer and Nobel laureate, was fined about $3,670 for his statement in a Swiss newspaper that ‘we have killed 30,000 Kurds and one million Armenians.’

Human rights advocates say they fear that with the Arab Spring lending new regional influence to Turkey, the United States and Europe are turning a blind eye to encroaching authoritarianism there. ‘Turkey’s democracy may be a good benchmark when compared with Egypt, Libya or Syria,’ said Hakan Altinay, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. ‘But the whole region will suffer if Turkey is allowed to disregard the values of liberal democracy.'”

The article sheds light on the uncomfortable fact that the ruling Justice & Development Party (AKP), whose governing majority is now a decade old, has grown too comfortable in its position; that, having blown the door open on non-secularist politics and blazed a trail for economic and democratic development, the AKP is now more interested in preserving and enhancing its own political position than protecting and strengthening the democratic quality of its civil society. Thoughts?

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