By Timothy Garton Ash
2 March 2017
If this newspaper were published in Turkey
the rest of this column might be entirely blank, except for an author
photograph at the top and the words, printed in large type, “124 days deprived
of freedom”. That’s what the country’s most important surviving oppositional
newspaper, Cumhuriyet, regularly prints for its imprisoned columnists – with
the tally of days in jail ticking up and up. One leading columnist, Kadri Gürsel,
recently sent a moving letter that begins: “I salute you all with love from B
block, ward number 25 of Silivri prison number 9.”
To travel to Turkey today is to journey
into darkness: tens of thousands of state employees and thousands of academics
dismissed, more journalists locked up than in any other country, and a chilly
mist of fear. Hasan Cemal, one of the country’s most celebrated journalists,
received a 15-month suspended sentence for a piece of investigative reporting
about a leader of the Kurdish PKK – good journalism which the regime travesties
as “conducting terror propaganda”. (This week he received another sentence, for
“insulting the president”.) Cemal calmly tells me about conditions in Turkish
Most recently, a Turkish-German correspondent
for the German newspaper Die Welt was arrested. Reporters who exposed the
Gülenist networks, which undoubtedly were a significant force behind last
summer’s attempted coup, are now imprisoned for being Gülenists. Gürsel, the
Cumhuriyet columnist, writes: “Oddly, we are guilty because there is no
evidence against us.” Kafka, thou shouldst be living at this hour.
Outside a lecture hall at the Bogaziçi (aka
Bosphorus) university, where I am to deliver a lecture on free speech, students
hand out boiled sweets with tiny strips of paper attached. They look like those
flimsy strips you get in Christmas crackers or fortune cookies, but instead of
jokes these say: “Free speech at Bosphorus University has been under threat for
months! Don’t be silent!” Afterwards, students ply me with urgent questions:
“What should we do?” I wish I had a good answer.
I have two urgent questions of my own.
First, as we approach the referendum on changes to the constitution on 16
April, what is the most accurate description of Turkey’s current political
system? The answers I receive in Istanbul range from “pure authoritarianism” to
“electoral authoritarianism” – a regime type which, like Vladimir Putin’s
Russia and (in a softer form) Viktor Orbán’s Hungary, legitimates fundamentally
authoritarian rule with periodic elections.
The repertoire of this new generation of
authoritarians is by now familiar. You control the media through the oligarchs
and business conglomerates that own them. (The Hürriyet newspaper, owned by the
Dogan group, recently did not print an interview in which Nobel prizewinning
writer Orhan Pamuk said he would vote “no” in the referendum.) You knit a
patchwork quilt of elastic legal provisions under which you can prosecute
almost anyone. (At the moment, Turkey still has the post-coup state of
emergency, but all the old bad articles too.)
You ensure political control over a cowed
judiciary. You pump out your own nationalist populist narrative through
television and social media, while accusing independent media and local NGOs of
being a fifth column paid by foreign sources. And so it goes on.
The proposed constitutional changes will
give massive new powers to Recep Tayyip Erdogan, as well as allowing him to
remain president until 2029.
Second, like the students, I ask myself:
“What should we do?” But my “we” means Europe, the west, and people everywhere
of liberal mind. The referendum outcome is not a foregone conclusion. Opinion
polls show only a small majority for yes, and in this case the equivalent of
“shy Brexiteers” and “shy Trump voters” may well be “shy no voters”. Therefore
a large presence of international as well as domestic election monitors is
What about broader European and American
leverage? My Turkish friends look back with almost painful nostalgia to a
golden age at the beginning of this century when Turkey, under its supposedly
“soft Islamist” government, believed it might join the EU – and the EU seemed
to be serious about taking in Turkey. All gone, gone utterly.
Rightly or wrongly, Angela Merkel probably
still feels she depends on Erdogan to hold back the flow of refugees in the
run-up to Germany’s general election. France is preoccupied with its own
election, while Theresa May hops like a travelling saleswoman from Trump to
Erdogan to India’s Narendra Modi, with narry a dignified word about the freedom
which Brexit Britain is supposed to represent. And only a lunatic would count
on Trump to stand up for values of which he is the walking antithesis.
If we are to do anything to help the other
Turkey, we must do it ourselves. Although not entirely to be despaired of, EU,
US and other governmental leverage seems unlikely to change the direction of
Turkey’s politics. But less ambitious, lower-level interventions do sometimes
work. Depressing though it is to be back with the kind of thing we used to do
for dissidents in the Soviet Union, this is where we are.
So universities around the world should
intervene on behalf of scholars and the institutes they know. Academies should
offer partnership and support, think-tank to think-tank, theatre to theatre.
One of the most depressing things I heard
in Istanbul is that ever fewer foreign academics, writers, journalists and
artists are visiting the country, so our colleagues feel cut off. Whenever we
can, we should go, listen, report and speak out. A writers’ delegation from PEN
International recently did just that.
Human rights organisations must keep up the
drumbeat of publicity for oppressed individuals and groups. You can follow some
of these solidarity actions on Twitter, via #FreeTurkeyJournalists, and at
freeturkeyjournalists.com. And individual newspapers and magazines can support
embattled counterparts in Turkey, by keeping an international journalistic
spotlight on what is happening to them. Where our governments are not taking
any big steps, it is all the more important that we take many small ones. As
Erdogan turns the screw, the time for civic solidarity is now.