ANKARA, Turkey— On July 8, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that two Turkish journalists, Nedim Şener and Ahmet Şık had been subjected to human rights violations in their year-long pre-trial detention. This most recent restriction of free speech in Turkey is but one example in a long history of censorship.
Şener and Şık were arrested on absurd charges of terrorism, including a plot to assassinate Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s son. Their real crime, however, was being overcritical of the Gülen Movement. For that, the two journalists were arbitrarily imprisoned — without a trial or even a shard of concrete evidence — in a detention center outside Istanbul for over a year. They were released from detention in 2012, but they could both still face lengthy sentences of at least 15 years.
“I have written many books detailing corruption allegations against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his former Finance Minister Kemal Unakitan. I never felt that I would end up in jail,” Şener said.
Şık was similarly unfazed by the prospect of prison time. Writing the book “The Imam’s Army,” Şık claimed that the Gülen Movement had infiltrated deep into the Turkish government. In fact, it is widely believed that the judges who handled their case were affiliated with the Gülen Movement.
The movement, headed by Fethullah Gülen from within U.S. borders, has slowly been taking control of Turkey since the early 1990’s. The movement is primarily interested in promoting secular goals of community service and education, though the organization has come under fire for its alleged ulterior motives of seizing control of the Turkish government.
Şener and Şık are by no means the only ones to be silenced for criticizing the movement. Dozens of journalists have been imprisoned after speaking out against the encroaching power of the movement. Upon his arrest, Şık exclaimed that, “Whoever touches them burns!”
Cases like that of Şener and Şık are commonplace in Turkey, which is supposed to be a bastion for democracy and freedom in the Middle East. However, Turkey’s progressive ethos has proven to be merely skin-deep. The World Press Freedom Index, which ranks countries based on their approach to free press, placed Turkey in 154th out of 180 countries.
In March 2014, the Turkish government placed a nationwide ban on the popular social media sharing sites, Youtube and Twitter. The ban came in response to a number of security leaks that occurred through the sites, but the international community perceived that excuse as a weak justification for such a massive affront to free speech.
The response in Turkey and around the world was outrage. 12 million people in Turkey use Twitter, and there are 36 million internet users there in all. Several months later, Turkey’s highest court ruled the ban unconstitutional and the popular sites were restored.
All told, approaches to free press and free speech in Turkey are not leading to democracy. For a democracy to flourish, journalists must have the freedom to criticize their government, and the people must be allowed to organically share their ideas in a pluralistic and thoughtful manner. So long as the Turkish government opposes those ideals, the country will remain democratic in name only.
– Sam Hillestad